Friday, July 22, 2011

Don't politicise role of President

Jul 21, 2011


SHOULD Singapore's Elected President (EP) have the power to express his views freely on a broad range of issues, from immigration policies to income inequality? Should he have 'soft powers' that go beyond the powers spelled out clearly in the Constitution?

In a recent article 'Soft powers of a president' in this paper, Mr Ho Kwon Ping argues that the answer in both instances is yes. He makes a reasoned case but there are issues with the arguments he raised.

His argument for the EP having broader 'soft powers' beyond those set out in the Constitution is as follows: The EP is elected. Therefore he has legitimacy. Legitimacy should empower him to weigh in on political issues of the day.

However, the following points should be noted:

First, in considering the President's powers, we have to begin with the Constitution. The Constitution sets out clearly what are the President's powers. In particular, Article 21(1) makes it clear that 'xcept as provided by this Constitution, the President shall, in the exercise of his functions under this Constitution or any other written law, act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or of a Minister acting under the general authority of the Cabinet'.

The President's powers cannot be greater (or lesser) than what is set out in the Constitution. The Constitution is his only source of authority.

Second, the fact that the President is elected does not by itself confer on him an expansive set of 'soft powers', given that these 'soft powers' do not fall within the Constitution.

Third, the President performs several ceremonial functions that Heads of State usually perform. Beyond these, the Elected President was crucially given specific powers to mitigate the possibility of an elected government raiding the country's reserves, running down the civil service, judiciary and other key institutions, and abusing its detention powers.

The history and rationale behind the development of the EP shows that it was envisaged as a hybrid institution: The duties are largely ceremonial, but with some additional custodial duties. It is not an executive presidency; but neither is it purely ceremonial.

The reason the President is elected by the nation (and not Parliament) is to confer on him the authority to check the government if necessary in specific circumstances. It was never envisaged that he is to be elected on the basis of having 'soft powers', whose scope is unspecified and ambiguous.

Should we nevertheless consider explicitly conferring on him such powers in the future? We would have to amend the Constitution first, but should we? There are very good reasons why it would not be advisable to venture down this route.

In our political system, debates on policy take place in Parliament. In the next Parliament, there will be representatives from three different political parties, together with nine Nominated MPs sitting in the chamber. A wide range of views will be expressed; there will be vigorous, even heated, debate.

It is not clear that it is in Singapore's interests to have the EP inserting himself into such debates. Can he still be a neutral, respected figure, standing above the fray, if he regularly expresses views supporting either the Government or the opposition?

If the President were to function as a political centre, it is not clear how he would implement his views, and how he would be held accountable. The Constitution calls for the Prime Minister and his Cabinet to run the Government and to be accountable to Parliament. If the President should contradict them freely on matters beyond those specified clearly in the Constitution, problems would arise as to how the differences can be resolved and who would be held responsible for the outcome.

If the EP takes sides on political issues, the institution will inevitably become politicised, and with the high risk that it would be diminished as a result. This does not mean that the President cannot express his views on matters of policy. He can do so, privately, in his meetings with the Prime Minister. The proposed use of 'soft power' based on a voter-endowed legitimacy, however, cannot be a justification for the President to publicly get involved in politics.

Mr Ho says that an EP with a broader set of powers can 'articulate the voice of the nation at its proudest and (rally) its people at the most dire of times'.

The President as Head of State symbolises the nation. It is not clear why he needs to engage in day-to-day politics in order to articulate the voice of the nation. Indeed his ability to do so is likely to be compromised if he is seen as partisan. Ultimately, this would undermine the dignity of his office.

And as for rallying the people in a crisis, the President can help, but the chief responsibility to lead in any circumstance has to be always the Prime Minister's. Only he can have both the executive power and the confidence of Parliament to rally the people.

It is best for us to carefully nurture the institution of the EP, and elect a person who will perform his constitutionally prescribed duties with skill, honour, grace and dignity. It is not clear that politicising the institution would be desirable for the institution and Singapore.

The writer is an assistant professor with the School of Law, Singapore Management University. This article represents her personal views.

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