SINGAPORE: The Constitutional Commission tasked with strengthening the role of the Elected Presidency has suggested that one option could be to return to a system of appointing the head of state.
Among a range of recommendations and suggestions in its report released on Wednesday (Sep 7), the Commission put forward the possibility of separating the ceremonial role of the President while placing custodial responsibilities into the hands of an appointed body of experts. Under such a system, the Commission said the President could be appointed by Parliament and carry out duties as a “symbolic unifying figure”.
The report was released about five months after the Commission was set up to look at key issues related to the elected presidency. Led by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, the Commission kicked off a series of public hearings in April, where 19 individuals and groups presented their thoughts and recommendations about the elected presidency.
ELECTED VS APPOINTED: CONTRIBUTORS WEIGHED IN
In its report, the Commission acknowledged that the issue of electing versus appointing a president fell outside its terms of reference. This topic, it said, is a political question, left to the Legislature, or for the electorate to decide through a referendum.
“The Commission does so only as a group of citizens which has had the privilege and the duty of undertaking an extensive study in the history, the purpose and the position that the President occupies in Singapore’s unique constitutional scheme,” it said in the report.
But in the report, the Commission highlighted the opinions of several contributors that the Elected Presidency should be abolished. Some said the ceremonial and custodial role of the Presidency required people with different attributes, and there was no assurance there would continue to be elected individuals who are capable of discharging both these roles in the future. Another said the appointment of a President by Parliament would ensure minority representation.
The Commission said the office of the President should remain an elected one if it is to continue performing custodial functions such as safeguarding the nation’s financial reserves and the integrity of the public service.
It said: “It would be incongruous to have a second key in the hands of the President, if the holder of the first key (namely, the Government) is to appoint the holder of the second key. Second, the President will likely require a popular mandate if he is to have the authority to act as the custodian of the nation’s reserves and be an effective check against governmental action, should the occasion arise”.
UNIFIER VS CUSTODIAN: “AN UNAVOIDABLE TENSION”
But the Commission noted that strains of tension between the two responsibilities are emerging. It said the President's ceremonial roles require one to be “non-partisan and a unifier of the nation”, while his custodial role may require one to “confront the government of the day”, a task that is at odds with the President’s first responsibility.
“While the prospect for such confrontation necessitates that the President hold the legitimacy and authority that comes from having an elected mandate, it seems out of place for persons seeking a non-partisan unifying office to have to go through a national election, which will likely be politicised and divisive,” the Commission said in its report.
The Commission said there is some merit in the Government considering the “unbundling” of the President’s custodial role “if and when it is appropriate and timely to undertake a more fundamental change to the presidency”.
HOW IT MAY WORK
The Commission said the President’s custodial role could instead be devolved to an appointed body of experts, possibly a council of experts as a “second chamber” of Parliament that has the ability to delay measures, debate on them and require the government to override objections only if there is a “super majority”.
It said the council would not have the power to veto or block government initiatives, unlike currently, where the elected President can do so if he has the support of the Council of Presidential Advisers. But through the above measures, the Commission said a suitable balance could be struck between the need to safeguard interests while enabling the Government to act.
The Commission said there are examples in other countries of a similar system- the House of Lords in the Westminster system, and the Rajya Sabha in India.
Council members, the commission said, should be appointed to stringent eligibility criteria, and that those appointing them should also comprise a diverse range of public servants, such as those who currently appoint members of the CPA.
DIFFICULT TO EXERCISE POWERS WITHOUT MANDATE: PM LEE
Responding to the Commission's report, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the Government will study these views seriously. However, in a letter to the Commission, Mr Lee noted some issues with the suggestions on a possible return to a nominated presidency.
"While I appreciate the Commission's reasons for this suggestion, as the Government has pointed out even when the scheme was first conceived, it would be difficult for a President to exercise custodial powers over the reserves and public service appointments, and veto proposals by the Government, without an electoral mandate," he said, reiterating a point he made in a Mediacorp interview which was broadcast over the weekend.
Pointing out that the Commission's views on this extended beyond its Terms of Reference, Mr Lee said Constitutional amendments will be tabled in Parliament to achieve the objectives for which the Commission was set up.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is Acting Prime Minister while Mr Lee is in Laos for the ASEAN Summit, also indicated that the Elected Presidency system is here to stay, saying it would be "extremely difficult" for a President to operate without the "moral authority of an electoral mandate".