Saturday, June 11, 2011

Do we want a "political" or a docile President for Singapore?

The President has clearly defined custodial roles, as outlined in the Law Minister's statement (below).

However, the Constitution does not prohibit him/her from freely expressing his/her views on public and political issues, and advocating worthy social causes. 

The President is the only public figure in Singapore who is elected with a mandate from the entire electorate, whereas the PM, being a MP of Ang Mo Kio GRC, has a mandate from a mere 7.6% (=179024/2350873) of the electorate.

The President, in one person, is therefore as much a representative of the people as the Parliament, as a body, is.

If the President has clearly proclaimed his views concerning public policies prior to the election, then, upon election, he has the moral authority, derived from the popular mandate, to express those views, and advocate policies in accord with those views. [I am using the phrase "moral authority" in the following sense: "Moral authority is the capacity to convince others of how the world should be."  (source)] 

Such a "political" President serves as an independent political voice (without legislative power) which the government has established the NMP (Nominated MP) and NCMP (Non-constituency MP) schemes to encourage.

The crucial point is that, having a plurality, if not a majority, of the national votes, the President can speak with a moral authority that NMPs and NCMPs sadly lack.

I would argue that, given PAP's monopoly of power since 1959, we are better served by such a "political" President, with moral, but no executive, authority, than by a timid and mute non-political President.

Whether we want such a "political" President should be a matter for Singaporeans to decide.

Let the Presidential candidates declare whether they intend to be mute on all political and social issues (except those that impinge on his custodial duties), and if not, what their platforms are.

If a mute candidate gets elected, then, during his term of office, he must remain mute.

If a "political" candidate gets elected, then he has the people's mandate to speak his mind. If he, as a President, incurs the wrath of the people through his words or deeds, he can be voted out after six years. There is little damage that a loudmouthed President, compared with an incompetent government, can inflict on Singapore.

Of course, the PAP can amend the Constitution to explicitly prohibit the President from commenting on all political matters not directly related to his custodial duties.

[Suppose that the President disagrees with the government on the spending of reserves or the appointment of some key personnel. Then the President surely must explain his reasons to the people. 

Therefore the President must be free to express his political views pertaining to his custodial duties.]

At this stage, though the people of Singapore can debate such a Constitutional Amendment, there is insufficient opposition votes in Parliament to stop it.

If the PAP wants to, it can impose a gag order on the President, making him/her as docile and servile as the PAP-controlled media.

But it will be a mistake for which the PAP will pay a heavy price at the next elections, as the people will then have realised the danger of granting PAP the power (which comes with two-thirds of the Parliamentary seats) to amend the Constitution at will.

[Related: Will a President that speaks up cause a Singapore Constitutional Crisis? (Thoughts of a Singapore Statistician): here]

Clarifying the President's role (Law Minister's Statement)
Today Online (source)

Recent comments in the media suggest some confusion over what the President can and cannot do. As the Presidential Elections approach, it is important for Singaporeans to understand what the President is elected and empowered to do under the Singapore Constitution. The Attorney-General has confirmed that the following is the Constitutional position.


Singapore has a Parliamentary system of government, not a Presidential one. The President is the Head of State, not the Head of Government. The Prime Minister is the Head of Government and has the authority and responsibility to govern Singapore.

The Constitution clearly defines the role and scope of the President. He has custodial powers, not executive powers. In other words, he can veto or block Government actions in specified areas, but he has no role to advance his own policy agenda. National policies and running the Government are the responsibility of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. This is so for all policies, whether they concern security and defence, immigration and population, or housing and social safety nets. The Prime Minister and Cabinet are accountable to Parliament, where policies are debated and endorsed, and ultimately to voters, who decide every five years who to elect to Parliament and to govern Singapore.

The President's veto powers over the Government are limited to specific areas:

(a) Protection of past reserves, i.e. reserves accumulated during previous terms of office of Government;

(b) Appointment of key personnel; and

(c) ISA detentions, CPIB investigations and any restraining order in connection with the maintenance of religious harmony.

On all other matters, under the Constitution the President must act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet. In addition, the President is required to consult the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) when exercising his veto powers in connection with reserves and appointments.

The President's veto powers are an important check against a profligate government squandering the nation's reserves, or undermining the integrity of the public service. That is why the President is directly elected by the people: To have the mandate to carry out his custodial role, and the moral authority to say no if necessary to the elected government.


The Constitution protects the past reserves of the Government and key statutory boards and government companies ("5th Schedule" entities) like the CPF Board, MAS, HDB, GIC and Temasek. The reserves include physical assets like land and buildings as well as financial assets like cash, securities and bonds. The Government of the day can only spend past reserves with the approval of the President.

However, the President does not direct the operations of these statutory boards and Government companies. In particular, he is not empowered to direct the investment strategies of GIC and TemasekGIC and TemasekGIC and Temasek, and has access to any of the information that is available to their boards. This system of governance has allowed the GIC and Temasek to operate professionally and to achieve good returns over time, comparable to other reputable global investors.


These include the Attorney-General, Chairman and members of the Public Service Commission, the Auditor-General, and the chiefs of the Armed Forces and Police. The President has similar veto powers over the appointment of the Chief Justice and Judges, and board members and CEOs of the 5th Schedule entities.


His concurrence also allows the Director of the Corrupt Practice Investigation Bureau to continue with investigations even if the Prime Minister has refused permission to conduct the investigations. The President can cancel, vary or confirm any restraining order made under the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, if the decision of Cabinet is against the recommendations of the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony.


The custodial and non-executive nature of the President's role is not new. It was clearly explained by Mr Goh Chok Tong (as First Deputy Prime Minister) when he moved the Constitutional Amendment creating the elected Presidency in 1990, and reiterated by Mr Goh (as Prime Minister) in a statement to Parliament in 1999.

This clarification should help Singaporeans better understand the role of the elected President, as set out in the Constitution.

1 comment:

Alan Wong said...

Given a choice, who would want a timid and mute non-political person to be our President ? An equally responsible security guard would suffice and achieve the same objective, isn't it ?

The minimum key criterion should be that the President must have a reasonable independent mind of his own, have a kind heart and can reasonably act without fear and favour. Any other achievement would be an additional advantage.

And why the need for an experienced 100M CEO ? Are we looking for a CEO instead ? 99M also cannot, what kind of logic is that, PAP or LKY can care to tell us ?