SINGAPORE: The call to start counting from Dr Wee Kim Wee's second term as President for the purpose of holding a reserved Presidential Election was a policy decision, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said in Parliament on Tuesday (Oct 3).
He made the point in response to an adjournment motion by Workers’ Party chair Sylvia Lim on the reserved Presidential Election. Following constitutional changes, an election will be reserved for a particular racial group if no one from that group has been president for five continuous terms.
In her motion, Ms Lim asked whether the choice of which President to count from was a legal question or policy decision.
She cited Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's speech in a debate on Nov 8 last year when he said that the election held last month would be reserved for Malay candidates.
Mr Lee said then that the Government should legislate on when the racial provision for a reserved Presidential Election should kick in.
"We have taken the Attorney-General’s advice. We will start counting from the first President who exercised the powers of the Elected President, in other words, Dr Wee Kim Wee. That means we are now in the fifth term of the Elected Presidency," Ms Lim quoted Mr Lee as saying.
Ms Lim also recounted how replies by DPM Teo Chee Hean and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing during Parliament debates gave her the impression that this was a legal question.
GOVT GAVE IMPRESSION THAT DECISION TO COUNT FROM DR WEE WAS ADVICE FROM AGC: SYLVIA LIM
"Did the Government merely use the AGC’s advice as a cover to avoid full Parliamentary debate on why the count was not starting from President Ong Teng Cheong?" Ms Lim probed.
Ms Lim said she realised it was “completely a Government decision” three months later in February, during the second reading of the Presidential Elections Amendment Bill.
“Here we were, debating a law that would practically re-write history, by deeming President Wee as the first elected president. Yet, instead of the Government using the opportunity to clarify the matter and any mis-impressions created, it chose, instead, to impute sinister intentions to me.”
She also cited statements made by Deputy Attorney General (DAG) Hri Kumar Nair during the court proceedings when former presidential candidate, Dr Tan Cheng Bock challenged the constitutionality of the changes to the Presidential Elections Act.
"He (Mr Nair) argued that, 'the AG was in no position to tell the Government where to start the count from'," Ms Lim said.
She argued that the Government’s handling of the Parliamentary debates on the changes to the reserved Presidential Election was “most unsatisfactory”, and that it engaged in “ambiguous language and red herrings”.
POLICY DECISION TO START COUNTING FROM DR WEE KIM WEE: SHANMUGAM
In response to Ms Lim, Mr Shanmugam stressed that the point had been made “very clear” that it was a policy decision to start counting from Dr Wee Kim Wee's second Presidential term.
For one, Mr Shanmugam said the constitutional text is clear that Parliament can choose from any of the five terms preceding the 2017 elections.
Secondly, he said the Government made it clear that it was a policy matter for Parliament to decide.
“In a dialogue session held after the Government released its White Paper, I was asked the following question,” he said.
“When would the circuit breaker to hold a reserved election after a racial group has not been represented in Presidential Office after five continuous terms come into effect?”
“The most direct answer is, actually, the Government can decide.”
Mr Shanmugam also noted that Ms Lim’s point - that the Government is starting the count from Dr Wee because of AGC’s advice - was never suggested.
He added that nobody was suggesting that Dr Wee was elected, describing the suggestion as “an untruth that was attributed to the proceedings.”
Instead, Mr Shanmugam said what was suggested is that Dr Wee was the first person to exercise the powers of an Elected President, and if there would be any legal impediments for the Government to start counting from his term.
"What Ms Lim is saying, we are starting the count from here because of AGC’s advice. That was never suggested. We start counting, we are a careful government, we make a policy decision, but we take advice to see if there are any impediments," he said.
He added that as a rule, the Government generally does not publish legal opinions that it gets.