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Hard facts about 'soft power'

Govt 'not obliged' to listen to president who challenges its policies, say experts. -TNP
Lediati Tan

Thu, Aug 04, 2011
The New Paper

WITH soft power, comes great responsibility.

And with Presidential Election 2011 looming, several potential candidates have focused on that - "soft power", or the power to influence.

They know the Constitution spells out what they can do.They also know it's vague on what they cannot do.

It appears that void has been filled with what the potential candidates want to do.

For one, several have said they are prepared to raise issues with the Government.

That might be a problem.

In a letter to The Straits Times on July 23, Mr Ho Kwon Ping, executive chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings, argued against the elected president (EP) being given or giving himself powers that go beyond those spelt out in the Constitution.

He said of such a move: "That would be unconstitutional and highly dangerous."

But haven't elected presidents exercised "soft power"?

Mr Ong Teng Cheong lent his name to Singapore's art scene.

President S R Nathan, who is stepping down later this month, is known for his charitable work.

He started the President's Challenge in 2000 to encourage Singaporeans to help the less fortunate among us. To date, it has raised over $100 million for more than 500 welfare organisations.

Perhaps "soft power" is a misnomer. Law professor Thio Li-ann of the National University of Singapore prefers to call it "influence".

She said: "Really, what you are seeing is not soft power, which is an imprecise term used to mean anything but the character of the person in the office. So it is not a power at all in the formal legal sense but a question of influence."

This influence comes not from the Constitution but from the symbolism of the office of the head of state, she said.

It is also not insignificant, said Singapore Management University assistant law professor Jack Lee.

The president exercises his constitutional powers only in exceptional circumstances, such as for protecting past reserves.

Grey areas

But this "soft power" role, and the other functions such as meeting foreign dignitaries, is more often exercised.

This is what the president is identified with.

The problem is when a president champions an issue that slips into the domain occupied by the Government.

Said Prof Lee: "Since the Constitution vests general direction and control of the Government in the Cabinet, the president may not do anything that amounts to trying to direct government policy.

"But it may be hard to tell when the line is crossed."

For instance, the president does not need the Government's approval to support a particular cause or meet Singaporeans for feedback on national issues and to express his views concerning such issues even if the views disagree with those of the Government.

Added Prof Lee: "However, it would probably be inappropriate for the president to take steps to try and actively change government policy, for example, by initiating a campaign opposing a particular policy."

Does "soft power" actually translate into greater powers for the president beyond what is stated in the Constitution?

No, said political observer and SMU assistant law professor Eugene Tan.

He said the notion of the president's "soft power" is "misconceived and exaggerated at best, and misleading at worst".

He said: "It's a myth that the elected president has a residual stock of 'soft power' by virtue of his office...

"He can engage the Government on key issues of the day over and beyond those where he exercises discretionary powers, but it will have to be behind closed doors, and the Government is not obliged to take into account the president's views and recommendations."

The president also cannot use "soft power" to establish an alternative power base, initiate policy or make policy recommendations, said Prof Tan.

"We should look at the presidential support for certain causes or activities as being about using the good office of the elected president to engage Singaporeans on issues such as charitable works, support for professions such as teaching, social work, and nursing," he added.

In his letter, Mr Ho warned that "soft power" can also be dangerous. How?

Prof Tan said that's when "soft power" seeks to be "hard power where the powers of the elected president is concerned".

He added: "This is because the intention to consciously seek and grow 'soft power' will set the stage for political confrontation between the Government and the elected president.

"Where the elected president assumes that 'softpower' is a driving force for political action akin to that of the government of the day or an opposition party, (then)we would have that clash..."

The reality, as Prof Lee put it, is that the president is frequently dependent on the Government for assistance.

He said: "If the Government disagrees with a certain course of action proposed by the president, it is hard to see how the president could go ahead with it."

If the president wanted to make an official overseas trip, he would need the Government's help to contact the foreign government and make the necessary arrangements.

So while several of the potential candidates have spelt out what they want to do, he may well have to accept the role as defined by the Constitution.

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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