Reviewing elected presidency: 'Restore former system'

Reviewing elected presidency: 'Restore former system'
Constitutional Commission hearing on elected presidency.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

The best way to balance the responsibilities of the elected presidency with the need to ensure that Singapore has a minority president from time to time, is to return to the old system of appointing the president, said a law don and a business leader yesterday.

Constitutional expert Kevin Tan and Raffles Medical Group executive chairman Loo Choon Yong advocated a return to Singapore's pre-1991 system of having Parliament decide who should take up the highest office in the land.

The duo were speaking on the last day of public hearings held by the Constitutional Commission reviewing the elected presidency.

Dr Tan said the decision to turn the presidency into an elected office has made it "extremely difficult" to have an ethnic minority president.

Before that, Parliament could take into account the need for minority representation when selecting appropriate candidates.

It was "no accident" that Singapore's first president was Mr Yusof Ishak, a Malay; followed by a Eurasian president, Dr Benjamin Sheares; then an Indian president, Mr C.V. Devan Nair, he noted.

"Only after that" was there a Chinese president, Mr Wee Kim Wee.

This important symbolic aspect of the presidency "can never be guaranteed under elections", he said. At the same time, the idea of designating electoral cycles for only minority candidates is "odious to public sensibilities" and may run counter to the Constitution.

Dr Tan also argued that the role of the president is largely one of "binary judgments", like whether to draw on past reserves.

Thus, it is more important to raise the criteria for the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) than for the presidency itself.

A lowering of the criteria for the presidency will also alleviate the problem of not having enough minority candidates, he added.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, who chairs the commission, asked if it could be problematic for Parliament to appoint a president that has to act as a check on itself.

Lowering the criteria for the elected presidency while raising the bar for his advisers also "shifts the centre of gravity somewhat", said CJ Menon, who asked if such a move would make it harder for the president to "stand up to the CPA".

Dr Tan replied that the "important ingredient" is independence, and that "just because someone is nominated and not elected does not deprive him of his independence".

This is similar to how judges are appointed, but can still serve as a check on the executive, he added.

To this, CJ Menon said judges have a slightly different role as they serve as a check through judicial reviews.

Dr Tan agreed, but said that once appointed president, a person would take on the role of the office and act accordingly.

Dr Loo argued that returning to an appointed presidency is the solution to the tension between two key elements of the office: to be a symbolic head of state and unifier of society, while acting as a check on the Government, particularly on the national reserves and integrity of the public service.

"You want this guy to be the nice guy, unifier, and then you want him to have what it takes to tell a roguish PM, hey, leave our assets alone," said Dr Loo. "I think these (requirements) call for different chemistries."

Making the presidency an elected office has also confused the public, which often thinks the role is to provide checks and balances on all matters of government.

Dr Loo, who made his submission with his brother Choon Chiaw, a lawyer, said a return to an appointed presidency is "returning to the system that has served us well - the Westminster system of government, with all its years of conventions and constitutional norms".

But commission members such as former Speaker of Parliament Abdullah Tarmugi and Professor Chan Heng Chee asked if Singaporeans today can accept a return to an appointed presidency.

"We are in the world of participation now: Individuals want to participate and they want to have a say," said Prof Chan, chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

While it is a reasonable argument that authority can be derived from Parliament instead of through an election, "politics does not deal only with reason - optics matter," she said, referring to public perception of the office.

Commission member Peter Seah, chairman of DBS Group Holdings, pointed to the importance of an election, saying an elected president "holds moral authority... because he is elected by the nation".


This article was first published on May 7, 2016.
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