President is not an alternate centre of political power: PM

PHOTO: The Straits Times

Singapore's President will continue to be elected by the people, but he cannot be an alternative centre of political power.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made clear these constitutional limits yesterday on the Elected President, even as he set out the three aspects of the office which needed to be reviewed.

These are: the qualifying criteria for presidential hopefuls; the powers of the Council of Presidential Advisers; and opportunities for minorities to be elected President.

A Constitutional Commission will be set up to study these changes, as part of a wider political review first hinted at by President Tony Tan Keng Yam in his address two weeks ago.

But the broad parameters of the President's role will remain the same. He is above politics and represents all Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion, said Mr Lee in a broad-ranging speech about good governance in Parliament during the debate on the President's Address.

"By design, the President has no executive, policymaking role," he said, noting that not many understood this during the 2011 Presidential Election.

Some candidates campaigned "as if they were going to form an alternate government", he said.

"The President is neither the Government nor is he the Opposition. He is a custodian, he's a goalkeeper," said Mr Lee.

The Constitution gives the President powers to block certain actions of the Government, but he does not have the authority to initiate or champion policies.

Said Mr Lee: "He is elected for a specific purpose specified in the Constitution. And we have to operate by the Constitution, both to comply with the law and to make sure the system works."

Candidates and voters have to understand this for the system to work, he stressed.

"Otherwise, if you have a President who thinks that he is the Government, competing with the Government, you have two power centres in the system."

In this scenario, there would be confusion and possibly even an impasse between the President and the Government. This would undermine the democratically-elected Government, he said.

Making the case for a review of the Elected Presidency, Mr Lee said there was a need to continually improve the system.

But the President must remain an elected office, he added.

"If the President is not elected, he will lack the mandate to wield his custodial powers," said Mr Lee.

He reminded the House why the presidency had been changed in 1991 from one appointed by Parliament to one elected by the people.

The President's powers had been expanded to let him safeguard past reserves and appoint key members of the public service, thereby acting as a stabiliser in the political system.

But these expanded powers had to be backed by popular mandate.

Said Mr Lee: "He would be directly elected by the people in a national election, so as to have the mandate and moral authority to say no to the Government should this become necessary."

The commission reviewing and recommending revisions to the Elected Presidency will be chaired by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and include "distinguished jurists, academics and corporate executives". It will take views from the public as well.

The commission is expected to deliver its findings by the third quarter of the year, paving the way for changes to be made in time for the next presidential election, which must be held by August next year.

Changes to the Constitution may be introduced in Parliament for debate within the year, said Mr Lee.

charyong@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on January 28, 2016.
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