SINGAPORE: The High Court has dismissed former presidential hopeful Tan Cheng Bock’s application contesting the legitimacy of the upcoming reserved Presidential Election (PE).
Justice Quentin Loh’s decision on Friday (Jul 7) in favour of the Government maintains the status quo – that only Malay candidates are eligible to stand in the next PE, due in September.
Dr Tan has until next Wednesday to file a notice of appeal.
Dr Tan, a Member of Parliament for 26 years (1980–2006), ran unsuccessfully for President in 2011. In March 2016, he announced his intention to run again, but amendments to the Constitution passed late last year have precluded him from doing so.
Dr Tan filed an application in May challenging the basis of the Government’s decision to reserve the next PE for Malay candidates and called for the September election to be an “open” one.
Under new rules, if there is not a President from a particular racial community for five consecutive terms, then the next term will be reserved for a President from that community.
DR TAN’S CHALLENGE TO PARLIAMENT’S "UNCONSTITUTIONAL" DECISIONS
In an affidavit before the High Court, Dr Tan questioned the Government’s decision to count President Wee Kim Wee as Singapore’s first elected President.
President Wee was appointed in 1985 by the Government of the day.
The Elected Presidency as we know it – where Singaporeans vote for their President – was legislated in 1991, in the middle of President Wee’s second term.
Dr Tan, who was represented by Senior Counsel Chelva Retnam Rajah, argued that the decision to count five terms from President Wee’s was “unconstitutional”.
The first popularly elected President was Ong Teng Cheong, Dr Tan said, and if the Government had started counting from President Ong’s term, this year’s PE would not have to be a reserved one.
Dr Tan also argued that only the terms of Presidents elected by Singaporeans to serve six-year terms should be counted. President Wee was not popularly elected, and served two terms of four years.
PARLIAMENT’S DECISION A "POLICY" ONE, OUT OF COURT’S HANDS: JUDGE
In a 68-page judgement released on Friday (Jul 7), Justice Loh agreed with the AGC that “nothing” in the Constitution limits Parliament’s power to “start the count from the term of office of a popularly elected President”.
“(The Constitution) is both a duty-imposing and power-conferring rule. It expressly imposes a duty on Parliament to specify the *first term and implicitly gives Parliament the power to do so,” Justice Loh said.
The Constitution also “does not only refer to Presidents elected by the citizens of Singapore for terms of six years”, the judge said. It could also refer to Presidents, like President Wee Kim Wee, who were elected by Parliament for four-year terms, he added.
The “plain language” of the Constitution “only refers to the person who holds the ‘office of the President’ without any words to draw a distinction between Presidents who were elected by Parliament, and those who were elected by citizens”, Judge Loh said.
“Ultimately, since (the Constitution) does not fetter Parliament’s power … Parliament’s choice of the *first term is a policy decision which falls outside the remit of the courts.”
DR TAN "SELFISHLY" TRYING TO "UNDERMINE" MULTIRACIAL PRESIDENCY: DEPUTY AG
In court documents obtained by Channel NewsAsia, the Attorney-General’s Chambers accused Dr Tan of “running a case that is entirely self-serving”.
“(Dr Tan) is advancing a strained interpretation of the Constitution so that he can apply to stand as a candidate in the coming (PE).
“His motives are purely selfish and he has shown no regard for the principle of multiracial representation which Parliament intended to safeguard,” Deputy Attorney-General (DAG) Hri Kumar Nair said.
In written submissions to the High Court, DAG Nair defended the Government’s decision to count President Wee Singapore’s first elected President.
The Constitution “does not impose any requirement on which President, or which category of Presidents the Legislature must choose or choose from”, he said.
DAG Nair added the Legislature has powers “to end the hiatus for any community sooner rather than later”, and that Dr Tan’s bid “undermines the longstanding imperative for multiracial representation in the office of the President, which the reserved election framework seeks to safeguard”.
NO DIFFERENCE WHETHER PRESIDENT IS ELECTED BY PARLIAMENT OR BY THE PEOPLE: JUDGE
Apparently in agreement with the AGC, Justice Loh said: “In my judgement, the recent constitutional amendments reflect a re-emphasis on the President’s unifying role and the conviction that, in order for the President to fulfil that role, that office must reflect the multi-racial character of our country.
“From the perspective of ensuring multi-racial representation in the Presidency in view of the President’s symbolic role, it makes no difference whether the President was elected by the electorate or by Parliament. In either case, the President’s capacity to symbolise Singapore is undercut if the occupants of the office do not reflect our multi-racial composition.”
DR TAN DISAPPOINTED WITH RESULT
In a Facebook post on Friday evening, Dr Tan said he was disappointed with the result. "I am, of course, disappointed with the result and will announce whether I will appeal, after this weekend," he wrote.
He also took issue with DAG Hri Kumar's remarks that his motives were "purely selfish" and that he had "shown no regard for the principle of multiracial representation", saying it was "hitting below the belt".
Said Dr Tan: "This case is not about race. It is about process and procedures. It is about upholding the Constitution. Let’s keep it that way."
*Editor's note: These quotes have been updated to accurately reflect Justice Quentin Loh's judgment.