Unprecedented Presidency

Howard Lee/

Speculations are that the Presidential elections will be in August. Already, candidates-to-be are beginning to stake their claims and game plan, and the usual scrutiny of credentials has begun.

Much has been said about whether the Presidency should or should not be supported by the ruling People’s Action Party. Some have cast doubts as to whether Tan Cheng Bock or George Yeo, if he makes the decision to contest, are suitable for the role given their past affiliations with the PAP.

It is clear that the President should not at any point feel beholden to the PAP, given his or her primary role to act as a check and balance to the government. I say primary, since with the recent General Elections, the Singapore electorate has arguably awaken and there is an increasing desire from the ground for such a role to be felt, inside or out of Parliament.

In addition, former Senior Minister S Jayakumar has publicly warned candidates-to-be to be mindful of the limitations on the President’s powers as determined by the Constitution. I respectfully disagree, and in the light of the recent general elections, and for the fact that Jayakumar is no longer part of the Singapore governance structure, his views should never be entertained. It is clear from the general elections that the people are looking for change and will not be afraid to stake their choice of office holders based on their promises. The Presidential elections should not be the exception.

President hopefuls should be given the chance to kill sacred cows as well, so long as it benefits Singapore and Singaporeans. If the next elected President promise positive change, including to the President’s roles and responsibilities, and succeed in doing so, or have tried in vain, let that be for the people to judge  at the end of his or her term.

For if a candidate wishes to win over this electorate and take up the pivotal role as President, PAP support (or the lack of it) is irrelevant, so long as he or she can demonstrate sufficient independence from the ruling party. In our current political climate, independent thought defines you as a person, not as part of an entity, and aligns you closer to the people you are seeking votes from.

If you wish to be elected by the people, them you must answer to the people. Let that be your promise come the Presidential elections, and let that be the scorecard of your tenure, before we decide to vote you in or out, or petition to have you removed before that is due.

So the following is a wish list, partly mine, partly from some in TOC, but in true democratic style, open to you, as citizens, to add, subtract or recast. May it be a signpost for our President wannabe, as an indicator of the people’s wishes.

Of the OTC legacy

Ong Teng Chong remains one of my most trusted public figures. As a former heavyweight of a political party, my instant reaction would ordinarily be to double doubt his candidacy. But despite a narrow win that would even have solicited derision from many weaker PAP candidate in the recent general elections, his follow-up actions has spoken volumes to the contrary. Ong had done his level best to hold the ruling party accountable for what goes into and out of the reserves. His immortal words, “If you ask me to protect the reserves, then you’ve got to tell me what I’m supposed to protect”, should be the benchmark for any President hopeful. It has nothing to do with authority, but everything to do with duty to the people. The way forward for the next President should be towards the full disclosure of the people’s money and for the complete accountability of our sovereign wealth funds.

Of ceremony and causes

It is not uncommon to see our Presidents grace occasions, anything from official openings to charitable events. But what exactly are their inclinations towards charities? Sure, there is an “all and sundry” scope for the highest office holder, but even as Tan Kin Lian vouches to donate part of his Presidential salary to fund a new charity for needy students and seniors, how genuine is the act of giving? What are the passions, the specific causes that the next President champions? It is fine to say “half my pay will go towards charity”, but is it a formality, a lip service, or is he or she genuinely interested and participating in the people’s causes?

Of top positions and value-adding

Many heads of states will not fail to pay their dues to the President, although technically, our head of government is the Prime Minister. If these visits are limited as mere formalities, then we are indeed over-paying our President. What could be the possible expansion of this role for it to be meaningful to the citizens? Perhaps candidates need to show citizens what they plan to do to complement the role of the Prime Minister is this aspect. A good start will be the examination of the President’s role as the head of the civil service. This could be a tenable first step towards a clearer separation of the government from party politics.

Of justice and mercy

Following the time of Wee Kim Wee, the role of the President to commute death sentences has significantly diminished. S R Nathan, in effect, had zero to his record. Perhaps there were no justifiable death row cases on which the newer Presidents could have made a clear ‘no’ decision, but if lives are at stake, perhaps it is time for his role to be formalised to take on a ‘maybe’ quotient. A President who willingly fights for an expansion of this role, say, for all cases to be presented to him for deliberation, no matter the Judiciary’s verdict, would demonstrate a concern for the sanctity of life and for the people. The President might be very useful as the voice of reason and compassion, when our laws become too rigid for our own good, and maybe set the tone for reform and progress.

As we move into a new era of political awareness in the electorate, so too must the role of the President evolve. We need to demand that Presidential hopefuls go beyond telling us they are qualified, but their plans for taking Singapore forward.


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