5 reasons why young people should care about the Singapore President reforms

“Singapore’s President does not matter. He is just a moral figurehead. We need guaranteed racial representation. Having wise men is more important than a good President.”

We’ve all heard these lines. But none of them are true. Here’s why you should care.

Whether we support the PAP or not, Singaporeans want a say in how we take part in our government. Ever since we began electing our President in 1991, the Government has consistently cut the office’s powers or narrowed its scope. This year, PM Lee argued for 3 things – tighter selection criteria, minority racial representation, and greater Council advisory over the President. This is not new, but another step in the long, calculated path to limit the office of the President.

Because the discussion on president reforms is so one-sided and opaque, I hoped to shed light on it. I debunk five myths about Singapore’s president and its “reforms”:

Myth #1: The “equality” myth

Singapore is a racially harmonious society. So our racial minorities need systemic guarantees to feel “assured”.

This raises a whole package of inconsistencies. First, why the sudden need for racial guarantees on the President? The timing may seem political: given how close the results were in 2011 with the runner-up Dr Tan Cheng Bock, and how close the date is to the next election in 2017.

Let’s say it’s an entirely non-political decision. Now if the PAP is so concerned about racial harmony, why doesn’t its administration pass important anti-discrimination laws? Alfian Sa’at, a local playwright, lists a slew of policies that discriminate against the Malay community, including military manpower, top-tier cabinet roles, and tudung uniforms. Why specially pick the symbolic office of President – an office that the new reforms will only weaken – for this ‘symbolic guarantee’?

Also, if the PAP is concerned about guaranteeing equality in the President, why stop at race? Surely other forms of equality like religion, class, and gender are important in Singapore? It does not help that the Straits Times’ pick of “6 men to watch” for the top job are all Chinese and male, especially when half of the population is female.

Now some say that the minority guarantees are not tokenistic. Then how would the electoral system work practically? Mr Dhanabalan, a former Cabinet member under Lee Kuan Yew, has quite seriously suggested a GRC-type system that sends creates a multi-person ticket, say, one candidate of the majority and another of a minority race. Another possibility is a multi-term guarantee; for instance, out of every 6 elections, at least one must be a minority.

If these ideas become law, it will be the second time the PAP uses a story of “racial harmony” to force through electoral changes in Parliament. Without a referendum, this system will remain controversial if it is not seen as legitimate. Like the GRC system has done for Parliament, this new guaranteed system will do the same for the President. It entrenches the PAP because the Opposition simply cannot produce a well-known two-person ticket.

In short, by applying the same racial formula to the President, the party is making the same mistake twice. It hurts the respect we have for the office.

Myth #2: The “wise men” myth

Having a good government is better than having a good President to check on a bad government.

– Ong Teng Cheong, 1999

I suspect this is the most convincing argument for many Singaporean baby-boomers. We have an unusually high trust in institutions and government. We are taught to believe in the benevolence of the ruling political class. This is an admirable but underestimated ethos.

The PAP model of “good government” is ownself check ownself. Khaw Boon Wan, transport minister, wrote that long-term “leadership cohesion” was key to Singapore’s political success.

But what happens to us when our wise men in power go bad or do bad? Who will stop them then? What if the PAP is taken over, or stops producing the wise men? The PAP elite relies on heroic faith in its own leaders, and its own internal party process of selection and election. Surely Singapore’s democracy was built of sterner stuff.

Many good, promising people lack the “establishment credentials” needed to enter the PAP or qualify for Presidency. Why should one party screen them out of politics because it does not fit their internal criteria? Wisdom comes from many places, not just PAP HQ.

Worse, what if we have a freak election result for parliament? There is no stopping its path of destruction then. In Singapore, the President exercises his powers only if Parliament grants it to him. Our President has no military and security veto (since 1994), no emergency powers, no constitutional powers, and no judicial powers. If he wants to exercise the few legislative powers he has, he must get approval from a government body; for instance, he must consult the Attorney-General for powers of pardon.

If we were to have a president, he must have independent powers apart from Parliament. Only a free and fair referendum can decide how our President is nominated, selected, elected, and exerts his power – not a constitutional amendment with one party setting the agenda.

Myth #3: The “freak president” myth

We need a stable political system. We must be able to control a “freak president”

This argument has become more popular since 1993, after disagreements between Ong Teng Cheong and the Government became public knowledge.

“If a president goes rogue, we must check him.”

Our President has very few powers he can exercise on his own. To exercise all his major powers of financial oversight and appointment, he must consult and rely upon on his Council of Presidential Advisors. In this legal context, “consult” means “obliged to follow” more than merely “asking for advice”.

Who is in this Council of eight men? The President only selects two – the other six are appointed by the PM, Chief Justice, and PSC Chairman. No Singaporean elected them, yet it monopolises control over the President’s key powers and keeps him well in check. Thus, when PM Lee talks about ‘strengthening the team’, he really means to limit the President’s discretionary powers.

Furthermore, this council is staffed by members of the establishment bedrock – businessmen, civil servants, and executives of state-run companies. These men are esteemed, surely, but for a body that advises an independent President, they seem to have inordinately strong past ties with the Government.

