Friday, August 26, 2011

A day to reflect... : an essay by Dr Vincent Wijeysingha


I write this note as a “transmission of personal political views by individuals to other individuals, on a non-commercial basis, using the telephone, Internet or other electronic means,” (Cooling-off Day and Polling Day, Elections Department Press Release, 24 August 2011), and therefore am not in contravention of the prohibitions contained in the Presidential Elections Act.

In the last several weeks, many people have asked me how I am going to vote or how they should vote. I don’t intend to answer either question. In this note, I want to reflect on the office of president.

Being only an infant when President Yusof died in November 1970, I have, of course, no recollection of his death and funeral. But from newspaper reports, photos, and Parliamentary statements (including the then Prime Minister’s eloquent eulogy), I now know that this humble man who declined to reside in the Istana, brought to the office a dignity and an honour based in his simplicity.

My ancestors, and especially my grandfather, were colonial Anglophiles to their fingertips. My grandfather never stepped out of his house unless he was kitted out in a full suit with walking stick and velvet fedora. When King George VI died in February 1952, he cancelled his activities as a gesture of mourning. When he visited the UK in 1977, he wrote to George’s daughter for permission to pay his respects at the grave of her uncle, King Edward VIII. (She said no.)

During World War Two, he was a photographer employed by the Ministry of Propaganda. His job was to take photos of military establishments on the island to be sent back to London for war planning purposes. (I still have the two cameras he used – ironically they were of Japanese and German make!)

For his efforts, he was imprisoned by the Japanese Kempeitai and tortured for several months. For a time he shared his cell with, among others, the future President Sheares. After the war he was awarded a Membership of the Order of the British Empire and a few years later appointed a Justice of the Peace.

His proudest moment – the crisply-ironed linen suit and ramrod straight back in the fading picture of the presentation ceremony at Government House are evidence – was when Sir Franklin Gimson pinned the medal of the Order to his chest in 1947.

We have another picture of him with my grandmother and uncle, also fading, at the garden party afterwards in the grounds of Government House, now our Istana. I’ve always thought it fairly ridiculous that we should have to wear suits in our tropical heat.

Being a bit of an anticolonial, seeing pictures of President Yusof at state occasions in the Malay baju kurung, always filled me with pride. Here was one of us, an Asian, full of dignity and honour, at the head of our nation. I liked that.

Our next President was Professor Sheares. He was a friend of my grandmother’s family and my mother’s gynaecologist but I never met him. Having some Eurasian ancestry myself, of course, I was proud that a Eurasian had reached the heights of his profession and ascended to the highest office in the land.

What I liked about him was, even in a full suit, he always managed to look like one of us, an ordinary Singaporean. His elegant and regal-looking Chinese wife, so well coiffed and elegantly attired in a cheongsam, also managed to impart the common touch, while looking exactly as a First Lady should.

I was just about old enough to remember his funeral. And being keen on pomp and ceremony, I was glued to the (black and white) TV when his funeral was telecast. Mrs Sheares was beside herself with grief and was hardly able to stand: she was supported by her sons. I remember someone complaining about how ill-dignified she looked and how the Queen of England would never have behaved like that. And even though a child I thought, “Well, the Queen isn’t Asian, and this is how we Asians mourn our loved ones.”

Our third president, Devan Nair, was a friend of my father’s from their teaching trade union days, although, again, I never met him – I’m beginning to see a pattern here! As a civil servant, my father had, on several occasions to meet him officially and, in photos, I was always impressed by how he walked among us, in his shirtsleeves. He seemed for all the world like what he was: a trade unionist, a worker, an anticolonial freedom fighter. I was sad when he was hounded out of the Istana.

President Wee, since he took office at a late age, rapidly became the gentle grandfather of the nation, with a kindly smile and a caring touch. And of course, our courageous President Ong, who took his duties of oversight very seriously and was repaid – characteristically for the PAP – with a very mean coin when the government denied him a state funeral or burial at the State Cemetery.

Until Mr Wee, the President was appointed by Parliament. Chosen from those who had attained the height of their profession, they were still one of us, since each one of us could also reach the height of our profession and, therefore, of our nation. And in a real way, he was one of us because, despite not having been elected directly, we knew that he was selected from our own community. To represent us.

In summary, to me the President represents what is best and brightest about our land, what is most decent. In the wake of rapidly changing social mores, a society rushing and hurrying about, our President represented something constant, something to be treasured, something as calm and perennial as the guardsmen outside the ceremonial gates of the Istana.

Twenty years ago, Parliament saw fit to give the President more powers and have him directly elected by the whole nation. Arguably, at the time, this was motivated by the PAP’s fear of its rapidly declining vote share amidst its own belief that it was the party with sole rights to govern, hence the coining of that silly and, of course, nonsensical term, ‘a freak election result’.

And so, our President is now a constitutional aberration, with few similarities found around the world. It is a prototype with little precedent and in many ways, that is why the debate has centred so much around what he can and cannot do. The government tried, with the constitutional amendment, to achieve one set of objectives but it did so when its stranglehold on government was almost impregnable, and so it thought that, come what may, the President would be no trouble but would still contain enough power to be a counter-balance in the event of a ‘freak election result’.

Essentially, our President straddles two functions: the ceremonial, which also includes some executive powers such as the signing of Bills into law (a throwback to our colonial antecedents), and the executive (as contained in the constitutionally amended role). The debate has, predictably (and somewhat unintelligently) for the government, tried to attach his role to the Cabinet, while some of the candidates have disagreed, emphasising the moral, or underlying, role, the historic role, if you like.

