(Delivered in Parliament on 9 November 2016)
Madam, as stated by my fellow MPs of the Workers’ Party, we agree with the Constitutional Commission and Government, that this Parliament should be the centre of power in our democracy.
The Constitutional Commission observed that in the “two-key” mechanism, “Singapore can ill-afford an impasse on matters touching on the use of its national reserves, or where appointments to key public service positions are concerned.” The Commission concluded that “it is critical that the Government retains the ability to function effectively in these areas.”
We also agree that the reserves need to be safeguarded, and the body safeguarding the use of the reserves has to be given a mandate by the people to say ‘no’ to the Government.
The Office of the Elected Presidency, instituted in 1991, as described by the Law Minister in 2011, sounds imprisoned by the Cabinet. The Minister said in a speech in 2011, that the President “must follow the advice of the Cabinet in the discharge of his duties, and he cannot act or speak publicly on issues of the day except as advised by the Cabinet.”
In other words, the Elected President cannot play Jailhouse Rock when the government prefers Beethoven. And to remind the President that he does not have absolute veto power, the Government established an appointed body, the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA), to check on him.
So why is this government telling the people that they need to elect the President in order to give him specific powers to say ‘no’ to the Government, when he can never act alone in exercising his veto power? The presidential veto does not carry any weight without the support of the CPA.
Council of Presidential Advisers
With the passing of this amendment bill, the Elected President will have to share power with an enlarged CPA in the discharge of his custodial and key appointment roles. The CPA, although only an appointed body, is bestowed with considerable powers to challenge and delay the decisions of the President. This bill also imposes a general duty on the President to consult the CPA, before exercising his discretion in respect of all fiscal matters touching on the reserves, and all matters relating to key public service appointments. Without the support of the CPA, the President can hardly veto anything.
The CPA, in its expanded role and size, now functions like an upper House to ensure the President does not act in contrary to the will of the Cabinet, since the President has limited say in the composition of the council.
The introduction of staggered term appointments by dividing the members of the CPA into three divisions has little to do with ensuring continuity of the Council. Rather, it has the effect of ensuring stability in the decision making process, as the composition of the all-powerful CPA cannot be altered by the President in one term.
The Founding Fathers of the United States of America adopted staggered term in the Senate for a number of reasons and one of them is that the majority party in the Senate may change every two years, thus bringing fresh ideas and policies over time.
However, the same effect will not happen for the CPA as all the 8 members are not elected but appointed under specific conditions. The Prime Minister and President can appoint 3 members to the CPA each, evenly spread over 3 staggered terms. The remaining 2 tie breaker appointments will come from the Chief Justice and Chairman of the Public Service Commission respectively.
Singapore will elect its fourth President in 2017. This President would not be able to appoint his first member to the CPA until 2020. If this President were to serve 2 terms or 12 years, he can only appoint up to a maximum of 3 members. That is the absolute influence the President is going to get in the 8-member CPA even if he serves for life.
The circle of influence in the CPA is very important whenever the President decides to disagree with the Government on certain matters. The CPA has the power to turn the Elected Presidency into a lame duck institution over time, if it chooses to disagree with the President each time he uses his veto power.
Check and balance, under a political framework, must be legitimized and mandated by the people. We cannot have a popularly elected president and then subject his influence and power to be checked by an appointed body at the same time. Such a system will polarise the society and politicize the CPA over time.
We do not need to look into the future to see this happening. We already have government appointed Grassroots Advisers in Aljunied and Hougang to check and co-share the influence and powers of elected MPs. Estate upgrading projects funded by HDB can stall unless the appointed Grassroots Adviser support the initiatives. The political divide in our estates is telling and not healthy. If I may quote what the Prime Minister said yesterday about giving non-Elected President custodial powers, “Who are you to say no? We are elected, you are not. We represent the people’s will. Please approve what we propose”.
The CPA, like Grassroots Advisers, is not elected but wield considerable influence and power. In fact, the CPA was described to be on an equal footing with the President in an analogy by Mr Goh Chok Tong in 1990. He said the 6 members of the CPA are like appointed Senators, while the President is like an elected Senator in a de facto Senate.
Madam, it is important to let the people know that when they are voting for a President with custodial powers, they are not voting for a standalone person but a veto mechanism comprising the CPA, which may render their Elected President powerless in the process.
The Elected Presidency, together with all the proposed amendments tabled today, has the propensity to turn our democracy into a dysfunctional one in the future.
For example, if there were to be a change in Government by a simple majority, the incoming administration would not be able to make changes to the key appointments in the public service, or tap on the reserves to save jobs, without the concurrence of the President, whose candidacy was most likely derived from the automatic track as history had shown, and the all-powerful CPA, whose members were all appointed by the previous administration.
A veto by the President with a concurrence by the CPA is enough to stop any supply bill or key appointment dead in its track even though the incoming administration has the mandate of the people to run the country.
