SINGAPORE: The Elected President must act in accordance with the roles prescribed in the Constitution and not hold back the Elected Government of the day from performing its executive role. He or she cannot be a second centre of power, said President Tony Tan Keng Yam in a message to Parliament on Monday (Nov 7).
Speaker of Parliament Mdm Halimah Yacob delivered the speech on behalf of the President, ahead of a debate in Parliament on the proposed changes to the Elected Presidency.
The Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill, was tabled by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean at the last Parliament sitting in October. It will be read for a second time on Monday.
Dr Tan said there is a need to distinguish between the President's role as a custodian, and the President acting in opposition to the Government. Drawing from his time as President, Dr Tan said his working relationship with the Government has been "harmonious" and "built on mutual trust and respect".
"The Government keeps me informed of all its major decisions. On a regular basis, the Prime Minister and I meet over lunch and on other occasions, for him to brief me on his preoccupations and intentions, and to exchange views on the strategic direction in which Singapore is heading," Dr Tan said.
He referenced the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA), which was set up in 1992 to provide expert advice to the President and moderate the President's custodial powers.
The Constitutional Commission in its study and recommendations on aspects of the Elected Presidency had recommended to allow Parliament to override a veto with a two-third majority if the votes by the CPA members are evenly split and the CPA Chairman casts his vote in favour of the President, but this was rejected by the Government to avoid politicising the CPA in its White Paper, released on Sep 15. Currently, Parliament cannot override if a majority of the CPA members agree with the President’s veto.
Dr Tan said the President has the right to accept or reject the Council's recommendations, and a mechanism to allow for Parliamentary override ensures that the President does not make arbitrary decisions.
In practice, there has not been any need to subject any decision to the Parliamentary override mechanism, President Tan said, as "decisions have been well considered for the long term good of Singapore".
He added that the CPA as a non-elected body has remained above political fray, and that should be maintained.
Dr Tan said therefore it is "not practical" to remove all possible scenarios of gridlock and still expect the Elected President to remain an effective custodian.
"We cannot hamstring the Elected Presidency just to guard against a worst-case scenario of a populist or power-hungry President. We must rely upon the wisdom of our electorate to elect a President who is able to work with the Government of the day for the proper and effective governance of Singapore," Dr Tan said.
ELECTED PRESIDENT AS CUSTODIAN OF NATIONAL RESERVES
President Tan also agreed with the Government's decision to accept the Constitutional Commission's recommendation of updating the qualifying criteria for candidacy.
Through elections, the President is given the democratic legitimacy to disagree, if need be, with the Government on matters related to the national reserves, and the appointment of its public servants. As such, the Government decided in 1991 to include competency requirements for Presidential candidates - and these should also be updated and fine-tuned over time, Dr Tan said.
"The scope and complexity of the Presidential oversight on Singapore’s key assets have increased significantly, even in the span of five years of my term," the President said.
He added that his experience in the finance industry was useful in understanding the technicalities of the Government's proposals, but the decisions often also required "good policy acumen and a sound judgement on what is right for Singapore".
"I am therefore of the view that the Government’s acceptance of the Commission’s recommendations is in the right direction," Dr Tan said.
The President has reviewed Government proposals such as Government expenditures in the yearly Budget.
RECOMMENDATION TO ENSURE MULTI-RACIAL REPRESENTATION IN ELECTED PRESIDENCY "BALANCED"
Dr Tan also weighed in on the importance of the President as a symbol of national unity. Prior to 1991, he said Presidents were appointed by Parliament to perform ceremonial functions by representing the State in engaging other statesmen overseas. Additionally, the President's symbolic role extends domestically, with the President engaging with different communities and segments of Singaporeans.
"In my five years in office, it has been my personal mission to rally Singaporeans towards building a caring, cohesive and inclusive society. In Singapore, an important dimension of this role is working with the different ethnic groups that make up our multiracial composition," Dr Tan said.
He drew upon the example of Singapore's first four appointed Presidents - Mr Yusof Ishak, Dr Benjamin Sheares, Mr Devan Nair and Dr Wee Kim Wee - who represented the Malay, Eurasian, Indian and Chinese communities respectively.
"As the President remains a symbol of the nation’s unity, it is important that the Office of the Presidency upholds multi-racialism, a core value of Singapore that underpins the social cohesion and harmony we have enjoyed thus far," Dr Tan said.
He acknowledged that the role of the President as a Head of State representing Singapore's multi-racial society is important, and the country should therefore have a system that "not only allows but facilitates persons of all ethnic groups to be President from time to time", especially as all but one of Singapore's elected presidents have been Chinese, since the Elected Presidency was instituted.
"The Government has accepted the Commission’s recommendation for a mechanism of reserving a Presidential election for a specific ethnic group if a member of that group has not held the office of the Elected Presidency after five terms. I agree that this is a balanced approach. The mechanism ensures that Singapore is assured of a minority Elected President from time to time, but does not kick in if one is elected in an open election," Dr Tan said.
In concluding, Dr Tan said as Parliament debates proposed changes to the Elected Presidency, members should keep Singapore's future in mind.
"The President has previously been described in this House as a goalkeeper. Indeed, if he fails to do the job well, no matter how good our strikers are, more goals will be scored against us and Team Singapore will be set back. We need a capable goalkeeper who works with the other players. Only then will Team Singapore continue to do well in the global league, against competitors who may be bigger, stronger and more intimidating," he said.
"For half a century, our Constitution has served us well, with periodic adjustments to bring it up to date and keep Singapore on course. The institution of Elected Presidency was one such adjustment. I encourage all Members of this House to consider the current proposed changes to it with an eye on the next half century and beyond," he said.
In his speech, Dr Tan acknowledged that he had refrained from commenting publicly about the Commission's report or the Government's White Paper.
"There is no legal necessity for me to present my views on the proposals, nor is it in the Constitutional powers of the President to endorse or oppose any specific recommendations pertaining to the Elected Presidency," Dr Tan said.
He noted that the Government has made it a practice to seek and consider the President's views when amending Constitutional provisions which affect the President's discretionary powers, and to make these views known to Parliament when moving the amendments.