Past Presidents powerless, never actually decided clemencies?

Choo Zheng Xi –

Singaporeans are justifiably shocked to discover that Singapore’s Elected President has absolutely no discretion to grant clemency.

For years, the media, defense lawyers, and the general public have been deliberately given the impression that the President had some role to play in clemency. The latest High Court judgment makes clear that in all these years of the clemency process, the President has merely acted as a rubber-stamp.

Grants of Presidential clemency are rare in Singapore, but not actually unheard of. Since Singapore’s independence, seven clemencies have been granted.

Two were granted in the term of Benjamin Sheares, one under Devan Nair, three under Wee Kim Wee, and one under Ong Teng Cheong.

Each letter from the President’s principle private secretary rejecting or accepting clemency includes the words: “after due consideration and with the advice of the Cabinet” (emphasis added). The clear implication is that the President has considered, or applied his mind to whether or not to grant clemency.

A Straits Times report covering the death of President Wee Kim Wee in 2005 was written completely on the assumption that the President played some role, indeed a major role in the grant of clemency to Koh Swee Beng in 1992. Koh was originally supposed to hang for murder.

The article, about Koh’s mother who stood at the Istana weeping on the death of President Wee, begins:  “THIRTEEN years ago, he spared her son from the gallows” and ends with a quote by Koh’s defense lawyer Mr Peter Fernando:  “The family was so grateful to the President”.  Koh’s mother is quoted as saying “He was a really good person. I can never repay him for what he has done. But I wanted to pay my respects to him and thank him one last time”.

According to the AG and High Court, Madam Koh’s adoration for the late President Wee was completely misguided! President Wee had absolutely no discretion in the matter, and did not have a say in whether her son lived or died, he merely signed off on Cabinet’s decision!

Earlier in 1992, President Wee Kim Wee had also pardoned a second person, Madam Sim Ah Cheoh, who was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to hang.

In a Straits Times report on 23 March of that year, the paper announced that “it was also the first time President Wee Kim Wee exercised his powers as Elected President in intervening, on the recommendation of the Cabinet, in a case where a person was found guilty of an offence punishable by death and had exhausted all other ways of appeal.” (emphasis added)

All these years, when petitioners have sent appeals for clemency to the Istana, they have believed that they were making personal appeals to invoke what in English law is known as the “sovereign’s high prerogative of mercy”.

This was what the mother of condemned man Mathavakannan thought in 1998, when she made a highly personal appeal to President Ong Teng Cheong to spare her son: “My son is my world, my life and the very essence of my existence … If the death sentence is carried out, it would also be my death sentence because the sorrow of the loss of my only son would surely kill me.”

President Ong heard her plea, and granted Mathavakannan a commutation to life imprisonment.

According to Justice Steven Chong and the Attorney-General, President Ong had nothing to do with it.

According to them, it seems that The Straits Times got it wrong, but there was no denial from the Cabinet that the Elected President actually had absolutely no discretion in this matter.

If Cabinet has all along been deciding clemencies, how can it be that Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong so grossly mistook the number of executions in that year by seven times the actual number when questioned on the BBC’s Hardtalk in 2003? Has Cabinet really been the one making the final choice all along?

The only person capable of clearing this mess up is President Nathan, empowered under Article 100 of the Constitution to convene a Constitutional Tribunal to ascertain the limits of his powers to grant clemency. Ong Teng Cheong did exactly that in 1995 by convening the tribunal to clarify if he could withhold assent to Constitutional Bills passed by Parliament aimed at circumventing his powers.

Unless President Nathan acts, he will go down in history as the one President who not just never granted a single clemency, but also sat back and let Cabinet curtail his powers.

Addendum: President S R Nathan’s second term is coming to an end, no clemencies have been granted under his watch.


An event at Speakers’ Corner is planned for this Sunday, 22 August at 4pm, with regards to the matter. Please do come and join us and call for the President to convene a Constitutional Tribunal to clarify where the power of discretion lies.

Details of this Sunday’s event here.

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