Depoliticising the Presidency, Safeguarding our Assets – Speech by Sylvia Lim

(Delivered in Parliament on 8 November 2016)


This Bill is evidence of how a nightmare may come back to haunt us.

The Elected Presidency was created in the 1990s with the intention of safeguarding our past reserves from being squandered by a “rogue government”.  However, the experience with the EP has seen the PAP government coming back to the House to amend the Constitution again and again, as unintended consequences arose.

One public episode of tension between the EP and the government surfaced when President Ong Teng Cheong, a former PAP Deputy Prime Minister, held a press conference to highlight his lack of access to information about the assets he was supposed to safeguard.  The Presidential Elections in 2011 were also a nightmare for the PAP leadership, with four candidates contesting the elections; I understand that some leaders were kept awake at night at the prospect of one of the “other” three candidates being elected.

Today’s Bill presents complicated amendments to try to undo problems created by the government itself.  Yesterday, DPM Teo Chee Hean spent 90 minutes meticulously taking the House through the changes brought about by this Bill, together with 7 pages of meaty handouts, the kind of content ripe for a major law exam.

Before I go further, there are three fundamental truths that underpin this debate, which the Workers’ Party would like to acknowledge at the outset:

First, that the President’s principal role is as Head of State, a unifying figure and symbol of the nation, domestically and to the world.

Secondly, that the President should not be another centre of power.  In fact, this was a concern that the Workers’ Party had articulated since the 1980s when the EP was first mooted.  In January this year, the Prime Minister reiterated that the President was not another centre of power.

Thirdly, that the country’s past reserves should be preserved and strongly safeguarded by an entity that is elected by the people.  The issue is who should be the gatekeeper.


The President as Head of State – his principal and only role

The Workers’ Party notes that our past system of having appointed Presidents has produced Presidents who are generally held in very high esteem and are greatly respected by the people.  Beginning with the appointment of President Yusof Ishak to President Wee Kim Wee, the fact that the President did not campaign and go through elections in fact elevated the office to being above politics.  His focus on being Head of State was of universal appeal, and in no way diminished his stature compared with our elected Presidents.  Today, the Workers’ Party and many Singaporeans still believe the President should be an appointed office and above politics.  To revert to such a system of appointed Presidents is not regressive; in fact, it would naturally take care of any concerns that minority communities would not be represented in the office, as this would automatically be resolved by a system of rotational appointments.

We disagree that the Presidency should be an elected office and should be tasked to safeguard the past reserves and the integrity of the public service.  We thus oppose this Bill.

Our past reasons for objecting to the Elected Presidency have been recorded over the years.  Under the scheme designed by the PAP government, the strict and specific eligibility criteria would likely see the election of a pro-PAP President; in the event of a change of government, that President was likely to be the legacy of the previous administration, who could prevent the new government from being effective, for political reasons.  This prospect was not just WP’s thinking but the honest misgivings of some senior PAP MPs as well.  For instance, during the Parliamentary debate on the 1988 White Paper on the Elected President, Mr Ong Pang Boon, a former Minister, noted as follows:   

“.. the intention of the proposal as contained in the White Paper has gone even much further than originally mooted, which was to protect the country’s financial reserves from being raided by a profligate government elected to office. The reserved powers of the elected President now extend beyond financial reserves to cover all assets of the government and key public service appointments…

 “The proposal as contained in the White Paper, whichever way one looks at it, would ensure the election of a Presidential candidate from the PAP. Should by some freak election results (which the Government claimed to be possible), an Opposition government were elected to office, it would be logical for the PAP President to work to undermine and bring down the Opposition Prime Minister and his government, even if the Opposition wants to act responsibly.”

Fast forward to today.  Today, we have an even clearer picture as to why the President should not be asked to take on the dual role of being Head of State and also safeguarding the reserves and public service at the same time.  Such a dual role has an inherent tension that politicises the office of the President.

This fact was recognised by the Constitutional Commission to Review Specific Aspects of the Elected Presidency.  After considering the matter in detail and receiving submissions and evidence, the Commission felt compelled to point out the inherent problem with the dual role, even though it was going beyond its Terms of Reference to do so.  The Commission noted that being a Head of State was a unifying role while being a custodian was a confrontational role; in addition, requiring the President to go through an election necessarily made him a partisan figure.  The Commission also noted that the two roles required “different chemistry”.  The Commission went on to ask that the government consider unbundling the two roles, so that the President could concentrate on his role as Head of State, while the custodial role be given to another body of persons.  We respectfully agree with the Commission’s observations.


How the Reserves and Other Matters may be Safeguarded – an elected Senate

The Workers’ Party agrees that the country’s reserves built up during the previous terms of government should be safeguarded.  As the past reserves belong to the people of Singapore, we believe the safeguard should rest with Parliament, as the elected representatives of the people.

To this end, we have studied the Constitutional Commission’s recommendation that safeguarding of the past reserves could be vested in a separate body, to be appointed, who would have powers of delay.  In other words, when the government wants to spend past reserves, it would need to send its proposal to this appointed body for review; if the body had reservations about the proposal, it would then send the proposal back to Parliament, who could then only pass it with a supermajority vote.

The Workers’ Party has always acknowledged that the past reserves are worthy of strong safeguards.  We also see the merits of the Constitutional Commission’s rationale that MPs would benefit from the collective wisdom of a separate body with some expertise.

