Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why the president is not a super-MP

Aug 17, 2011
Differences among candidates on role will lead to divisive campaign
By Chua Mui Hoong

THE four presidential hopefuls faced off in an extended debate for the first time yesterday in The Straits Times newsroom. If the two-hour roundtable discussion was anything to go by, the campaign for the presidency might polarise the electorate.

The tone of the debate was civil, but the substance of what they said was contentious. Some disagreed with the Government on several issues, such as pegging political salaries to the private sector and the death penalty. They disagreed with one another - for example, on managing reserves. The word 'disagree' in various permutations emerged from their lips 17 times.

Most fundamental of all, they saw the role of the presidency differently. Dr Tony Tan, a former deputy prime minister, and Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a doctor and former People's Action Party MP, agreed with the Government's position that the president's role was circumscribed. He had veto powers in five specific areas: spending of past reserves; key public sector appointments; detentions without trial in internal security cases; corruption investigations; and restraining orders to maintain religious harmony.

Mr Tan Kin Lian, a former chief executive of insurance cooperative NTUC Income, saw himself as the voice of the people, saying Parliament did not sufficiently represent Singaporeans enough.

Mr Tan Jee Say, a former civil servant-turned fund manager who contested on the Singapore Democratic Party ticket in the May General Election (GE), repeated his charge that the Government had lost its moral direction and offered himself as a moral compass. Asked by moderator Straits Times editor Han Fook Kwang about the significance of the presidential election, he said it was 'particularly significant because of the peculiar outcome of the GE'.

Mr Tan Jee Say added: 'We have 40 per cent of the people not voting for the Government but they got only 7 per cent of the seats. So it highlights the foresight of the creators of this elected (presidency) that we really need a check because the checks and balances... are not adequately reflected in Parliament.'

Both Mr Tan Kin Lian and Mr Tan Jee Say argued that the president had the right to speak on issues of public interest to the public. Mr Tan Jee Say rebutted the position of Law Minister K. Shanmugam that the president has to act on the advice of the Cabinet on all matters other than the five areas specified by the Constitution, saying: 'The Law Minister is not the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution. The Law Minister is an interested party.'

When candidates cannot agree on the role of the institution they are contesting for, the nature of the presidency itself becomes an issue in the election.

It becomes easy for candidates to promise voters the kind of president they want - activist; outspoken; even free- spending. Some candidates may deliberately raise expectations about what the president can do, and hide under the axiom: 'Let Singaporeans decide.'

This would be a fundamental error of fact and a gravely irresponsible act of politics. It is a matter of fact that voters choose the president. It is also a matter of fact, not opinion, that the role of the president is determined by the Constitution, not voters for the presidency.

If a candidate for the office is unhappy with its current circumscribed role, he should contest in the General Election to enter Parliament so he can change the Constitution to widen the president's powers, and then enter the contest for a presidency with enlarged powers.

The elected president as envisioned in Singapore is not a pau-kar-liau (catch-all) president who can take unto himself any power he sees fit. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reiterated yesterday, he works with the Government, and acts on the advice of the Government, except in the specific areas where he has custodial duties.

He is not meant to be some super-MP who can do a better job than all 87 MPs combined. His role is clearly spelt out in the Constitution. The presidency is not a blank canvas onto which candidates or voters can project their fantasies.

All four candidates are intelligent men with good track records. They have managed large organisations with millions of dollars at stake. It is hard to fathom how any of them can fail to understand such a basic fact of Singapore's political democracy as to confuse the role of a parliamentarian with that of a president.

Or perhaps some choose to take a convenient interpretation, and want to shape the institution along pathways they personally would like to see, never mind what the Constitution says. There is a harsh word for people who want to shape the world according to their world view, regardless of what the law, good sense or convention requires: despot.

Or maybe a candidate understands the role of the presidency well enough, but has made a calculated guess that promising to play a bigger role will win him just enough support to give him the edge. In a four-man race, it is possible only a few thousand votes may suffice to carry a candidate into the Istana. There is also a word for people who make all kinds of promises and play to people's emotions to get political support: demagogue.

I am sure none of the candidates wants to come across that way.

The General Election was a watershed national event, the repercussions of which will be felt for years to come. It was polarising and feelings are still sore.

It would be so easy to play up those rifts. Let's hope none of the candidates will do that.

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