Chopping and changing the president’s powers

Singapore Democrats

In 1993 when the Government introduced the Elected Presidency bill, it gave a grand vision of how system was evolving into a more democratic one where there would be greater checks and balance.

Then prime minister Goh Chok Tong even said that the move is tantamount to the Government “clipping its own the wings.”

“In introducing this (elected presidency) Bill,” Mr Goh told Parliament, “the present Government, is in fact, clipping its own wings. Once the constitutional amendment is effected, this Government will have some of its powers checked.”

Why the change in thinking? After all, the PAP has effectively ruled the country by fiat since it came to power in 1959.

Chop and change #1

Perhaps there wasn’t really a change in thinking. At that time, many saw the move as Mr Lee Kuan Yew ensuring that the new prime minister would not run off with the horse, so to speak. After decades as prime minister, Mr Lee was preparing to step down and hand over the reins to Mr Goh Chok Tong (whom, by the way, Mr Lee publicly said was not his first choice as his successor).

The President would be a check on the new PM and his cabinet. Mr Lee had, at that time, not ruled out becoming the first elected President. However, he opted not to run for the office and instead became Senior Minister in Mr Goh’s cabinet. He left it to the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong to become Singapore’s first elected president from 1993-1999.

For some strange reason, Mr Ong actually believed his PAP colleague that the Elected Presidency was formulated to clip the Government’s wings. Mr Ong had gotten it into his head that he really had some powers to check the Executive.

During his tenure, President Ong famously asked for the state’s accounts to be made known to him to which came the surly answer that the information would take 52 man-years to compile. In other words, “Buzz off, Mr President.”

Towards the end of his term, Mr Ong publicly complained of his “long list of problems” with the Government. He also announced that he would not seek a second term.

Chop and change #2

Which was just as well because the Government was not going to support him for another six years as president. Then PM Goh indicated that Mr Ong had actually wanted a second term but that the Government could not support Mr Ong. It decided to pick Mr S R Nathan, the current president, instead.

Before he left office, however, Mr Ong told the public that some cabinet ministers and civil servants had treated his office as a “nuisance” and that he was disappointed when the Government indicated that it did not need his approval in using the reserves to fight the Asian financial crisis that occurred in 1997.

The very public spat prompted Mr Lee Kuan Yew to step in. The Senior Minister upbraided everyone for harbouring illusions about the powers of the presidency.

He even slapped down PM Goh’s statement about the Government clipping its own wings. Mr Lee said: “No, if you’ve to clip the wings, then you are in for trouble, you cannot govern…I cannot remember it but I would not have used that phrase because the executive powers of the Government should not be clipped.” That was that.

Chop and change #3

Enter Lee Hsien Loong. With him rising in power, more changes to the constitution vis-a-vis the president’s powers would take place. In 2004, Lee, then deputy prime minister, introduced legislation to bypass the president when it came to the transfer of reserves to GLCs and statutory boards (see also here).

Given the abysmal history of the Elected Presidency, short as it is, it is clear that the PAP has absolutely no intention of allowing its powers to be scrutinised and checked by anyone.

In reality there is no institution of an Elected President. The notion of another centre of power holding the second key to our reserves is precisely that – an idea. It does not exist in practice.

Together with schemes such as the Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) and the Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP), the Elected Presidency are all distractions. They serve to create the illusion that a democratic system is in place when the reality is very different.

What we need is a genuine democratic system where all political parties can openly and fairly fight for seats in elections overseen by an independent elections commission, where the mass media is not monopolised by the PAP, and where the civil liberties of the people are not curtailed.

Only then can we hope to check this Government and truly protect our reserves.

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