SINGAPORE: The Government has broadly accepted the recommendations put forward by the Constitutional Commission, nearly a month after the latter submitted its 183-page report reviewing the Elected Presidency to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Commenting on the Government’s position, released in a White Paper published on Thursday (Sep 15), Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said that while there are “some differences in implementation, and some differences in detail”, the Government agrees with many of the Commission’s recommendations.
The nine-member Commission, headed by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, was charged to make recommendations on three aspects of the Elected Presidency under review - a mechanism to safeguard minority representation, the qualifying criteria for candidacy, and the role of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA). Towards the year end, these changes will be tabled in Parliament as a Bill, and debated on. It will become law when the Bill is passed.
AREAS OF AGREEMENT AND DISAGREEMENT
Safeguarding minority representation
According to the White Paper, the Government agreed with the Commission’s reasons for ensuring multi-racial representation in the Presidency, as well as the proposed safeguard mechanism of holding reserved elections when a particular race group has not been represented in the Presidential office after five continuous terms.
Updating the qualifying criteria for candidacy
With regard to tightening the qualifying criteria for candidacy, the Government accepted most, but not all of the recommendations. For example, while it agreed with the Commission on limiting eligibility to individuals in the most senior executive positions in companies with shareholders’ equity of S$500 million, a couple of recommendations on other performance criteria - such as raising the minimum tenure of the most senior executives from three to six years - were rejected.
The Government also agreed with the Commission on introducing a “look back” duration to ensure the currency of an applicant’s experience. This will be set at 20 years, instead of the more stringent 15 years proposed by the Commission.
Giving more weight to the Council of Presidential Advisers
The Government agreed with the Commission that the President should be obliged to consult the CPA before exercising discretion on all fiscal matters touching on Singapore’s reserves, and on all matters relating to key appointments.
An example of a situation in which the President is now not obliged to consult the CPA on, but will be, if and when Parliament approves the changes, would be if he does not concur with the the advice of the Prime Minister to allow the Attorney-General to remain in office beyond the age of 60.
In addition, the Government agreed with the Commission that all fiscal matters touching on Singapore’s reserves, and on all matters relating to key appointments, should be subject to Parliamentary override. However, the Government preferred to retain the current threshold - at a two-thirds Parliamentary majority - in favour of a more calibrated approach which takes into consideration the CPA’s support level for the President’s veto. According to the White Paper, this calibrated approach may “unintentionally emphasise or even politicise how individual members of the Council, particularly its chairman, have voted”.
The Commission’s suggestion to expand the CPA with two additional members - one appointed by the President and one by the Prime Minister - was also accepted by the Government.
Currently, the CPA comprises six members and two alternate members. Two members are appointed by the President at his discretion; two are the Prime Minister's nominees; one is the Chief Justice's nominee; and one is the nominee of the Chairman of the Public Service Commission. One alternate member is appointed by the President at his discretion while the other is appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister, in consultation with the Chief Justice and Chairman of Public Service Commission.
With respect to enhancing the accountability of the CPA, the Government said it agreed with the recommendations to require the CPA to disclose the total votes for and against its advice, on all areas subject to Parliamentary override. But it did not agree with the Commission on the need to disclose the breakdown of individual votes.
Similarly, while the Government accepted the recommendation to require the President to publish his opinion whenever he exercises his veto on fiscal matters, it rejected the idea of having the President do so when he exercises his veto on appointment matters. In these cases, President will give his opinion to the Prime Minister, and he will only publish his opinion if an override has been invoked.
“The Government has always taken the position that it can be negative and embarrassing to the would-be appointees if, say, we publish reasons why the President has said no. These will be very senior people. You want to appoint a Chief Justice, Attorney-General, chairman of PSC,” explained Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam.
"Our view is this: President says no to the Government's appointee, the Government then considers. If the Government accepts the President's view, then the matter ends there. But if the Government wants to override the President, that means Government insists on its appointee, the matter has to go to Parliament.
"Now in such a situation, of course, Parliament and everybody else should know the President's position and reasons. But if the Government accepts the President's view, then why embarrass the-would be appointee? Look for a new appointee, get the President's consent and have him appointed."
GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE TO OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS
The White Paper also took into consideration recommendations that fell beyond the scope of the review’s terms of reference. These relate to whether the Presidency should remain an elected office, as well as whether and how the President’s discretionary powers should be entrenched.
The Government disagreed with the Commission’s suggestion to revert to the system of appointing a President, arguing that the head of state needs the popular mandate in order to block the Government. As to the related issue of politicising the Presidential elections, the Government said it believes this can regulated, but that it is not yet ready to take a stand on the Commission’s suggestions about rules governing campaign methods and preventing misinformation.
For instance, the Commission had proposed making it an offence for candidates to make promises that go beyond the constitutional remit of the President’s functions, or take positions that are incompatible with the office of President, which has no role in formulating or initiating national policies.
"There are some other recommendations of the Commission which the White Paper says we are studying. Those won’t form part of the bill and that will have to be taken up at a future point in time once we've taken a view,” said Mr Shanmugam.
The next stage in the process is for a Bill to be tabled in Parliament, which will take place in October, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a Facebook post on Thursday evening.
It will then be debated during the second reading.
The public can find more information at www.gov.sg/electedpresidency.