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In 1993 when the government introduced the Elected Presidency (EP) 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 “In introducing this Bill, 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.”
The truth was not quite as noble. Instead, many saw the move as Mr Lee Kuan Yew ensuring that Mr Goh, as the new prime minister, would not run off with the horse, so to speak. Following the introduction of the scheme, the late Ong Teng Cheong then became Singapore’s president from 1993-1999.
Mr Ong actually believed Mr Goh that the EP was formulated to clip the Government’s wings. During his tenure, President Ong famously asked for the state’s accounts to be made known to him, to which he was told that the information would take 52 man-years to compile. 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.
Which was just as well because PM Goh revealed that although Mr Ong had sought a second term, the Government could not support his bid. Mr S R Nathan was chosen 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 the government had 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, upbraiding everyone for harbouring illusions about the powers of the presidency. He slapped down Mr Goh’s statement about the government clipping its own wings: “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.”
Then in 2004, Mr Lee Hsien Loong introduced legislation to bypass the president when it came to the transfer of reserves to GLCs and statutory boards (see here), making the EP even more meaningless.
The government is in the midst of reviewing the Constitution to pave the way for a president from the minority race. Only the very naive will fail to see the move for what it is – to ensure that the PAP’s candidate ascends to the office. The EP scheme degenerates into a deeper and bigger political farce.
It is clear that the PAP has absolutely no intention of allowing its powers to be scrutinised and checked by anyone. Together with schemes like the Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) and the Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP), the Elected Presidency serves only to create the illusion of democracy in Singapore.
What we need is a genuine democratic system where all political parties can openly and fairly contest 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 the government and truly protect our reserves.