I worry that should the unelected president’s advisors prove unwise or corrupt, there is no way to remove them. We can’t vote them away. I also wonder why the Government’s argument for guaranteeing racial equality do not extend to the Council.

“We must QC all presidential candidates.”

The second line is that we must ‘QC’ (quality control) the President. Broadly, I agree – we need a person of “integrity, good character and reputation”. Donald Trump, the Republican ticket for this year’s US election, is the ultimate warning.

Since the beginning of the Elected Presidency 1991, Parliament has tried to achieve this by a ‘neutral’ committee screening candidates on a set of extremely stringent criteria. The Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) comprises three “wise men” of the establishment.

Again, we do not choose the PEC, rather, the Government simply appoints them as office-holders. In other words, the PEC is accountable to no one but itself. Why are we only allowed to choose our President from their pre-selection of people?

Their decisions on who can or cannot run for President are final. This made the 2005 pre-election season ugly, when the PEC decided to not issue Andrew Kuan, then CFO of JTC, a certificate to run for president.

High-profile constitutional jurists like Thio Li-Ann have criticised this as “patriarchal” and compromising “democratic accountability”. Prof Thio argues that this system “contravenes the rule of law and standards of procedural fairness”.

Even if we accept that nominees should have good character, surely we can ‘choose the choosers’ in the PEC. If the PAP trusts the people of Singapore to elect them into power in a free and fair general election, why does the government feel like it needs to guide us when we choose our President?

Furthermore, we do not get to select the criteria. PM Lee has argued that we should tighten the criteria further: the corporate executives must lead firms with a much larger ‘paid-up capital’ to be eligible to run for president. The Prime Minister’s Office once estimated a tiny pool of 800 people would qualify for selection.

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of these 800 eligible candidates will be drawn from the ranks of government-owned/linked companies, which tend to be the largest. And 2, if not all 3, non-PAP candidates in the 2011 presidential elections are unlikely to qualify either. One can only wonder about the political consequences of this new criteria.

Myth #4: The “it’s not important” myth

The president is powerless, so this debate is useless. Why should I care?

Since we know the Parliament is sovereign, why should we care about the President’s office? Especially since the Ong Teng Cheong case seemed to show how hopeless it was to run against a undefeatable PAP government.

Are we making a big silly fuss over a small matter? No, because this is important.

The President has very weighty powers that affect us and our government. When PM Lee propose more limits to the office of President, he is saying the government does not need institutional checks because the PAP can ownself check ownself. It may have done it for 50 years; it may not for the next 50.

The President has 3 main roles in our government: first, he/she has power of oversight. He supervises the government’s financial management (reserves, CPF money, and budget) and its keeping of public order (civil service, religious harmony, the Internal Security Act and Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau).

Second, he has power of appointment. With ‘advice’ from the government and his Council of Presidential Advisors, he can confirm or deny the appointments of our chiefs of military/security, legal, and civil services. Finally, he has power of representation. Because of his direct election by popular vote, he can lay claim to the popular mandate.

How does this affect me?

We may believe that the presidency is not important per se. But I still think the discussion we are having now is profoundly important for a slowly maturing democracy like ours. Even if we don’t see it yet, it affects you and me profoundly in three ways:

One, where partisan politics is absent, systemic politics becomes the only means by which public views can be heard – in this case the presidential office. If the president is elected, he provides a legitimate moral voice which may occasionally dissent from government opinion on matters of public importance. This includes decisions on war, race relations, and finance. That is valuable in the absence of alternative parties in Parliament.

Two, this “debate” shows a classic pattern of a lack of public consultation by the ruling administration. Just as it did with the Integrated Resort or GRC reforms, the Government deems the decision at hand either “too important” for us to make, “too urgent” for us to understand the changes, or “too sensitive” for us to debate. Same with this presidential reforms. Singaporeans are excluded from changes that directly structure how we ourselves participate in the political process. When the way we elect our representatives change, we have every right to be consulted.

Three, we must hear our own voice. We are not alone in calling for more powers for the president. Let’s not forget that the 3 non-PAP candidates in the 2011 election commanded a combined 65% of the vote. All 3 ran on a platform of more, not less, executive powers for the president – and 65% of the electorate thought so too.

Even though the PAP will surely get its way with these Presidential reforms, we should learn from this incident. We must learn to hear ourselves, and must sometimes raise our voices so that the Government hears us too.

Myth #5: The “soft power” myth

The president champions good causes. Hissoft powermeans he doesn’t need formal powers

Law Minister Shanmugam once compared the Singapore president to a British Monarch. He is wrong. Our President is different – we elected him. Whereas Her Majesty is not elected by vote or merit. She is tabloid gossip for some, a tourist attraction for others, and a non-issue for others. Her advice can be freely ignored by the British parliament.

Ho Kwok Ping, a dean, has compared our President to the Irish President – with a “moral and ceremonial role”. Indeed, as a directly elected individual, the president can legitimately claim to possess the people’s moral voice, and can represent the people’s conscience in important decisions.