Similarly, if an outsider President were to take office and decide to stop the incumbent administration from introducing populist measures to buy voters’ support, or to appoint its own people to the public service to move its own political agenda, the CPA can send the veto back to Government to trigger an override by the Parliament.
In both scenarios, the power of the CPA and the resultant political unrest cannot be understated. It is irresponsible of us to kick this can down the road too.
Madam, as far as I can remember, the appointed Presidency had served Singapore very well. Most of the appointed Presidents that graced the office of the Head of State from 1965 to 1991, were apolitical, and were not conflicted in any way to represent the citizens of Singapore regardless of race, language, religion, and political affiliation. Most important of all, they had proven to be enduring symbols of unity.
When the Elected Presidency came into existence, the issue of a candidate’s political affiliation becomes even more acute, as the President is supposed to act as a ‘check’ on the government on specific matters.
The late Mr. Ong Teng Cheong became the first elected President of Singapore in 1993. Mr. Ong was the Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman of the People’s Action Party prior to participating in the election. Mr. Ong went against a very reluctant candidate, the late Mr. Chua Kim Yeow, who did not put up any posters, distribute any pamphlets, or hold a single rally. In short, the late Mr. Chua did not do any campaigning for votes. He only gave two 10-minute television broadcasts. It was reported that he did not even want to give an interview but relented eventually.
The results of the first Presidential Election was totally unexpected. Mr. Chua got a very respectable 41.31 per cent of the total votes cast. For a reluctant candidate to do so well against an eminent opponent from the ruling party, with absolutely no campaigning at all, is a shocker to say the least.
The Presidential election of 2011 provided the affirmation on the type of candidate Singaporeans would prefer to check on the government. The leading candidate, coincidentally the Chairman of the People’s Action Party and Deputy Prime Minister at one time, came within a hair’s breath away from losing the Presidential Election in a four-way contest.
The nation was so divided that President Tony Tan was elected on a mandate of 35.2 per cent of the valid votes, beating Dr. Tan Cheng Bock by a margin of 0.35 per cent, a razor thin margin unheard of even in the history of our parliamentary elections.
When a constituency come that close to changing hand in a Parliamentary Election, it will usually disappear from the electoral map. But you can’t make Singapore disappear, so the next best thing, I guess, is for this government to raise the bar and make some candidates disappear. I understand the Minister had said that the changes are not targeted at any individual, but I am sure the Minister would agree that the changes will narrow down the pool of eligible presidential candidates going forward.
While the amendments in this bill will raise the bar for other candidates, it will also continue to ensure an endless supply of candidates from the ruling elite, a source of candidacy where voters had made their disapproval known, not once but twice in as many presidential elections.
Custodial powers aside, did the two contested Presidential elections entrench the notion that the Elected President is supposed to be a unifying symbol of the nation after all? It certainly did not feel that way. From the results of the elections, it is easy to see that the people of Singapore value something more intangible than whether a presidential candidate is a CEO of a $500 million company or an ex-Minister. They value political independence, and for good reason, because this democracy is being overrun by one party for the longest time.
I agree that the Elected Presidency did not change the symbolic role of the President, but it is highly politicized as a result of the dual roles the President is expected to play. The system has inherent flaws and the Commission has picked it up as well. And this reality will continue as long as the Elected President is expected to perform his custodial functions and symbolic role at the same time.
Madam, the Constitutional Commission went beyond the Terms of Reference to suggest the unbundling of the custodial and symbolic roles of the President to facilitate a return to the Appointed Presidency. One can only surmise that the Commission is acutely aware that an Elected President will always be conflicted in some ways going down this road.
The Workers’ Party does not see the need to have an Elected Presidency. We call upon this government to do away with the Elected Presidency and revert to an appointed President.
The Workers’ Party recognizes the importance to safeguard the past reserves and proposes to have a Senate body elected by the people, solely for the custodial functions as intended for the elected President, as explained by my parliamentary colleagues earlier.
The wide ranging amendments in this bill, such as the tightening of the qualifying criteria for the Elected Presidency, the expanded roles of the CPA, and the reserved election for minority, to name a few, bear the hallmarks of an experiment gone awry for the Government.
Madam, how many walkover Presidential elections do we want to have before we acknowledge that the system is not working? How many reluctant candidates does this government intend to field, just to give the electorate a semblance of contest, before we may end up with a reluctant President? And if this government wants to narrow down the field to a sole candidate, where is the legitimacy to real power?
Race has never been an issue for the highest office of our land until the Elected Presidency came along. This is a fact. Isn’t this an experiment gone wrong?
Is the Elected Presidency the best platform to safeguard the reserves, or merely a veiled attempt by the PAP to safeguard its control over all levels of the Government at the same time? Only a national referendum can provide the answer.
My wife told me about a message she came across yesterday. It was a simple question – why are we asked to elect a President when the Government has already decided who we should vote? This rhetorical question came from a young student.
Madam, I do not support the bill.