The Silence of the President

In Political governance on 09/06/2011 at 8:22 pm

(Responding to this. The author feels that the president should be free to speak out on things that the president thinks the government is doing wrong. I had said the president has to remain silent on many things.)

Singapore had a constitutional presidency. The president was S’pore’s equivalent to the monarch in the UK. The monarch has no discretion and must act in accordance with the advice of the cabinet. There would be a constitutional crisis if the monarch fails or declines to act on the advice of the cabinet.

Executive power lies with the elected government of the day. The monarch is above politics. The monarch is a figurehead performing ceremonial functions, but does not exercise political power. This power ultimately resides in the parliament, because the elected government rules only if it is able to command the support of the majority in the parliament.

Substitute the word “monarch” with the word “president” in the preceding two paragraphs and you had, in a nutshell, the legal position of the president.

But this changed with the Elected Presidency amendments in 1991. They introduced a rojak approach. The president was to be elected, with some veto powers over executive decisions. These veto powers may be exercised by the president in his sole discretion, i.e. he does not need to follow the advice of the cabinet on such matters.

But on all other matters, the president continues to be bound by the advice of the cabinet. In this ceremonial or figurehead role, the president, like the monarch, has no discretion. Because they have no discretion, they are above politics. Whatever they do on advice, they cannot be criticised because they are only doing their duty.

By extension, because the monarch is above criticism, the monarch does not give her views on government policies actions, or decisions; or anything faintly political. Have you heard the monarch give her views on anything that could be controversial?

One way of looking at it is as follows: Since she cannot be criticised, the monarch should not put herself in a position where she can be criticised. Another way of looking at it: The monarch cannot have any independent view when she is carrying out a ceremonial function.

(Incidentally, one of the persistent criticisms of the current Prince of Wales is that he is always giving his views on what the government etc should do. His rebuttal (or rather that of his aides) is that he is not yet the monarch, and so is free to give his opinions.)

By analogy (remember S’pore copied the British in having a head of state who has a ceremonial role, above politics) when the president has to listen to the advice of the cabinet, the president does not have the luxury of articulating publicly his own opinions. He cannot be above politics (beyond criticism) and yet be free to give his views on government policies, actions or decisions; or anything faintly political. In return for being above criticism, he has to “sit down and shut up”.

Another perspective: He has to be silent because when performing his ceremonial duties, he cannot have an independent view.

This silence covers both agreements and disagreements with the government. It is not one-sided. So if the cabinet decides to grant clemency to a convicted drug dealer, the president cannot publicly say, “I think the government is right”. Neither can he say “I think the government is wrong”. He just signs the papers.

Another example: Parliament is debating whether to introduce Minimum Wages. The president cannot say, “I think Minimum Wages are rubbish”. Neither can he say, “They are the way to go”. He keeps quiet.

In the UK during the 1930s depression, when the monarch, after meeting some unemployed, said, “Something must be done”, politicians of all parties were upset. He wasn’t supposed to say such a thing.

“Will rocks falls from the sky or will riots start in the street?” if the president starts airing his views publicly on matters on which he has to act on the advice of the cabinet. It all depends.

If it happens once, then the government may live with it, issuing a terse statement reminding the president of the rules of the game. Issuing such a statement would not be a constitutional crisis in itself, but would indicate that the system is not working the way it is designed to work.

If the president is responsible, he will then play the game.

But suppose we get a president who likes the sound of his own voice, and loves seeing his face appear in print, tv or the Internet? He has an opinion on everything, and articulates his opinions publicly. He ignores government rebukes saying his views are based on “honesty, fairness, truth, my religion, what my wife tells me, courage and public service”. A government will feel the need to show where the power lies and start proceedings to remove the president. There will be a constitutional crisis.

Suppose we have a government that is pursuing unpopular measures? And a president who won an election (70/30) by saying he is opposed to these measures?

Then there could be riots. The president’s supporters would argue that they and him have the mandate of the people to effect change. The government’s supporters would point out that legislative power lies with the parliament. They both decide to meet on the streets. OK, I’m exaggerating, but I hope my meaning is clear.