We may consider SR Nathan’s outstanding record of supporting and fundraising for charities, or what Mr Ho calls “soft power”. But where were our Presidents, especially SR Nathan and Tony Tan, during formative social debates in the past decade – like the Integrated Resorts, role of money in church, or the population White Paper? Even if they may have personally supported the Government’s stance, playing a “moral role” would demand that they show more awareness and build consensus between opposing divides of Singapore’s moral contests. Our recent Presidents have played a disappointingly sub-par moral role.

Furthermore, if the president is to play a moral role in government, he needs legal power to underwrite it, not just a “moral voice”. We elected him to oversee the honesty of government finance. Where necessary, the President needs to contradict or criticise the government if there is wrongdoing. That is moral voice – dissenting but valid. Former President Ong Teng Cheong complained that was never given access to government finances. If he cannot even do this one job, how can we call the presidency moral? And what is the point of us electing an office without real power?

The Government cannot have its cake and eat it. Naturally, it wants a responsible custodian of financial reserves and public order, and a person of conscience too. But it also wants someone who is unlikely to ‘rock the boat’. What happens should Parliament fall into irresponsible hands and the President has no powers left to exercise that can restrain it?

What should the government do?

1. Involve the people.

This disappointed me the most, and I suspect the same for many Singaporeans. We were not consulted on any changes. Yes, there has been a limited public feedback exercise. Cabinet members like Grace Fu are only now conducting “youth dialogues”.

But all of this was all done after PM Lee announced in his National Day Rally that his government would change the law. Of course it has established a “Constitutional Commission” that gives a nominally independent opinion, but yet again its composition comprises 9 people with close ties to the political establishment. No alternative view outside the establishment was heard.

This after-the-fact public consultation seems very action (putting on a display). It follows the SG50-style of a sanitized “national conversation” – a carefully controlled dialogue to make sure it gets the “right outcome” of “public agreement”.

The Government can do better for future debates of national importance. It can consult other views beside its usual suspects. A non-establishment view is not the same as a violently anti-system protest. Public views add value and validity to its decision.

2. A president is not necessary for good governance

There are many views on what the powers of president should be. Some don’t want it at all, others prefer greater powers independent of the Cabinet. It seems the PAP prefers something in the middle – weak custodial powers to be used only occasionally.

The fact is, there are many systems of government, and a sovereign legislature like our Parliament has served us well. There is no evidence that executive systems are more politically stable, or give more economic growth, than legislative ones. France is a good case in point: it combines a powerful executive with disappointing politics and dismal economics.

PM Lee says we need a president to keep government spending in check, and have a “mandate” to exercise those custodial powers. He indirectly linked Australia’s unchecked government spending to the lack of a custodian president.

Unfortunately, having a president alone does not magically guarantee good government budgeting. Nations with presidents – including France and Latin American nations – are models of shocking profligacy.

Our Parliament already has a democratic mandate, and it has done a largely decent job at responsible budgeting. In most other economies, this isn’t always the case. But the UK’s sovereign parliament has had periods of both shocking profligacy and Thatcherite austerity. Also, austerity and tight spending can be surprisingly popular with the electorate, as post-recession Germany and Austria showed.

If PM Lee were as serious about having external accountability on government finances, then he might consider well-established macroeconomic alternatives instead of the presidency. For instance, the government should accord the MAS greater independence in monetary policy. In place of a president, it may consider a professional body that provides comprehensive and independent fiscal advisory. (Models include the Congressional Budget Office in the US, or Government Debt Committee in Austria.)

3. Be clear and honest about what it wants.

The Government should just be honest about what its long-term vision for the president. It should not chut pattern.

Many countries have parliaments with absolute sovereignty – just so, our parliament should not be ashamed to admit its obvious dominance over state affairs. If left to a referendum today, I suspect Singaporeans will side with whatever the PAP says and be fine without a president.

Instead of maintaining an expensive display of “meritocratic selection”, “racial guarantees”, and “public mandate” for an increasingly powerless president, Cabinet might as well select the President as it did before Ong Teng Cheong.

Selecting a president is a clean solution, and it is the right thing to do if Parliament wants to keep its sovereignty. Selected Presidents include notables like Wee Kim Wee. This way, it can keep the President as a Commissioner for corruption control and charities without the political risk.

But if Cabinet chooses to keep the President office, then it should make the selection process transparent and democratic. It should give the President real, irrevocable, and discretionary powers – with obligations only to the people, and not to a Council of unelected advisors. This will help preserve trust in our institutions.

What next?

Let us decide if we want a president. Let us decide how we choose a president. And let us decide who it should be.

Ultimately, the government still has the choice to select its own president or abolish the office altogether. In that case, it should just say so.

Special thanks to: Nicholas, Nabillah, Jing
Selected sources: Singapore Constitution; Thio 2007, Singapore: (S)electing the president—diluting democracy?; Tan 2011, Constitutional Law in Singapore; ST; CNA; Istana

Yong Sheng lives in London. He writes about Singapore society.

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