Monday, September 5, 2016

Changes to Elected Presidency not meant to keep out 'difficult' people

Valerie Koh

September 4, 2016

SINGAPORE – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong rejected suggestions that the changes to the Elected Presidency (EP) were meant to keep out individuals whom the Government would find it hard to work with, as he noted that no system can be guaranteed to keep out “difficult” people.

Nevertheless, he reiterated his criticism of the losing candidates in the 2011 Presidential Election (PE) for making unrealistic promises during their campaigns.

“Even if I raise the standards, I cannot guarantee that nobody who is going to be difficult will become president,” said Mr Lee in an interview with Mediacorp which was aired on Sunday (Sept 4).

“Wherever you cut off, there will be somebody, even a former minister or a former judge or somebody who may have run a very big company (who) may have his views and may clash with the Government.”

Former People’s Action Party Member of Parliament Tan Cheng Bock, who received the second highest percentage of votes in the 2011 PE, had declared in March that he intends to make another run for the Istana. With the bar for the qualifying criteria set to be raised significantly, as Mr Lee put it, there are doubts whether Dr Tan would qualify.

Mr Lee emphasised that the EP scheme had to be designed such that there was a “best chance of success”. For that to happen, capable individuals – or as he put it, “good people” – had to be standing for public office. “It’s not a guarantee, but it’s the ideal we have to aim for,” he said during the hour-long interview.

Looking back at the 2011 PE, Mr Lee noted that the unrealistic promises made by the losing candidates were based on their lack of understanding of the President’s role and powers.

Four candidates took part in the polls: Former Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan, who eventually won the election and is now the President; Dr Tan Cheng Bock; former NTUC Income CEO Tan Kin Lian; and former senior civil servant Tan Jee Say.

“Maybe they did (understand the President’s role) but they thought (making) these statements would help them to win the election,” said Mr Lee.

He added that such overpromises would cause the political system to malfunction, as the President would hinder the Government’s work.

Stressing that there can only be one government, Mr Lee said: “The President has certain roles and duties which are to hold the second key on money and on people, but not to go and check the Government or tell the Government what it is supposed to do.”

The Prime Minister acknowledged that during an election – no matter what the purpose it has been called for – sentiments brewing in the background could creep in and sway voters.

Citing the Brexit referendum in June – which ended with Britain voting to leave the European Union – Mr Lee said the polls were influenced by discontentment over issues such as immigration, and that was enough to change the country’s fate.

“You can have different ways of trying to mitigate this in the way the election is conducted, or in what candidates have to declare that they know what the purpose of this (polls) is … but you cannot entirely remove that (sentiment),” said Mr Lee.

The same situation could unfold in Singapore. “There’s no guarantee that we are immune from all these pressures or from all these sentiments,” he added.

[That is true. But perhaps the point is NOT to remove all these pressures or to keep the ruling party "immune" from these pressures or sentiments. Perhaps being immune to the public sentiment or pressure is just another way of being detached from the people?

In any case, I agree that the problem is that either the Candidates did not understand the role of the EP or stooped to demagoguery and populism in order to win the election, or the people did not understand the role of the EP and sought to vote in another political power centre, or both.

From an Online Comment:
 ... if raising the criteria or not raising the criteria, "difficult" people can still be elected president, then there is nothing to gain and everything to lose by raising the criteria.
Instead, just keep to the current criteria. 
The problem, as identified, is that candidates did not understand the role of the EP or in campaigning for the EP, had made unrealistic promises, then the issue is the public's and the Candidates' understanding of the role and responsibility of the EP.

Focus on that. Solve that problem. Yes, it is a lot more difficult, but the same problem is the reason for Brexit (people did not understand the full cost and benefits of EU membership, and were told incorrect information leading to the Brexit vote - according to one side of the story).

The same thing happened that led to Trump getting the Republican Party's Nomination as candidate. His main "constituency" or supporters are white males without college education.

From the last PE, there are two issues that the govt needs to address. 

First is the public's understanding of the role of the EP. Until the public's understanding is aligned to the actual legal role and responsibilities, any tweaking of the qualifying criteria will be seen as rigging the rules to exclude some candidates. This would be a major campaign, and in the absence of a viable "role model" for an EP, voters will adopt Presidential "models" that they know. Like POTUS.

The second issue is the perceived elitism of the qualifying criteria, or the perceived "racism" of the criteria, or (as mentioned in the first issue) the perceived nepotism - the EP is from a list of "approved" candidates vetted by the ruling party. There is an inherent contradiction is asserting that we want minorities to have a chance to be represented by the EP, while at the same time raising the criteria. 

Politically-affiliated criteria like having been a Minister, or Speaker lays the candidates' impartiality open to question. By definition, these posts are conferred onto them by the ruling party.
Appointed posts like the Chief Justice, is not much better in terms of perceived affiliation to the ruling party.

Permanent Secretaries are arguably more defensible as impartial, but here is the interesting thing: there are no minorities among the ranks of current Perm Secs. 

The fundamental premise of Democracy is that the will of the people should carry the day. And the assumption is that while individuals' opinions may differ, the majority's opinion is valid, if not correct. 

I would suggest the issue of the criteria for candidacy of the EP is a secondary issue. The larger problem is the people's understanding of the role and responsibility of the EP. The greatest hindrance to democracy is a lack of understanding. That is the lesson of Brexit.

As such, I would suggest NOT amending or updating the qualifying criteria, which would be seen by the conspiracy theorists as the ruling party trying to exclude those not "approved" by the ruling party. 
Clarify the roles and responsibilities of the EP until most people get it, and can easily debunk any conspiracy theorist's fantasy about the EP being a second power centre.

At the same time, announce that after due consideration, it was decided that the qualifying criteria will not be "updated" because the criteria are a guideline, a "minimum standard", and in a democracy, the will of the people is paramount, and the people should be trusted to elect the best candidate with minimal "guidance".]

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