SINGAPORE – Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean on Wednesday (March 25) told Parliament that delaying elections by having the president form a caretaker government –  a proposal from opposition leader Tan Cheng Bock – is unconstitutional.

He was responding to a question from Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC), who had asked for the Government’s stand on Dr Tan’s suggestion.

Dr Tan, who ran for president in 2011 and now leads the Progress Singapore Party, earlier called for elections to be delayed until after the Covid-19 outbreak situation has eased. He said that if the elections could not be held by the April 2021 deadline, the president could form a caretaker government with some of the MPs.

SM Teo said: “I’ve sought the advice of the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) on whether this can be done. The advice of the AGC is, to delay an election beyond the required date in such a manner is unconstitutional.”

Mr Teo explained that the only circumstance in which an election can be put off is when a state of emergency is declared – something that has never happened here. And even in such an event, he noted there is no legal basis or practical need for the president to form a new government if the incumbent Cabinet is still in office.

“It is not helpful to mislead people into thinking that such an option exists to put off elections indefinitely and for the president to form a new government when this goes against the Constitution,” he said.

“To suggest this shows a disregard for or lack of understanding of the Constitution. Putting forward constitutionally unworkable proposals at a time of serious national crisis can only confuse and mislead Singaporeans to the detriment of Singapore and Singaporeans,” he added.

Mr Teo, who is also Coordinating Minister for National Security, also questioned whether a caretaker government is a good way for a country to deal with a crisis.

“Even if there is a caretaker government under a state of emergency, it would by definition be a caretaker. It would be hobbled by the fact that it lacks the explicit mandate of voters and would therefore not be in a position to take major decisions on behalf of Singaporeans,” said Mr Teo.

“This is the fundamental problem,” he said. “Just when we need a government with a clear mandate to pull out all the stops in a crisis, to implement strong mitigation measures, to mobilise our resources and reserves to implement strong economic stabilisation measures to save jobs and livelihoods, and to steer the country through the Covid-19 crisis, a caretaker government would not have a mandate to do so. So how can this be in the best interest of the country and our people?”

The release of the boundaries report on March 13 had sparked speculation that an election was imminent.

On the actual timing of the election, Mr Teo noted that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said that no decision has been taken yet. PM Lee had also laid out two options: wait and hope that the coronavirus pandemic stabilises by the constitutional deadline, or to go for early elections and give the new government a clear and fresh mandate to steer Singapore through the crisis.

Mr Teo said: “The longer we wait, the more unpredictable, difficult and dangerous it could be. Compounding this will be the uncertainty that comes with when the election will be held as we go through the year trying to face this crisis together.

“Alternatively, a country can go for early elections, settle who will lead the country through this major crisis, give the new government a clear and fresh mandate, a full term ahead, legitimacy to take major decisions, tough decisions in the interest of Singaporeans.

“Today, more than ever, we need a government that the people have expressed confidence in to take us through this unprecedented health crisis and stabilise the economy and safeguard our people’s lives and livelihoods.

“When you are sailing into a storm, you want to be certain who your captain is and that he will not be changed halfway. You want to make sure that he’s there together with you, working with you, guiding you through the storm.”

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