To conclude, when it comes to the ceremonial duties of the president, silent he must be. He cannot publicly air his personal opinions. Think about it: Have you heard any president publicly give his opinion on anything where he has to act on the advice of the cabinet?

Never, not even from Ong Teng Cheong. They all behaved like the UK monarch. Hence the silency of the president.

Want the president to be free to speak his mind? Amend the constitution, not elect someone who is willing to clarify the constitution by testing the boundaries of what is done thing or not the done thing.


My background

I started working life in the late 70s as a lawyer but in the mid-1980s joined stockbroking, where I worked in corporate finance, sales, dealing and arbitrage. I’ve been trying to avoid hard work (and writing this piece is very hard work) since 2000. As far as constitutional law is concerned, I know it better than a well read layperson would know it, but I wouldn’t claim to be an expert. I just know enough of the basics to wing it.

  1. Thanks for a superbly clear explanation on the silence of the head lamb. The difference we have is that the President is an elected figure by the people, for the people. Rojak or not, if you’re right on your analysis, then I say we CHANGE the constitution. WE didn’t get rid of our colonial Queen Master just to have it re-installed in a differently modern context. This is making a mockery of our nation.

    In fact, I think the Media or Govt owes an extensive explanation to the people. They should educate everyone on the constitutional aims, reasons for such an intent, pros & cons of the role. Singaporeans deserve to have a views and take part in shaping the right constitution if are to make this election meaningful at all.

    • The trouble with the media and govmin explaining the system is that they are not trusted.

      The Law Soc would be a better explainer, if the law allows it.

  2. I disagree. Who says we should adhere to the monarchial system? Let the President speak his mind. Your analogy (albeit a tongue-in-cheek one) that we will degenerate into constitutional crisis and street riots is the same bogeyman that the PAP has been seedlo for years. We have a one-party rule here, so any dissent should be welcome and debated.

  3. Silence of the President does not bother me much.

    Not as much as

    Silence of the Daft Singaporeans (60%).

  4. […] [Thanks yl] – Singapore Notes: Jayakumar’s Reality Check – Thoughts of a Cynical Investor: The Silence of the President – Anonymous_X: Super 8: Council of Presidential Advisers (Or why Mr Tan Kin Lian’s idea of […]

  5. Excellent explanation.

    However, political reality on the ground dictates that it is quite obvious that the office had potential far beyond the simple custodian of reserves that legal language would observe. Even with decades of being a PAP insider and in spite winning 58% of the vote, all it took was Ong doing his job properly to elevate him to hero status. The open outpouring of affection he received during his last NDP and the barely veiled public indignation which was barely spun out of the way by mainstream media when he passed on and not given a state funeral must have made some of the PAP upper echelons sweat. To this day, you can hear grumbles in the coffee shop and blogo-sphere on why the good man was not given a state funeral.

    Yes, 40 years of PAP absolutism and the gradual rejection of this arrangement means the other elected office where the people can go to the ballot box once more is more than a simple custodian of reserves.

  6. very very well written! Made new enlightening to my uneducated brain.

    But from what you have written it seems very very redundant to have a president at all. Since EVERYTHING cabinet suggest he MUST sign and approve… its stupid.

    Agree that the law soc should be doing more for the public. But thanks to 60.1% who agrees that anything and everything against PAP should be locked, shot or buried.

    If the president says the right things and does the right things (FOR the people), criticism can only be from the government. And at this stage of the game, anything spouted by men in white is all rubbish anyway. So they can say all they like, we know what kind they are.

  7. A lot of fallacies here, I don’t know where to start. All that you mentioned contradicts the wikipedia page at the very least.

    Firstly, the president is not a monarch. The monarch is not elected, the president is.

    Secondly, the president can say YES or NO to an issue, not right or wrong. Whether what he said can be realised is another issue. Thus it is called “Assent”, not “Judgment”.

    The president is the 4th pillar or the government, alongside with the executive, legislative and judiciary. That’s why he is elected, not appointed.

    Having a riot is not equal to having a constitutional crisis. The riots in Libya to overthrow their government is not due to a constitutional crisis. Having a riot just means that people are revolting, and has nothing to do with the actions of the president. Unless the president is the main perpetrator of the riot.

