SINGAPORE: As part of measures to strengthen the role of the elected presidency, the Constitutional Commission has proposed simplifying the system within which the President is obliged to consult the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA), which has the main task of advising the President on the exercise of custodial powers.
Among recommendations released on Wednesday (Sep 7), the Commission proposed that the President be required to consult the CPA before exercising discretion on all fiscal matters related to Singapore’s reserves, as well as on public service appointments. And where the President’s decision goes against that of the CPA’s advice in the above matters, the Commission also proposed the decision be subject to Parliamentary override.
THE CURRENT SYSTEM
In the report, the Commission pointed out that currently the weight given to CPA’s advice differs depending on three broad situations. The first is in instances where the President is obliged to consult the Council but refuses to follow its advice. In this case, there is a possibility of Parliament overriding the decision.
Another instance could be where the President is obliged to consult the CPA, then refuses its advice, but the decision is not subject to a Parliamentary override. Finally, there are some instances where the President is not obliged to consult the council in a decision.
A quick guide to the recommended changes to the CPA proposed by the Constitutional Commission. (Infographic: MCI)
PROPOSED CHANGES TO VETO POWER
For example on fiscal matters, Parliament may override the President’s veto of Supply and Supplementary Bills, as well as the appointment or removal of the heads of key institutions that hold significant amounts of the nation’s fiscal assets.
But the Commission noted that in other areas of fiscal matters, Parliament is in no position to override the President’s veto. This happens if, for example, the President vetoes the Government’s proposed transactions that are likely to draw on government reserves accumulated before the government’s current term of service. In this instance, the President is not obliged to consult the CPA before exercising his discretion.
“This is incongruous, given that these matters too may have significant systemic impact and which, for that very reason, have (rightly) been subjected to Presidential oversight,” the Commission stated in the report.
Hence the Commission recommended that the President should be obliged to consult the council on all fiscal matters relating to Singapore’s reserves, and that the exercise of a Presidential veto on any of these matters be open to being overridden by Parliament in “the appropriate circumstances”.
WHEN CAN PARLIAMENT OVERRIDE?
The Commission noted that the CPA currently makes decisions by a “simple majority”, with the Chairman of the CPA having a casting vote if there is an even split among members. This, the Commission said, is a “blunt mechanism”,where a simple majority of the CPA can protect a Presidential veto from being overridden by Parliament.
It said this can be refined by ensuring that the terms on which Parliament may override a veto differs, depending on how much support CPA has given to the President’s decision. “The stronger the CPA’s support for the President’s decision, the more difficult it should be for Parliament to undo that decision,” said the Commission.
It proposed that if a decision is supported by the Council’s absolute majority of at least four out of six (or at least five out of eight if another proposed change is accepted), Parliament cannot override the President’s veto.
If the Council is evenly split, but its Chairman exercises his casting vote in the President’s favour, the Commission proposed that Parliament may override the veto if it acts by a two-thirds majority. Finally, if the President’s veto does not get the majority support of the CPA, Parliament can override it with a simple majority.
STRENGTHEN THE CPA AND ITS ELIGIBILITY CRITERIA
The Commission said based on the proposed changes, it was also important to augment the council’s size and structure. Currently, the CPA comprises six members. The President and Prime Minister appoints two members each, while the Chief Justice and Chairman of the Public Service Commission appointing one each. The President also appoints the Council’s Chairman.
The Commission said with the expanded scope of work proposed as part of the report, it also recommends increasing the number of members from six to eight, with three members nominated by the President and three by the Prime Minister. The appointment of the other two members remains unchanged.
The Commission also recommended that council members be appointed for a period of six years, even upon re-appointment. Currently, they are appointed for six years with a re-appointment of four years. The commission said a uniform term will facilitate the staggering of terms among members, which the Commission said is important for continuity.