SINGAPORE: Members of Parliament (MPs) from the Workers' Party (WP) on Monday (Feb 6) voiced their unanimous opposition to changes to the Presidential Elections Act, and reiterated the party’s stand of opposing the system of the Elected Presidency.
In her speech, WP's Sylvia Lim questioned the manner in which the Government came to determine the schedule for this year’s Presidential Election, which is reserved for Malay candidates.
During the Bill’s second reading, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing said the schedule sets out the terms of office that are counted and the communities that the Presidents who held the terms belonged to.
He said the first term of office to be counted was the last term of President Wee Kim Wee, who served until 1993. The late Mr Wee was the first to exercise the powers of the Elected Presidency, following changes in 1991.
But Ms Lim asked if the schedule should start with President Ong Teng Cheong, who in 1993 became Singapore's first elected President. “Is it because, if President Ong was the first one to be counted, we would have to go through this year’s elections as an open election, and risk a contest by Chinese or Indian candidates who may not be to the Government’s liking?"
She questioned if the decision to start with President Wee was an "arbitrary and deliberate" one by the Government to “achieve a desired outcome”. Ms Lim added that, following public reaction to last year’s announcement that this year’s election would be reserved for Malay candidates, Singaporeans were right to be “sceptical” about the Government’s motives.
In the 2011 Presidential Election, Ms Lim noted that President Tony Tan Keng Yam was the Government’s preferred choice, but had to fight off three other candidates, “scraping through to victory” with a margin of 0.35 per cent.
"For the next Presidential Election, we hear a sudden announcement by the Government that it would be reserved for Malay candidates, based on reasoning which is totally unconvincing," she said.
"How many people really believe that the Presidential Election this year is reserved for Malays to ensure minority representation, and why now?"
"Ms Lim ... suggested that there might be something controversial or confidential that the Government was unwilling to publish," noted Mr Chan. "The Government is confident of the advice rendered by the Attorney-General (on counting the terms of office)".
To Ms Lim, he said: "Are you suggesting that the Attorney-General did not give the Government the appropriate advice? Or that the Prime Minister has not been truthful with the Attorney-General’s advice?
"If it’s the first, then I think Ms Lim, as suggested by DPM Teo (Chee Hean), can challenge this in (the) courts. But if it’s the second, then I’m afraid it’s a very serious issue to cast aspersions on the integrity of our Prime Minister."
On Ms Lim's request to publish the Attorney-General's advice, Mr Chan said: "Ms Lim, you are a lawyer, I’m not a lawyer. You will know that when you get advice, you do not freely publicise your advice and you may have various reasons why you do not publicise all your advice. And as a lawyer, I think you will know this better than me.
"So I think we should not impute motives on this Government, nor on the Prime Minister."
Ms Lim later clarified that she was not casting aspersions on the integrity of the Prime Minister, a point that Mr Chan accepted.
Mr Chan also noted that the current debate was to put in place "the nuts and bolts" for decisions made following the changes to the Constitution in November and that it was not the platform to reignite issues addressed in earlier debates.
He also took issue with Ms Lim's implication that the Government had short-term political objectives in amending the Constitution and putting in place a new system.
The Government made changes to the Constitution not because there are immediate issues to address, but to make sure that sensitive issues related to race, language and religion do not arise in the first place, Mr Chan said.
"If it were for short-term political advantage, let me ask the members of this House: If we were all politicians here calculating our short-term political advantages, would we expend political capital in doing this? Any sensible person would know that such amendments and moving of this Bill carries with it high political risk, if not political cost."
The changes to the Presidential Elections Act were passed, but not before Ms Lim called for the dissent of WP MPs to be recorded.
Nominated Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun too indicated he wished to record his dissent.
If contested, the next Presidential Election will be held in September.