The first question asked after the ministerial statements on the Covid-19 outbreak was about…the elections.
Forgive me for saying this, but it looked orchestrated. So PAP MP Christopher de Souza asked for a response to comments made by Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who wanted the general election postponed till after the virus has been stamped out, failing which a caretaker government could be set up. Mr de Souza’s second question was about safety considerations should the election be held during the outbreak.
Health Minister Gan Kim Yong duly responded saying the issue wasn’t within the purview of the ministerial task force, and looked at Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, who got up to answer. Armed with two sheaves of paper, for Question 1 and Question 2, SM Teo made short work of Dr Tan’s suggestions.
Truth to tell, I thought Dr Tan’s suggestion was a no-brainer. His Progress Singapore Party should have anticipated the counter: That nobody knows how long the virus outbreak will last, and whether it will taper off or get worse.
Holding it after the deadline of April 14 next year would be unconstitutional, said SM Teo. In fact, Parliament will have to close shop three months before. The only way an election could be delayed was if the President declared a state of emergency. Would a President, who has to act on the advice of the Prime Minister, declare a state of emergency?
I thought, perhaps, Dr Tan was referring to other countries which have declared a state of emergency because of the virus. But they did so more because the virus could not be contained, rather than for electoral purposes. In any case, Dr Tan, didn’t say anything about an emergency in his video.
As for forming a caretaker government comprising MPs, SM Teo said there is no legal basis or practical need for the President to form a new government if the incumbent Cabinet is still in office.
In any case, by definition, a caretaker government without the mandate of the people, would be unable to make bold moves needed to fight the virus. “So how can this be in the best interest of the country and our people?’’ he asked.
“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.
“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.’’
What’s interesting is that the PAP seemed to have made Dr Tan, a former PAP MP, a target in its response to an issue that practically every opposition politician has complained of: Why hold an election when we’re busy combating the virus?
The subtext is this: Is the PAP using the virus control measures to stymie the Opposition’s key campaigning activity – the election rally? After all, it would be impolitic, unwise and even illegal to hold a rally of 12 people, much less the thousands who usually throng the Opposition shows.
SM Teo studiously ignored this subtext, choosing to speak in general terms about having to abide by social distancing guidelines. He raised the possibility of more live-streaming, additional TV time and staggered timings for voters on Polling Day.
More significantly, he said that such measures were needed whether the elections were held early or late, because the virus is not likely to have completely subsided.
So unless a miracle happens and the virus disappears, the opposition’s complaint about being ham-strung because rallies cannot be held is pretty much a moot point. They won’t be held. Period.
Later during the debate, Workers Party chief Pritam Singh asked another election-related question – whether political parties should start abiding by social distancing rules even now. He referred to “outreach’’ activities which run against efforts to stop the spread of the virus. It seemed like a veiled reference to PAP Ministers doing their rounds of crowded hawker centres with activists in tow.
It was National Development Lawrence Wong who replied. He said that the rules applied to all.
So when with Singapore’s 14th General Election be held? Chances are, we will be going to the polls sooner rather than later, although SM Teo repeatedly said that the Prime Minister hasn’t set a date.
Read below and decide for yourself.
“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.”
Start placing your bets with your neighbourhood bookie.