What is the point of the President?

Ghui /

Officially, the President of Singapore is Singapore’s head of state.  He opens each Parliamentary session with an official address, occupying a position much like Queen Elizabeth II in the United Kingdom.

Image from Britannica

The monarchy has had a long and deep history in the United Kingdom and the royal family is seen as part of British culture and heritage. Thousands of tourists worldwide flock to Buckingham Palace to watch the changing of the guard and millions tuned in to watch the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Countless souvenirs commemorating the royal engagement and subsequent wedding were sold, generating millions for the British economy. The Queen and now, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (as Prince William and Catherine Middleton are now known) have embarked on various tours overseas to promote British causes and photographers follow their every move. In this regard, I can see and understand why the British people have chosen to continue to have a ceremonial head of state who wields no real political power. They represent British culture and have made significant contributions to tourism.

Can the same be said of the President of the Republic of Singapore?

The Parliament of Singapore is required to provide for the maintenance of the President. This is done by way of a civil list. Overall, the current civil list stands at approximately $11.6 million annually. In short, it costs the taxpayers a staggering $11.6 million yearly to maintain the office of the President. I wonder if the money can be better spent elsewhere.

One might argue that the President has an important role to play. The Constitution enshrines his power to block and veto certain government actions. Theoretically, this would ensure that the government does not have absolute power since the President exists to form a system of checks and balances, preventing the government from riding roughshod over certain key issues, such as the nation’s financial reserves. However, whether or not the President has in effect performed that role is open for debate. Does the President perform a role which cannot be fulfilled by a strong and credible opposition?

Before 1991, the Constitution contained no provisions preventing the government from squandering the nation’s reserves. The government at that time took the view that safeguards had to be put in place to prevent a future irresponsible government from leading the country into financial ruin, and came up with their brainchild: the “elected President”.

According to the Constitution, the powers of the President are broadly threefold:

1. Financial powers

In summary, the President acts as the fiscal guardian of Singapore’s national reserves. His concurrence is required before the government can enter into various financial transactions.

Amongst other things, his approval is needed for the budgets of:

(i) certain statutory boards such as the Central Provident Fund Board, the Housing and Development Board, JTC Corporation and the Monetary Authority of Singapore; and

(ii) certain government companies such as Government of Singapore Investment Corporation Pte. Ltd., Temasek Holdings Pte. Ltd. And MND Holdings Pte. Ltd.

2. Powers relating to key office holders

These include amongst other things:

(i) appointing the prime minister; and

(ii) appointing the chairman and members of the advisory board constituted to determine if a person should be detained without trial for security reasons.

3. Other powers

These include amongst other things:

(i) granting pardons and reprieves for offenses or execution and remission of sentences; and

(ii) concurring with the Director of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau for an investigation to take place even if the Prime Minister refuses.

The above powers are divided into those which the President may exercise in his own discretion and those he must exercise in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or of a Minister acting under the general authority of the Cabinet. The President also has to consult the Council of Presidential Advisers when performing some of his duties.

The Council of Presidential Advisers comprise six members and two alternate members.  Two members are appointed by the President at his discretion, two are the Prime Minister’s nominees, one is the Chief Justice’s nominee and one is the nominee of the Chairman of the Public Service Commission.  One alternate member is appointed by the President at his discretion while the other is appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister, in consultation with the Chief Justice and Chairman of Public Service Commission.

Every aspect of the President’s powers are therefore closely affliated and linked to the government.

The first and hitherto only directly elected President was Ong Teng Cheong. His term in office was marked by differences between him and the government concerning the extent of his discretionary fiscal powers. In short, it can be suggested that Mr Ong tried to exercise his powers as a safeguard against the government, but faced resistance from the government.

Following such difficulties, the government limited the powers of the President in 1996 by deciding that a presidential veto can be overridden with a two-thirds majority in Parliament. With one main party ruling Singapore, achieving this requisite two-third majority is far from difficult.

Image from The Straits Times

The incumbent President is S.R. Nathan. He became President in 1999 by virtue of being the only candidate deemed qualified by the Presidential Elections Committee. In 2005, he was again deemed re-elected after a walkover. He is due to retire on the 31st of August 2011.

During his terms in office, President Nathan did not attempt to exercise any of his powers. In fact, former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong once said that the government would give the President no “cause to exercise” his powers.

Ong took his duties seriously and upon taking office in 1993, he requested for an accounting of Singapore’s vast assets, financial as well as physical. When this request was put forward, the then accountant-general unhelpfully responded that it would take “52 man-years” to produce a complete list!

From the above, it is clear that the President has very limited powers and even from those limited powers it would appear, from the Ong Teng Cheong example, that attempts by the President to exercise his powers would not be welcomed!

As such, is the office of the President not a superflous waste of the country’s money?

Perhaps, things will change with the new elected President after President Nathan retires. The seat has after all not been so hotly contested before. This, coupled with the newly politicised population of Singapore, might herald the dawn of a new age for this office.

Be that as it may, we still go back to the original question, can the President’s role as a check on this system not be fulfilled by an effective opposition? Is the role played by the President worth the $11.6 million spent on it? Why rely on the President’s curtailed and artificial powers as a check on the system when the opposition can do the same job at a much lower cost?

The office of the President (with limited powers) was created at a time when there was virtually no credible oppostion on the political scene. That is clearly changing with the stigma of being part of the opposition fading. The role of the President is therefore redundant. In fact, has it ever not been so?