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'Unconstitutional' to delay election without state of emergency: Teo Chee Hean

IT would be unconstitutional for Singapore to delay the holding of a General Election beyond the April 2021 deadline, as such a delay can only be done if a state of emergency is called, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean said in Parliament on Wednesday.

Nor is calling a state of emergency something to be done lightly, he said. He was replying to Member of Parliament (MP) Christopher de Souza, who noted that former MP Tan Cheng Bock had suggested that the general election be postponed and that the president exercise her power to create a caretaker government.

Amid the current Covid-19 crisis, the choice that Singapore faces is between hoping that the situation will stabilise in time so that elections can be held then, or settle the elections early to give the new government a full and fresh mandate to take tough decisions in the interests of the country, said Mr Teo.

"When you are sailing into a storm, you want to be certain of who your captain is, and that he will not be changed halfway," he added.

It is "not a good idea" for Singapore to place its hopes on the situation improving before April 2021, though the government has not closed off any options, he said.

As for the idea of delaying the election, Mr Teo said he had sought the advice of the Attorney-General's Chambers, which said that doing so would be unconstitutional and only possible when a state of emergency is declared.

Mr Teo noted that despite the many crises Singapore has weathered, it has never extended its electoral deadline nor declared a state of emergency since independence. "It is not a precedent we should set lightly."

As for the idea of a caretaker government, Mr Teo said that such a government would be hobbled by the fact that it lacks the popular mandate. That is why caretaker governments are not meant to take far-reaching or long-term measures.

However, in the current situation, Singapore needs a government "to pull out all the stops and mobilise all our resources" to save jobs and livelihoods, and steer the country through this. A caretaker government would not have the mandate to do this.

Such a suggestion shows a disregard for the Constitution and only serves to confuse and mislead Singaporeans, he said.

As for Mr de Souza's further question on how elections could be held safely, Mr Teo noted that Covid-19 has already "created a new norm". Whether elections are held earlier or later, "we will still have to work on the basis that the next elections will necessarily be different from past elections", with extra precautions, he said.

Arrangements must be made so parties can campaign safely, such as live-streaming of speeches on the Internet or adequate television time for candidates.

On Polling Day, Singapore already has measures such as express lanes for senior voters. Other precautions can include social distancing while queuing, proper hand hygiene for voting paraphernalia, and hand sanitisers for voters,  he added.

While there is of yet no decision on the election timing, such precautions will be needed whether the elections are held early or later, he said.