Singapore doesn’t need an elected President

Posted on 09 August 2011

It’s telling how ill-conceived this office is when Presidential candidates are still debating about their job scope.

By Terence Lee

"Why am I here?" - the question that all Singapore presidents, past, present and future have been unable to answer. Photo: WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM / Creative Commons

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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This post was written by:

- who has written 81 posts on New Nation.

Terence is an online media nut that is obsessed with writing and publishing on the Internet. Recently, he took up photography to expand his repertoire, and hopes to learn videography soon. He has worked in both online and print publications such as The Straits Times, Today, Mind Your Body, The Online Citizen, and Funkygrad. He is currently the assistant editor with SGEntrepreneurs, a website that covers entrepreneurship in Singapore and Asia. Terence can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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  • notdaft

    Asking opposition to step up to the plate is moot when you’ve minority seats.
    With 2/3 majority, any ruling party simply can pass the bill for reserves drawdown any given time, lifting the whip or not.
    The question to ask is why does the constitution allow such a tremendous weight to the Council of advisors? Who appoint them? Why are their discussions secret? Are they running for the PE? Did they get voted in by people? Clearly not. So on what basis would Mr Nathan (or past /future president for that matter) must act according to their mandatory advice? Judging from the CNA tv interview, that’s what he has been hiding behind the constitution. Do as they say.
    In fact, to put in a lame president and saying that all affairs have to be conducted in secrecy/privacy with no communications to the public on accountability, how else do you expect voters to decide if he has done the job to satisfaction, and even warrant another term?
    Just because is cumbersome, doesn’t mean we shouldnt do it. On the contrary, we as citizens should ask for the adaptation and amendments of the constitution in light of the murkiness of the present role defined. Simplifying is one way. Clarity is another.

  • A daft Singaporean

    EP is just wayang lah. Where got openness and accountability with this government? Only after voted out this government in GE2016 and revamp the constitutions to ensure accountability and transparency then EP may be more meaningful. In the first place, why we need a EP to help perpetuate the current ruler? Shame on them when they call themselves few good fellows and talk about the Asian style of democracy. There is only one type of democracy, that is, democracy or no democracy. Democracy is people’s unconditional and total say in running this country. Now, who have say on running this country?

  • Fed Up Reservist

    “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.”

    Referendum the people from whom those reserves were built up – us.