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.
This special issue of The Historyogi Post is packed with everything you need to know about the history of elections in Singapore.
#GE2020 Podcast: The historical roots of electioneering & campaigning in Singapore:
Listen to this episode of my friend Kwan Jin Yao’s COVID19 Community Chronicles Podcast Series, where we discuss the historical roots of Singapore’s election traditions such as the GRC system, NMP & NCMP schemes, as well as the drawing of electoral boundaries & the involvement of the PA in grassroots & political work. We also take a look at the justifications put forth at that time for electoral reforms as well as the objections expressed against them.
1959: First election that ushered in full internal self-government for Singapore. The People’s Action Party won the polls for the first time and its leader, Lee Kuan Yew, became the state’s first Prime Minister. Read More
1963: First election with Singapore as part of Malaysia. The PAP faced its toughest fight ever, with splinter group Barisan Sosialis and other left wing parties contesting nearly every seat. The PAP argued that a pro-communist victory would lead to KL imposing emergency rule. It won a two-thirds majority, defeating UMNO’s local candidates in Malay-dominated seats. Read More
1968: First election in independent Singapore. This election had one of the longest campaign periods of six weeks. The Barisan boycotted the polls, giving the PAP a Parliamentary monopoly that would last until 1981. Read More
1972: Five opposition parties contested nearly all the seats, with JB Jeyaretnam standing as a Workers’ Party candidate for the first time. But the PAP once again swept every seat, winning 69% of the votes. Read More
1976: Future PM Goh Chok Tong entered politics in this election, together with opposition stalwart Chiam See Tong. Election deposits were increased for the first time and four opposition parties, namely Barisan, Singapore Justice Party, PKMS and United Front, formed the Joint Opposition Council to contest the polls. Read More
1980: The SDP contested the polls for the first time. PAP MP Phey Yew Kok caused a stir when he jumped bail and fled embezzlement charges (he surrendered in 2015). The PAP once again swept all seats for the 4th consecutive time. Read More
1984: The PAP’s Graduate Mothers Scheme and proposed increase to the CPF withdrawal age caused public anger. Future PM Lee Hsien Loong entered politics in this election, while pioneer leaders Goh Keng Swee and Ong Pang Boon retired. The PAP lost over 10 percentage points in the popular vote. Chiam See Tong entered Parliament for the first time, winning Potong Pasir. The NCMP scheme was introduced but opposition candidates declined their offers. Read More
1988: The GRC system debuted, replacing most of the single-seat constituencies. Pioneer leaders Toh Chin Chye and S Rajaratnam retired, and this was Lee Kuan Yew’s final election as PM. Barisan merged with the WP. Former Law Society president Francis Seow contested under WP and later fled tax evasion charges to the US. Chiam retained the only opposition seat. Read More
1991: New PM Goh called for early elections to get a fresh mandate, just a week after the electoral boundaries report was released. The PAP suffered a further drop in its popular vote, losing four seats. The SDP claimed two more seats, and WP’s Low Thia Khiang entered Parliament for the first time after winning Hougang. Read More
1997: Chiam resigned from the SDP and contested under the Singapore People’s Party banner. The SDP lost its two other seats, ending its Parliamentary presence. The PAP reversed its decline in the popular vote, while JB Jeyaretnam returned to Parliament as an NCMP after losing his Anson seat in 1986. WP’s Tang Liang Hong fled to Australia after the election to escape defamation suits and tax evasion charges. Read More
2001: The Singapore Democratic Alliance, led by Chiam, made its debut. Low took over as WP chief from Jeyaretnam, who resigned due to differences. The election deposit was almost doubled to $13,000. Parliament was dissolved just one day after electoral boundaries were unveiled. WP’s Aljunied team was disqualified for filing incomplete papers. The PAP won its largest ever popular vote, with 75.3%. This was Goh’s final election as PM. Read More
2006: The first election with Lee Hsien Loong as PM. For the first time, there were contests in six-member GRCs, no forfeiture of election deposits and the PM’s constituency’s popular vote was below the PAP’s national average. The campaign was dominated by the James Gomez saga, but the WP and SDA kept their seats. Read More
