(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.
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.