    When the parliament debates the minimum wage, a president does not say it is rubbish or way to go. Neither does he keep silent. When it comes to invoking his signatory on the bills, he can say YES or NO. So what is the difference?

    The difference is, if the bill is passed and require his signature, only then he can speak. If there is no bill, he doesn’t have anything to say. But this is not equivalent of being silent. Whether or not he is compelled to sign anyway is another matter.

    About responsibility. The president is responsible to the people, not the parliament, not the executive, not the judiciary. That is the most basic fundamentals of the meaning of election.

  8. Much as I disagree with numerous government policies and have voted for the opposition party, I totally agree with the writer. Anyone who disagree with the duty specs of the presidential post should get into the political arena to fight for a change. But if he chooses to stand for the presidential election knowing full well the limitation of powers exists, then if voted in, he has to live with it, perform the ceremonial job and shut up. He shouldn’t get in with the intention to start a civil war.

  9. This article is long but inaccurate. Put simply, it is perfectly legal for the President to speak his mind on issues if he wants to. He only has discretion in certain areas and must act according to Cabinet’s advice in other areas, but there is no law that mandates him to stay silent on his own views.

  10. PAP have not played by the rules (e.g. free speech/assembly/association, electoral system, ISA, judiciary, reserve transparency/accountability) so what is the big deal if the ELECTED President felt compelled to speak out for the people?

  11. Civil war? Oh please. The dissenting President would be disgraced and run out of town sooner than some Singaporeans can say “protest”.

    Contest in the political arena? Oh please. The PAP government will redraw boundaries, dangle upgrading carrots and file defamation suits sooner than you can file your election papers. And the media ill tell Singaporeans it’s for their good that the system is skewed.

    We have a dysfunctional democracy here. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

  12. What is the purpose then of getting Singaporeans to vote for the EP?
    If there is a constitutional crisis, it is caused by the govt for creating
    a post that confounds the appointment holder and the people.

    What we should have is a high powered committee made up of a dozen qualified people protect from those in power, elected into office by Singaporeans.

    As far as one can discern, the origin of the whole shebang can be traced to one LKY who realized that he cannot take it all with him and so he created this critter, to stand guard over it as he regarded all those moolahs in the govt’s coffers as belonging to him. He was worried that his party cannot last the way it was operating (and he was spot on and he should know why) and so he came up with this grand idea of making the ceremonial president of Singapore also the highly paid watchman. But he also worked it such that it is basically all appearance and cosmetic for though the president in name is the custodian with the ‘other’ key he in fact has NOTHING in terms of staff, power, structure or means to stop any govt from proceeding as it sees fit with the reserves for the very simple reason that the P has in reality nothing vested in him that is equal to the tasks he is supposedly to carry out.

    Honestly, if anybody is playing it is the govt.

  13. Thanks for the hard work in putting up the reply. i have written the following blog posting in response.

    Hope we can continue this interesting discussion.

  14. The president is meant to protect the reserves and maintain the high standards of the civil service, among other things like ceremonial duties and checks on certain executive powers. He isn’t meant to participate in policy making or to advance policies. That’s the job of the government and parliament. That’s the constitution. There’s nothing difficult to understand in that, isn’t it?

    The roles are clearly defined with properly segregated duties to avoid conflicts of interests. If we have a president who is able to participate in policymaking, then who is to check on him? Do we need to have an additional 2nd president as the opposition to the 1st president? The problem here is who has the mandate now?

    In the same vein, both the parliament and the president are duly elected, so who should take precedence in the policy decisions? How many votes does the President and the parliament each has respectively towards decisions? Will the president also sit in the parliament and debate? If not, who will debate with the president and how will decisions be made when there are differences?

    Look at the USA. The president is not independent. Obama is actively involved in shaping and pushing the policies of his Democrat colleagues. Do you want a government shutdown? Can Singapore survive a government shutdown?

    That’s why the president and the parliament have different roles to play. There’s no point having two legislatures with improper segregation of powers and unclear precedence over each other fighting with each other.

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