Law Minister’s veiled threat to the electorate?

by: Rizal Hamid/

Commenting on the roles and limitations of the President at a forum held at the Institute of Policy Studies:

The Law Minister noted that the elected president can influence the prime minister through their regular discussions. “Whether the president actually wields influence obviously depends on who the president is,” he said. “If he is someone who commands little or no respect of the prime minister, then of course influence will be limited.’”

via President can only speak and act as advised by the Cabinet

So, is the Minister implying that if the electorate votes in the wrong candidate, they would get an ineffectual President, not by virtue of what said President can offer, does, or says, but by virtue of the regard the Prime Minister has for the individual? Does that not bring into question the regard that the PM and his Cabinet has for the State’s highest office?

During the National Day Parade, over which the President presides, have you noticed that when the National Anthem is played, the President does not sing? It’s not because he is unpatriotic. Rather, as head of State, he is the symbolic embodiment of the State; the State cannot sing a song to itself, right? And here we have Shanmugam basically saying that the PM will pick and choose the level of respect he has for the person occupying said office; that a different level of regard might be shown to a Tan Jee Say as President as compared to a Tony Tan as President. Is that the right way for the Executive to engage with the President? If the people are accused of not thinking highly of the office of President, who do you think they take the cue from? I call on the Minister, if not PM, himself, to clarify their stand on engaging the Presidency.

He goes on to say:

So if he does [act against what has been provided for in the Constitution], what you can do, he’s acting unconstitutionally. Various consequences laid out. I will prefer not to go into that.

Why so coy, Minister? It’s not that hard to explain the procedure that is laid out in the Constitution. I quote:

Vacation of and removal from office of President 22L.

(3) The Prime Minister or not less than one-quarter of the total number of the elected Members of Parliament referred to in Article 39 (1) (a) may give notice of a motion alleging that the President is permanently incapable of discharging the functions of his office by reason of mental or physical infirmity or that the President has been guilty of —

(a) intentional violation of the Constitution;

(b) treason;

(c) misconduct or corruption involving the abuse of the powers of his office; or

(d) any offence involving fraud, dishonesty or moral turpitude,
and setting out full particulars of the allegations made and seeking an inquiry and report thereon.

(4) Where the motion referred to in clause (3) has been adopted by not less than half of the total number of the elected Members of Parliament referred to in Article 39 (1) (a), the Chief Justice shall appoint a tribunal to inquire into the allegations made against the President.

(5) A tribunal appointed by the Chief Justice shall consist of not less than 5 Judges of the Supreme Court of whom the Chief Justice shall be one, unless he otherwise decides and such tribunal may regulate its own procedure and make rules for that purpose.

(6) A tribunal shall, after due inquiry at which the President shall have the right to appear and to be heard in person or by counsel, make a report of its determination to the Speaker together with the reasons therefor. [sic]

(7) Where the tribunal reports to the Speaker that in its opinion the President is permanently incapable of discharging the functions of his office by reason of mental or physical infirmity or that the President has been guilty of any of the other allegations contained in such resolution, Parliament may by a resolution passed by not less than three-quarters of the total number of the elected Members of Parliament referred to in Article 39 (1) (a) remove the President from office.

What other consequences is the Law Minister talking about and are they extra-Constitutional? Instead of not going into them, I think the onus is on Shanmugam to explain himself.

Finally, I think the Law Minister missed the point on this exchange:

Tommy Koh: [who moderated the panel] Supposing the president goes to a school for children with a particular disability. Suppose at the end of the visit, he were to say, ‘I’m very impressed by the teachers, I’m very impressed by the students. But I think the physical plan of the school is not good enough.’

K. Shanmugam: Cross the red line? I don’t think so. I think these situations have got to be resolved by common sense. First of all, he will be entitled to say anything he thinks, including the physical plans or the lack of proper care, et cetera, to the prime minister. But separately in public I think he’s entitled to talk about the state of repair or disrepair. And I wouldn’t think that’s crossing the line.

Tommy Koh: Would it cross the red line if he were to go further and say that Singapore has not yet acceded to the (United Nations) Convention (on the Rights of Disabled People)? He should not say this in public?

K. Shanmugam: Absolutely. Which conventions we accede to is an issue decided in Cabinet. There are good reasons why we accede to some and not to others.

So how is pointing out Fact A, “the state of repair or disrepair,” different from pointing out Fact B, that Singapore has not yet acceded to the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People? You can say it, I can say it; pointing out the obvious is not the purview of the Cabinet, last I checked. So, why can’t the President say it? Such an arrangement is akin to giving the President even less freedom of expression than the average citizen. If that is the case, the question might be, we vote for what?

This post first appeared on We thank Rizal for allowing TOC to reproduce it in full here.

Picture credit: asiaone

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