How to unsilence the president: the people’s way

In Political governance on 16/06/2011 at 8:10 am

Late last week, one day after former senior and law minister S Jayakumar said that the President was not “a centre of power unto himself”, law minister K Shanmugam released a three-page statement explaining the role of the president. It said the President “has no role to advance his own policy agenda”. Well that’s the law as the government sees it.

Yesterday, ST carried an article by Tommy Koh (yet another lawyer) that said, among many other things, that the president should not be “politicised”.

On the other hand there are those like Aurvandil and other bloggers who hold that the very act of having an elected president changes the role of the president, making him “political”. “If you are going to be an Elected President, you have to actively engage in politics in order to win the elections. You have to tell voters what you are going to do once you are elected.”

From this, it flows that the president can speak out. From the perspective of a layperson, this logic may be impeccable.

But I have yet to hear any legally trained person publicly argue along these lines, even though I know lawyers who think S’poreans shouldn’t have to buy into the PAP’s paradigm of what the elected presidency should look like, since “that paradigm is clearly a self-serving one, given their clash with Ong Teng Cheong’s own slightly-differing view”.

(Aside, if any lawyer wants to argue anonymously that the the very act of having an elected president changes the role of president, this blog is available. My only condition is that I must be in a position to verify that the wannabe poster is a lawyer.)

Even though, those who argue that the president has the freedom to voice his opinions do not have the law (OK the lawyers) on their side, their views could still prevail. In a democracy (assuming S’pore is one), the will of the people matters.

In 1975, Australia had a constitutional crisis which started when the opposition-controlled senate refused to pass legislation allowing the unpopular Labor government to spend money (block supply). It ended when the Labor appointed governor- general sacked the Labor prime minister who still commanded a majority in the house of representatives. An election of both houses of parliament followed, and Labor lost.

Even though the senate retains its power to block supply, and the governor-general the power to dismiss the government, these powers have not been used since 1975.

The reason is that these actions are considered too controversial to try again. Effectively, the Australian public has decided that whatever the constitution allows, the senate should not block supply, nor should the government be sacked by the governor-general. The government can only lose power in a general election or if loses the support of the majority in the house of representatives.

Putting this into the S’pore context, the role of the elected president can be changed (without changing the constitution) if

— an eligible candidate articulates before the election that he will be guided by the views of the people and will speak out publicly on their behalf;

— he gets elected;

— he walks the walk, not juz talk the talk; and

— the government, instead of removing him or ignoring him or telling him to shut up, listens to him.

Then the role of the president will change by convention (customary practice).

Is this easier than winning two-thirds of the parliamentary seats and amending the constitution? At least this process doesn’t depend on the People in Blue, the near clones of the MIW.


    See two other bloggers, plus many people I speak to are in favour of a “talking President”.
    IT is getting to the point of ridiculousness that the people who “elected” the president can now only hear it through 2nd or 3rd hand of news and clarifications from Tommy Koh, Jayakumar, Shamugam and who’s next? Is he going to hold a seance next call up the dead spirits of “Ong Teng Cheong” or our past presidents before he WILL directly speak to the people?!! Does PAP see the ridiculousness in all these around about? What’s wrong with the electorate wanting to hear his own take/views on the job so far, and I think in particularly, wanting to know the state or get some transparency on our current state of Reserves. What else has he done after the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong for example? What else needed /can be done for the new incumbent. These are useful explanations that the people deserve to know,beyond the diplomatic entertaining/hosting of world’s dignitaries & charities he supported. Domestically, the electorate wants to know what he HAS done in these areas. And No, he doesn’t need a spokesperson(s).

  2. Tommy Koh, Jayakumar, Shamugam are just presenting their master’s position on this issue. Does it mean that they are right? Hardly. The same Jayakumar also argued for the presence of unauthorized persons inside polling stations!

  3. 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 isnt meant to participate in policy making or to advance policies. Thats the job of the government and parliament. Thats the constitution. Theres nothing difficult to understand in that, isnt 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?

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

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