Having considered the Commission’s report, the Workers’ Party believes it is apt to consider the creation of a Second Chamber in the Legislature, which could be called the Senate.  Its primary role would be to safeguard the country’s past reserves.   Besides past reserves, we recognise that there is some public sentiment that it is prudent that a body outside the government should review the other decisions that the President is currently overseeing, such as approving key civil service appointments.  We acknowledge that these are important matters, including a decision whether a corruption investigation should proceed if the Prime Minister objects to it.  We do agree that there are benefits in having another body review such decisions.  To ease the transition from the EP system, we propose that all the discretionary powers currently vested in the Elected President be vested in the newly-created Senate.  After the system has worked for some time, the Senate’s scope could be reviewed.

Under our proposal, the Senate would be elected by the people in a national election, rather than appointed as suggested by the Commission.  The election will be of individuals, who do not represent any political party.  We could start with a Senate of 8 individuals.

We see the election of Senate members as critical, to make the membership process open and not susceptible to political interference.  This will also give the Senate the necessary mandate for the important decisions it makes.  Candidates for the Senate should possess relevant experience and expertise for the functions expected of the Senate.  My colleagues will set this out in more detail.

As far as spending the past reserves and key civil service appointments is concerned, the Senate would only have delay powers to refer any proposal back to Parliament for consideration.  At that stage, Parliament should consider the reservations of the Senate, and, if thought fit, could still pass the proposal but with a supermajority of, say, three-quarters of MPs.  Such a mechanism would see the safeguards on reserves remaining with Parliament.


The Bill – Checking or Checkmating the President?

This provisions of this Bill show that the government knows that it is unwise to let one man have too much power.  However, the government seems to be locked into its position that there must be an elected President, and is devising more ways to check him.  However, the government’s chosen method of strengthening the Council of Presidential Advisors (CPA) and enlarging its role is fraught with difficulties.  The increased clout of the CPA will make it yet another power centre, which is not tenable as it is an unelected body.

One clear example is Clause 3 of the Bill.  Clause 3 deals with the entrenchment framework, which was summarized in Handout 4 distributed yesterday.  Parliament had previously considered and passed the existing Art 5(2A) and Art 5A, but these had not been brought into operation.  Those provisions had envisaged that any Bill to amend the Constitution that affected the President’s role or powers could not even be presented to Parliament unless the President agreed to it, or it had been put to a national referendum and two-thirds of voters agreed with it.

Clause 3 of the Bill will introduce a re-revised entrenchment framework.  The proposed Articles 5A and 5B will enable a Bill affecting the President’s role or powers to be presented even if he does not agree and the proposal is not put to a referendum, so long as the CPA agrees to it.

As DPM Teo confirmed yesterday, the new framework will give “legal weight” to the opinion of the CPA regarding entrenchment provisions.  This had not been the case before this Bill.  This provision will thus strengthen the position of the CPA vis-à-vis the President.  How do we justify letting the CPA be a gateway to amendments to our fundamental law, the Constitution, when the CPA is itself unelected?


Call for a Referendum 

While we have stated our views, we do not believe that the Parliament should arrogate to itself the right to decide such fundamental matters concerning the political system and state power. The Prime Minister said earlier that these changes would “determine the direction of the country”.  It is proper to consult the people directly in a national referendum.  We call on the government to allow the people to make a decision on the nature of the Presidency and how the country’s assets should be safeguarded.  We have taken the liberty of drafting the question that we believe can be considered to be put to a referendum.  Madam, may I have your permission to distribute the question to Members?

The Annex just distributed seeks to ask Singaporeans to choose between two models – Option A as advanced by the PAP government, where the President is elected and plays dual roles, and Option B which is the model that the WP prefers, which is an appointed President without a custodial role, which is now vested in an elected Senate.



Madam, many Singaporeans, including our residents, have asked why the government is rushing such an important matter through Parliament.  They noted that PM Lee has said that there was no urgency, while the Law Minister has gone on record that the changes were not targeted at disbarring any individual from running.  If that is the case, surely there is still time for any change to be carefully considered for implementation in the following Presidential Election in 2023, rather than the one next year?

There has been public discussion and skepticism about the proposed changes.  Indeed, PM Lee himself acknowledged that it would not be easy to convince Singaporeans about the need for these changes. As an illustration, I came across a post on the Facebook page of Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a former Presidential candidate.  The post from a member of public read as follows:

“What kind of legacy are we leaving to the next generation, when we define our Head of State by his wealth and race, rather than by his character, social contributions and public spiritedness?”

Madam, this is indeed an important question for all of us to answer. The matter before the House is a grave one, and a hasty decision could well prove unwise.



National Referendum on the Presidency and the Safeguarding of the Reserves and Integrity of the Public Service



Elected Presidency with Reserved Elections and the CPA
Ceremonial Presidency and the Elected Senate
1. The President shall be elected by the people to perform the role of the Head of state and to exercise the discretionary powers including to safeguard the reserves and the integrity of the public service. 1. The President shall be appointed by Parliament to focus on serving as the Head of State to unite Singaporeans and represent Singapore.
2. Elections for the President shall be reserved for an ethnic community if the past five Elected Presidents were not from that community. 2. Parliament shall consider the multiracial character of our society in appointing the President.
3. The Council of Presidential Advisors shall be appointed by the President, the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice and the Chairman of the Public Service Commission and the President shall be obliged to consult the Council in exercising his powers. 3. The Senate shall be established and elected by the people to replace and exercise all the discretionary powers of the Elected President including safeguarding the reserves and the integrity of the public service.
4. Parliament can only overturn the President’s veto by a 2/3 majority if the Council of Presidential Advisors disagrees with the President’s veto. 4. Parliament can overturn the Senate’s veto by a 3/4 majority.