The government clearly does not like this and would prefer the elected President not to press his rights but to acquiesce in his role as it has evolved over twenty years of the office. But actually, it has evolved away for the original intentions of the Parliament of 1991, and back to its purely ceremonial role. Our most recent incumbent has acted purely ceremonially and we have had members of the government emphasising that the President cannot do various things without the say-so of Cabinet but, by taking such a minimalist (and, I might add, unconstitutional) reading of things, they indicate that they do not wish the President to actually exercise the functions to which they once called him.

But, like it or not, we now have a directly-elected President and therefore, as citizens, we have some rights in what he can and cannot do under the law. Otherwise, it would be nonsensical to subject the office to popular election.

After the challenge that President Ong mounted in relation to the state reserves, the government brought in a White Paper in 1999 entitled The Principles for Determining and Safeguarding the Accumulated Reserves of the Government and the Fifth Schedule Statutory Boards and Government Companies. This was clearly to try and rein in the powers of the President but by issuing it via a non-binding White Paper, it showed an (an understandable) unwillingness to appear silly by clipping the wings of an office it had, itself, given birth to. So, it took shelter in an essentially pointless document, non-binding in law.

But I say again, we, the electorate, have some rights in our President and we should take our voting responsibility very, very seriously tomorrow. It is a feature – a laughable one were it not so frightening – of power that they who have it do not concede it generously. And our government is an exponent without equal of this tendency.

So when you have various people being trotted out to tell us (and the candidates) that in fact they cannot do anything except at the express behest of the Cabinet, then I begin to smell a rat. They must be afraid, I tell myself; this constitutional anomaly, which they have created, must now be a source of threat.

The power of monitoring, of overseeing, of reviewing, do not come to us as gifts from the hand of the government. They are contained in the law and laws are what divide us (and protect us) from absolute tyranny. The President, I have to say to the government, is our safeguard not against the freak election of a non-PAP government, but against the freak election of a PAP government that does not rule in our benefit, does not govern in our interests, but in its own interests, safeguarding the rights and benefits of itself and its friends, and squandering vast sums of money on its salaries, bonuses and perks while our poor and elderly subsist in a month on the equivalent of half an hour’s Prime Ministerial salary.

This is the true freak result. And, like it or not, the government had handed us, on a platter, a facility to ensure that that may not continue, should we so desire it. The government is not entitled now, to curtail the powers of the President just because we have had an Ong Teng Cheong and may, from tomorrow night, have another in his mould.

If it wants to reverse the powers of the President, let it do so by the front door of a constitutional re-amendment and not skulk around at the back alleys of our Constitution and try to achieve it through bullying or, well… White Papers and state funerals. We, the people, deserve at least this much from our elected representatives.

As to whether or not the individual candidates have what it takes to be another President Ong, I will not say here.

But I will say this: the government is not entitled to play fast and loose with our Constitution. It is not empowered, except under the law, to clip the wings of the President, particularly when we the people, have suddenly woken up to the potential powerhouse of the presidency. It is not entitled to issue White Papers and ministerial statements that may appear to depart from the constitutional position. I’m no lawyer, let alone a constitutional expert; I am but a social worker and a citizen. What I do know is what I have read in our Constitution.

It is true that the President is not, and should never become, an alternative centre of power. History has shown that rival power centres lead to breakdown. The president is not there to initiate programmes, he is not there to challenge – much less advocate – the policy of the government of the day. That is the role of Parliament and that is where I want that role to remain.

But let us be very clear about it: what the President does have are five very clearly defined executive functions which may not have an immediate or direct bearing on our lives, but have the potential to severely restrain the hand of government if it oversteps its constitutional jurisdiction when acting in its own, rather than the people’s interests.

The President is entitled to oversee budgets and senior appointments of key departments of state; he may disallow drawing down from past reserves, should a government need to buy votes; and he has supervisory powers in relation to detentions without trial, restraining orders in connection with religious harmony, and corruption investigation powers.

These are formidable powers and we will only need one Suharto or one Marcos or one Pinochet to bring home how welcome they are.

The democratic legroom in Singapore is still limited. It was once said by an eminent British parliamentarian that when confronted with a person with power, one must ask three questions:
  1. What powers do you have?
  2. How did you obtain them?
  3. How may we take them from you?
These are highly relevant questions in our narrow public space if you are mindful of the dictum that absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. And if you think carefully enough, you will see that the Singaporean presidency embodies both the right to pose these questions and the power to act upon them.

What attributes do they call for? This question I can answer: They call for another Ong Teng Cheong. They call for an independent spirit, courage, a care for the people, deeply-help values and finally, and perhaps most importantly, they call to one who knows what it is like to be an ordinary citizen, with all the struggles, the fears and intimidations that can imply.

Now that all has been said (but not yet done: that will come tomorrow and in the next six years), I ask you to reflect on this. The President’s responsibilities can be divided into his function and his role. His function is set out clearly in our Constitution, and we would do well not to allow the government to deprive us of it. His role, on the other hand, requires us to reflect on what a Head of State is; to reflect on how the predecessors at the Istana had developed their role; to transpose onto him what we want in our community and to see that, within the four walls of the Constitution, he helps to guide our community to their fulfillment.

A famous British lawyer and writer, Walter Bagehot, wrote a book called The English Constitution which, after more than 140 years, still stands as a great classic and a guiding document for a nation that does not have a written Constitution. What he said there with regard to the role of a Head of State (he was referring to the British monarch, but the comparison with Singapore stands) still bears thinking about.

He said that the Head of State has three rights: the right to advise, the right to encourage, and the right to warn. This is what I look for in a President. I want a President who will advise the government of the day, who will encourage it in its service of the people, and warn it when it forgets that duty.

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