The nature of the president’s role is political

Posted on 22 September 2011

This article is a 60-second reduction of the original published in The Straits Times on Sept. 10. This is a rebuttal to Janadas Devan and Ho Kwon Ping’s piece published on Sept. 3.

The presidency was converted into an elected one in 1991, and granted specific powers in several important areas of government.

Passive these powers may be, they are, nonetheless, political.

Political because the exercise of these powers involves trade-offs and judgements that must ultimately be based on subjective values and ideologies.

Even the decision to draw down the reserves during periods of financial difficulties amount to exercising political judgement on the part of the elected president.

Whether he should agree to a draw down of the reserves are questions that are not factually constucted. These questions don’t have clear-cut answers.

The president must exercise subjective judgement which will reflect his political thinking, will and courage.

Even the solution, when disagreements arises between parliament and the elected president, is by nature, political.

The government of the day may take the issue to parliament and the elected president can be overruled with a two-thirds majority.

Therefore, the view that the president is above politics might stem from the confusion over narrow party politics and politics, in a broad sense of the term.

You should know that the elected president, of course, cannot belong to any political party.

But the elected president is required to exercise political judgement even when he is not from a particular political party.

What if the elected president has to decide whether detention without trial under the Internal Security Act is justified?

In 1989, the the Act and the Constitution were amended to rule out judicial intervention over such detention, making it clear that the power to detain anyone under the ISA rested solely with the executive, acting on its subjective judgement.

And now the elected president has a say on such executive matters. How can this powers bestowed be apolitical?

This elected presidency role can and ought to be nurtured as a counterweight to the government.

If an apolitical and unifying president is all that is needed, the pre-1991 procedure had been effective in producing such presidents.

Moreover, suggestions to render the presidential electoral process “less political” totally misses the point.

Indirect election via sectoral electoral colleges with potentially conflicting interests will paralyse the Elected Presidency politically and rob it of the legitimacy it needs to discharge its political duties effectively.

Once political powers are bestowed upon the Elected President, he is politicised.

The process by which he is elected must, therefore, be political.

His political and ideological views on specific areas of government over which the Elected President has oversight must be sought, scrutinised and debated.

Political questions should have been asked of all aspirants to the presidency.

What was probably lacking in this 2011 Presidential Election was the tough questioning of each presidential candidate.

To say that voters should be replaced with an electoral college to get rid of overly political election affair would miss the point altogether again.

And one would be underestimating the sophistication of the Singaporean voter at his own peril.

The writer is Cheng Shoong Tat, a former journalist.

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