As the campaign for this general election enters its final days, it’s important to remember that General Elections are not the only elections that take place in Singapore. We also have had by-elections to fill seats left vacant during the Parliamentary term.
Readers would be familiar with the three most recent by-elections: Hougang (2012), Punggol East (2013) and Bukit Batok (2016). Therefore, this piece will look at the series of by-elections that took place from 1957-1992.
In June 1956, David Marshall resigned as Chief Minister after failing to secure British commitment to full self-government. His successor, Lim Yew Hock, led another delegation a few months later that included opposition leader Lee Kuan Yew. Marshall then criticised Lee for selling out to the British and challenged him to a contest in the latter’s constituency of Tanjong Pagar.
Lee accepted this and resigned his seat in April 1957. However, Marshall later backed out and announced his (short lived) political retirement instead. Lee went on to retake his seat while Marshall’s old seat of Cairnhill went to the Liberal Socialist Party
April 1961 By-Election
In August 1960, PAP Minister for National Development Ong Eng Guan was sacked from his post and expelled from the party for constantly clashing with the leadership. In Dec 1960, Ong resigned his seat of Hong Lim and challenged the PAP to defeat him as an independent candidate. He successfully retained his seat with 73.3% of votes against the PAP’s Jek Yeun Thong (who later became one of the Old Guard).
July 1961 By-Election
In April 1961, Baharuddin bin Mohd Ariff, the PAP Member for Anson, died from a sudden illness at the age of 28. David Marshall, now chief of the Workers’ Party, contested and won a multi-cornered fight with 43.3% of votes, making this the WP’s first ever election victory. He was sworn in on 20 July, the same day that Lee Kuan Yew tabled a motion of confidence on the PAP government. The 13 PAP Assemblymen who voted against the motion were then expelled from the party, triggering the PAP Split.
Ong Eng Guan, who had retained his seat in the April 1961 by-election and the 1963 general election, resigned his seat in June 1965, claiming that the legislature was meeting too infrequently. He contemplated running for his seat again, but chose to retire from politics instead. The PAP’s Lee Koon Choy won the election against the Barisan Sosialis candidate with 59.5% of votes. Interestingly, by the time Lee was sworn in in December 1965, Singapore had already separated from Malaysia and the Legislative Assembly had become the new Parliament.
After Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, the Barisan claimed that Singapore’s independence was “phoney” and announced a boycott of Parliament. In December 1965, Barisan member Lim Huan Boon resigned after disagreeing with the party’s stance. His seat of Bukit Merah was won by the PAP’s Lim Guan Hoo with 82.9% of votes against independent candidate MPD Nair.
Three more Barisan MPs, Chio Cheng Thun, Kow Kee Seng and ST Bani, resigned in January 1966. Their seats of Choa Chu Kang, Paya Lebar and Crawford were won uncontested by PAP candidates, the first time the legislature had walkover victories since 1952.
An unprecented third round of by-elections were triggered when the remaining two Barisan MPs Chia Thye Poh and Lee Tee Tong resigned their seats of Jurong and Bukit Timah. PAP MP Fong Kim Heng also decided to resign due to poor health. With the Barisan’s parliamentary boycott still in place, all three seats were won uncontested by the PAP.
The final remaining Barisan MPs, Koo Young, Loh Miaw Gong, Ong Lian Teng, Poh Ber Liak and Tan Cheng Tong resigned their seats in December 1966. This also ended the Barisan’s presence in Parliament and began an era of a PAP monopoly which lasted till 1981. With the Barisan boycott still in place, PAP candidates won unopposed in four seats: Jalan Kayu, Tampines, Bukit Panjang and Havelock. The PAP’s Ang Nam Piau won the Thomson seat overwhelmingly against two independents.
In April 1970, five PAP MPs resigned “so that the party can bring new talent and experience into parliament”. Among them included Chan Choy Siong, the only female MP in Parliament and champion of the Women’s Charter. The Havelock, Whampoa and Delta seats were won unopposed while PAP candidates won Ulu Pandan and Kampong Kapor against the United National Front. Hon Sui Sen, the new MP for Havelock, soon succeeded Goh Keng Swee as Finance Minister and remained so until his death in 1983.
May 1977 By-Election
In February 1977, N Govindasamy, the PAP MP for Radin Mas, died from a heart attack. In the subsequent by-election, the PAP’s Bernard Chen won 70.6% of votes against the WP’s JB Jeyaretnam, who was making his third attempt to win a seat. The WP contested the seat after negotiations among opposition parties to avoid three-cornered fights.
July 1977 By-Election
Lim Guan Hoo, who had himself won the Bukit Merah seat in the 1966 by-elections, slipped into a coma after a stroke in February 1977. In July, his seat was declared vacant and a by-election was called. After opposition negotiations, the Barisan’s Lee Siew Choh contested against the PAP’s Lim Chee Onn. Lim won with 72.2% of votes.
February 1979 By-Elections
In January 1979, six PAP MPs, Ong Soo Chuan (Nee Soon), Teong Eng Siong (Sembawang), Ahmad Haleem (Telok Blangah), Yong Nyuk Lin (Geylang West), Ivan Baptist (Potong Pasir) and Ng Yeow Chong (Mountbatten) resigned their seats. The reason cited was a renewal of party ranks. A seventh seat, Anson, was also left vacant by the death of PAP MP P. Govindaswamy.
The resulting 7 by-elections remain a record in Singapore’s electoral history. Devan Nair, who had led the NTUC since his return from Malaysia, won the Anson seat. Tony Tan, who would later become Deputy Prime Minister and President, won in Sembawang. Teh Cheang Wan, who would become Minister for National Development and later committed suicide in 1986, was elected in Geylang West. Chiam See Tong ran in Potong Pasir for the very first time but lost with 33.2% of votes.
In October 1981, Devan Nair was appointed President, vacating the Anson seat. JB Jeyaretnam contested against Pang Kim Hin, who was the nephew of PSA Chairman Lim Kim San. With PSA employees living in Anson facing housing relocation issues, Jeyaretnam won the seat in a shocking upset with 51.9% of the vote, becoming the first opposition candidate to win a seat in independent Singapore’s Parliament. He retained the seat in the 1984 general election but was disqualified in 1986 after legal troubles.
In the first and only by-election ever held for a GRC, all four Marine Parade MPs, including Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, resigned. Goh wanted a stronger mandate after the poorer results of the 1991 general election, and he wanted to give Jeyaretnam (who was not eligible for the 1991 election due to a ban) a chance to contest.
Teo Chee Hean, who would later become DPM and Senior Minister made his political debut. Chee Soon Juan, a star candidate from the SDP, also debuted in this by-election. The WP team was disqualified due to improper paperwork and the PAP won 72.9% of votes against the SDP, NSP and SJP. This would be the last by-election for 20 years until the 2012 Hougang polls.