Elect a Senate and Free the President – Speech by Daniel Goh

(Delivered in Parliament on 8 November 2016)


Madam Speaker, the Government calls the constant reworking of the Elected Presidency as part of the evolution of the institution. But let’s call a spade a spade. The institution is being reengineered because the Government experienced a discomforting close shave with the Elected Presidency almost becoming a second centre of power in the country.

The Workers’ Party does not desire a second centre of power either. We believe in the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. The ruling party should just admit that it has gotten the Elected Presidency experiment wrong. It is time to cut loses and restore the Presidency to focus on its critical symbolic function of unifying the country as the Head of State. At this rate of reengineering, we are creating a political Gordian knot for future generations.


The CPA Will Become a Third Key

This latest round of reengineering will deepen the existing problems with the Elected Presidency, tying more knots around the Gordian knot. One of these secondary knots is the Council of Presidential Advisers. The proposed changes see the strengthening of the Council. The Council will be expanded to eight members and the Elected President is now obliged to consult the Council on all monetary matters related to the reserves and all key public service appointments.

The Prime Minister, borrowing from his predecessor, likened the Elected President and the Council to a goalkeeper with his team of defenders. But this is a bad analogy. With the expanded powers, and the system of strong and weak vetoes by the Elected President depending on how the Council votes, the Council has become the key decision maker. If there is a disagreement between the elected party in Government and the Elected President, the Council decides which side would win the argument. In effect, the Council is the referee. But even this analogy is wrong.

Let’s put it another way. It has been said that what have been constituted here is a two-key system to protect the reserves. But with this expanding role of the Council, our system is becoming a two-of-three-keys system. In order to open the locked box of reserves, the Government would need either the Elected President’s agreement, or failing which, the Council’s agreement. The Council has effectively become a third key.

On face value, a two-of-three-keys system may not seem like a bad thing. After all, is this not a common practice for signature requirements for corporate account withdrawals? However, we object to the Council holding such powers for four reasons. These four reasons are also contradictions of principles that the Government espouses.


The CPA has No Democratic Mandate

First, the Government believes that the people should elect the President, so that he would have the moral authority to veto the Government. In principle, this puts the President on par with the Government, as both popularly elected, thus giving the President the political mandate to check the Government. But members of the Council of Presidential of Advisers are not elected. Given that the Council is effectively a third key with powers to uphold the Presidential veto or to check the President by paving the way for Parliamentary override, what is the basis of their mandate? What is the basis of their moral authority to check on the elected President? An unelected Council should not hold so much power to be a check on the elected powers and be unaccountable to the people under a democratic constitution.


There are No Qualifying Criteria for CPA Membership

Second, one could argue that the authority of the Council members lies in them being experts with deep experience in the managing of large corporate or public service entities. But the same applies to candidates for the Elected Presidency, which is why the candidates have to meet stringent, determinable criteria to be eligible to stand for election. However, similar qualifications are not applied to the appointment of Council members, save for general precepts such as those requiring a member to be of “integrity, good character and reputation”, as mentioned in the White Paper.

So while the eligibility criteria for the Elected Presidency will be tightened significantly so as to narrow the field of candidates down to a select super-elite few in society, nothing is being done to ensure that the Council members will have the right expertise and experience to exercise their powerful vote to swing crucial decisions of State. The question remains, if the Elected President, having passed the stringent eligibility criteria, so vetoes the Government on the basis of his expert opinion, then on what basis should the Council concur with the veto to check the Government or disagree with the veto to allow Parliament to negate it?


The CPA Functions Like an Upper House

Third, as the expanded Council’s opinions now carry more weight, including dissenting views that will be disclosed to the Prime Minister and Parliament, one would reasonably expect the Council to become deliberative and also more deliberate in its adjudication of opposing views. In this sense, the Council ceases to be a collection of advisers. It will become more properly a debating chamber, like this House, where the opinions matter for the progress of the State and are recorded for posterity. The expanded Council with more powers will start to look and act very much like an Upper Chamber of Parliament in its function as the third key as well as in its deliberative and disclosure procedures.


The CPA’s Work is Unavoidably Political

Fourth, the Government rejects the Constitutional Commission’s recommendation for a more calibrated approach for Parliament to override the veto, taking into consideration the extent of the Council’s support of the veto, stating it wants to avoid politicising the Council. But the Council is already political in nature. What exactly does the Government mean by “politicisation”? The Government claims that the Commission’s finely calibrated approach would emphasize how individual members have voted and undermine the Council’s ability to make collective judgements. The Government cites the example of the Cabinet, in which the deliberation and debate of opposing views give way to the collective responsibility for the final decisions.

This analogy is telling. On the one hand, it is wrong, since a council of advisors must be able to provide majority and minority opinions to the President to properly advise him. They cannot simply provide a summary of total votes and the majority opinion. Since the President, and for that matter, surely the Prime Minister and Parliament too, would like to know why some Council members voted differently. Thus, the Government is right to accept the recommendation for the disclosure of the grounds for the Council’s advice, including dissenting views.

On the other hand, the analogy is correct in that the Council, like the Cabinet, appears to have become another potential centre of power, a third key, with the weight of its collective judgement strengthened with the addition of two more members and scope expanded to all monetary matters concerning the reserves and all key appointments. The Council is already politicized, knowing that its decision would swing the veto, knowing that the collective judgement of six and now eight wise men in council would carry much weight in the court of public opinion, knowing that any dissenting views disclosed and published would affect political debate, calculating that any check on the President’s veto would require two-thirds majority to override.

I don’t see how the Council’s work can avoid politics altogether. The work is inherently political. This is not to mention that the rights of appointments to the Council are split between the President, Prime Minister, Chief Justice and the Chairman of the Public Service Commission, with the appointees inevitably bringing the representation of the interests and views of the branch of Government that appointed them into their Council work.


Transform the CPA into an Elected Senate and Free the President to Focus on His or Her Symbolic Role as Head of State

Let’s call a spade a spade. The Council of Presidential Advisers is a misnomer. It is neither a council, nor presidential, nor advisory. It is an unelected third key that risks being populated by unqualified members making political decisions affecting the State and country. Why not just cut the pretence and the Gordian knot as well?

Ironically, this attempt by the Government to strengthen the Council to check on the President provides the answer to all our problems. Since the Council has become a third key making political decisions, why not make it accountable to the people and give the Council its proper political mandate by holding list elections for the Council members? Eligibility conditions similar to those set for the Elected Presidency could be set and we should trust the people to select the most qualified people for the offices.

Then use this to cut the Gordian knot. Return the Presidency to being the dignified ceremonial Head of State again, to be indirectly elected by Parliament. The elected Council, let’s call it the Senate, will then hold the second key in a direct relationship to Parliament in a truly two-key system of deliberation, veto and override that is transparent and accountable. The President will focus on the critical symbolic function of unifying the nation, “everyone is part of my parish”, as the late President S R Nathan famously said, and representing the nation to the world, as the late President Nathan did terribly well. It is important to note that, even as an Elected President, the late President Nathan performed this dual symbolic role to its maximum effect because he was not burdened by the contest of political election and its aftermath in public memory, especially since people read too much into voting percentages these days.

The President should never have to consider the need to butt head against the elected Government and Parliament, or an unelected council of political appointees, which would create ripples of political division that will undermine constructive politics. The President should never have to choose between unity and division. Free the President to focus on national unity and representing the nation in our entirety. In the mistake that is the strengthened Council of Presidential Advisers, we have stumbled on the opportunity. Turn it into the elected Senate. Cut the Gordian knot, please.