2011: Both Chiam and Low left their seats to lead GRC teams, with the WP capturing Aljunied GRC for the first time. The WP secured the largest opposition presence by a single party with six seats. Chiam’s gamble failed and Potong Pasir was finally lost to the PAP. Voter anger over cost of living, housing, immigration and growing inequality led to the PAP’s lowest popular vote ever at 60.14%. Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong retired from Cabinet. Read More
2015: The first election after the passing of Lee Kuan Yew. His death combined with nostalgia and patriotism around the SG50 celebrations, reversed the PAP’s decline in the popular vote. WP barely held on to Aljunied GRC and lost Punggol East, which it had won in 2013’s by-election. The SPP failed to regain Potong Pasir. SDP’s Chee returned to polls after getting discharged from bankruptcy. Read More
Four Iconic Opposition Politicians from Our Past
Ong Eng Guan: Ong joined the PAP in 1954 and became party treasurer. In 1957, the PAP won the City Council elections and Ong became Mayor of Singapore. His tenure was tumultuous, with repeated clashes with staff and new initiatives that bypassed existing bureaucracy in an attempt to be more accessible to the masses. In 1959, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly and became the first Minister for National Development. Ong was expelled in 1961 for repeatedly challenging the party leadership with public criticism. He immediately formed the United People’s Party and won his old seat back in a by-election. As his political fortunes faded, Ong resigned in 1965 and sank into obscurity. Read More
Chia Thye Poh: Chia was a Barisan Sosialis MP who resigned his seat in 1966. Shortly after, he was detained under the Internal Security Act. The government claimed he was a member of the Communist Party of Malaya and involved in subversive activities, charges that he repeatedly denied. Chia was imprisoned for 23 years until 1989 when he was released under restrictions. He was completely freed in 1998, holding the distinction of being Singapore’s longest held political prisoner to date. Read More
Harbans Singh: Harbans was a lawyer who built an infamous reputation as a maverick. His party, the United People’s Front, made headlines in the 1976 election for its election slogan “Kick out the PAP to end the fascist, dictatorial, blood sucking, arrogant and money faced regime”. Despite poor results, Harbans continued contesting elections, making a name for himself as an entertaining speaker with outrageous comments. His party became inactive after the 1988 election. Read More
Ling How Doong: Lim was the SDP Chairman who defeated the PAP MP Seet Ai Mee (who became notorious for washing her hands after shaking a fishmonger’s hands) in Bukit Gombak. When Chiam fell out with SDP and left, Ling remained in the party and supported Chee Soon Juan. In 1996, Ling made headlines when, in response to some comment whispered by Chiam to him in Parliament, he retorted “Don’t talk cock”. He was censured for using inappropriate language in the chamber and later lost his seat in the 1997 polls. Read More
Quotable Quotes from Politicians Past & Present
“The only way to avoid making mistakes is not to do anything. And that … will be the ultimate mistake.”
“Suppose you had 10, 15, 20 opposition members in Parliament. Instead of spending my time thinking what is the right policy for Singapore, I’m going to spend all my time thinking what’s the right way to fix them, to buy my supporters votes, how can I solve this week’s problem and forget about next year’s challenges?”
“A political opponent is not an enemy – an honest opponent should be treated with respect however bitter the opposition of his views. It is the essence of democratic progress to recognize that political opponents have material contribution to make to the thinking and efficiency of the government process and the education of the people. Abuse, ostracism, refusal to speak to one another, vicious slander; these are the symptoms of infantile arrogance enshrined in the traditions of rigid dictatorships.”
I had the great opportunity to collaborate with my friend Kwan Jin Yao on an episode of his COVID-19 Community Chronicles. We discuss the historical roots of Singapore’s election traditions such as the GRC system, NMP & NCMP schemes, as well as the drawing of electoral boundaries & the involvement of the PA in grassroots & political work. We also take a look at the justifications put forth at that time for electoral reforms as well as the objections expressed against them.