It’s telling how ill-conceived this office is when Presidential candidates are still debating about their job scope.
By Terence Lee
I’m starting to think that the Presidential elections is stupid.
At best, it’s an entertaining diversion; at worst, it’s a waste of taxpayer’s money and time that can be better diverted to governing the country and keeping our vibrant economy humming along.
Something is very wrong when at this stage of the proceedings, what is dominating discussion is the scope of the President’s powers. Cue the recent Institute of Policy Studies forum where law minister K. Shanmugam and law academic Thio Li-ann discussed what the President can or cannot say in public.
Shanmugam seems to think the President is the public sock puppet of the government. Both the law minister and Thio Li-ann also have the gumption to blame citizens for being unclear about the president’s powers.
In a Today newspaper article about the forum, Shanmugam said that Singaporeans should educate themselves on the roles of the president. Li-ann, similarly, said that voters “need to do the homework”, noting that information on the topic is readily available online.
These elites obviously have no sympathy for the fact that my mum, who has to vote for the next President, cannot in any possible universe understand what is written on the Internet or in the archaic language of the Constitution, simply because her command of the English language is simply not strong.
Even a reasonably intelligent specimen such as myself is struggling to fully understand the role of the President.
And here’s the ultimate defeater for the argument that citizens are to blame: You don’t see the same problems manifesting in the General Elections, when even the fishmonger in the wet market can eloquently tell you in Mandarin and Hokkien what their MPs do.
So, while these obviously intellectual law-gods blame citizens for being clueless, even they themselves cannot agree on what the President does.
Shanmugam believes that should the President speak out on political issues without the permission of the Cabinet, he would be acting “unconstitutionally”. And what about Li-ann? She said: “The courts can’t do anything because the Constitution is silent on this. This would be a matter of political negotiation between the political branches.”
So while the highly esteemed law minister thinks the act is unlawful, Li-ann opined it’s a legal grey area.
Even Tony Tan‘s rival and presidential aspirant Tan Kin Lian is confused: In response to Shanmugam’s statements at the forum, he said in a statement: “I shall ask the lawyer to go through the constitution one more time to see if there are clauses that have been overlooked by me, and that support the interpretation of the Law Minister that the President cannot speak on any issue that differs from the actions taken by the Government.”
So not only are mortals like me kept in the dark; even Tan Kin Lian’s lawyer cannot agree with His Law-ness’ interpretation!
Keep it simple, stupid. Do away with the office of the Elected President altogether. I believe there is no current role the President is performing that cannot be taken over by the Cabinet or the Parliament.
And here’s the kicker: In Shanmugam’s books, Kin Lian himself may not even be clear about the job scope of the President.
Adds the potential President: “If the reading of the constitution is not as narrow as stated by the Law Minister, I will proceed to contest the election (provided that I get the certificate of eligibility) and let the people decide if they wish to elect me on my platform to be the voice of the people and to work with the Government in a constructive and cooperative manner.”
Note the “if” qualifier. In theory, should Kin Lian’s lawyer decide that his reading of the Constitution was wrong to begin with, and the President’s ability to speak frankly on political issues is indeed curtailed, then there’s a possiblity he might not stand for elections after all.
It looks like the whole exercise is a non-starter (now, even Shanmugam has backtracked on some of the points he made at the forum). So much attention diverted to a job position that may not mean much.
So here’s my advice to the government: Keep it simple, stupid. Do away with the office of the Elected President altogether. I believe there is no current role the President is performing that cannot be taken over by the Cabinet or the Parliament.
For instance, while the President can veto the drawing of reserves for government expenses, why can’t we empower MPs to do the same? Remove the party whip, and submit the bill to a vote.
Sure, the Parliament may be skewed towards the PAP at the moment, which is why the Opposition must step up to the plate, and current ruling party MPs must exercise independence.
Also, the need to outsource diplomatic duties to the President is unnecessary. Let the Ministry of Foreign Affairs do its job, I say.
So, starting from now, I’m going to be apathetic about the Presidential Elections. When the fateful day comes, I am tempted to decorate my voting slip with stars and moons, and let the voting agent decide how he or she wants to count my vote.
I would much prefer to have a ceremonial President who is receiving ten percent of his current four million dollar pay instead.
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