Forget the Constitution, it’s the people’s choice, stupid!

Joshua Chiang/

“Candidates should run for the office that exists, not the one they wish to have,”

Presidential hopeful Dr Tony Tan

If the past two weeks were anything to go by, the Government is most likely sending a similar message to voters with regards to choosing the next Elected President: “Singaporeans should vote for the office that exists, not the one they wish to have.”
Law and Foreign Minister K Shanmugam had been taking great pains to emphasize that the President’s power is a custodial one, not an executive one. According to him, the President can veto or block government actions in specified areas, but on all matters under the Constitution, must act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet, including speaking out on issues.

“He must follow the advice of the Cabinet in the discharge of his duties, “said Mr Shanmugam at a forum at the Institute of Policy Studies on 5th August.

Two of the four candidates disagreed. “I do not find any requirement (in the Constitution) that the President should be ‘dumb,” wrote Tan Kin Lian on his blog. In an interview with The Online Citizen, Tan Jee Say said that the Law Minister is not the ‘ultimate interpret

er’ of the Constitution.

“When the Law Minister says you must go by the Constitution, let him answer that – where does the Constitution say that there must be a unifying role for the President?” he asked.

However based on past examples, Mr Shanmugam’s opinion might most likely bear out in the court of law.

On 4th April 2011, death row inmate Yong Vui Kong’s appeal for a judicial review of the President’s power in the clemency process was dismissed. The Court of Appeal, made up of Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong and Judges VK Rajah and Andrew Phang, stated that “the terms of Article 22P [of Singapore’s Constitution] make it clear that the President has no discretion as to how the clemency power should be exercised in a particular case.

“The President may only exercise the clemency power in favour of an offender in circumstances where the Cabinet has advised him to do so,” it added.

On polling day during the 1993 Presidential Elections, the future-People's President only garnered 54% of the total votes

Much earlier, in 1995, then-President Ong Teng Cheong and the Government clashed over the latter’s right to amend an article in the Constitution without the President’s consent, and the release of detailed information on the value of the country’s reserves. Ong referred the matter to a Supreme Court tribunal, which the latter eventually ruled in favour of the Government. (read here)

But unfortunately for Mr Shanmugam and the Government (which has all but fallen short of endorsing Dr Tony Tan as the candidate of choice), what the President can do within the boundaries of the Constitution might be the last thing that’s on voters’ mind.

In a country where the ruling party is the dominant voice, Singaporeans will resort to any given opportunity to have their voices heard. Nevermind the limited powers of the Elected President, it’s the signal that they send to the powers-that-be that matters.

For all his immense popularity as a Member of Parliament, Ong Teng Cheong garnered only 54% of the total votes against a reluctant Chua Kim Yeow, a former accountant general, despite having a higher public exposure and a much more active campaign than Chua. The media tried to downplay the boycott against the PAP –  a headline to the Straits Times article after the elections read “Votes for Chua were anything but a snub for PAP”. But the General Elections two years earlier was comparable.  The PAP won only 61% of the total votes – at that time, its lowest since independence. This time round, the Presidential Elections as a referendum on the PAP will be no different.

But the big question is, what should we then make of this election?

A true reflection of the people’s need

Regardless of who gets to become President, when the final votes are counted, a more accurate picture of where Singaporeans stand across the political spectrum might emerge than, I daresay, what one can infer from the General Elections results.

During the General Elections, the resentment against the incumbent was so high that many were prepared to give the opposition a chance. Almost all the opposition parties saw a significant increase in votes cast in their favour. At the same time, there were voters who do not have any love for the incumbent but played it safe. Better the devil you know than the one you don’t!

But in this Presidential Elections, the choice between PAP and opposition (or, anti-PAP) is no longer that clear cut. Even amongst the pro-PAP camp, there is a choice. Just because 60% of the votes went to the PAP during the General Elections does not mean that Dr Tony Tan will get all the pro-PAP votes. The PAP isn’t one monolithic entity. The older generation among the grassroots might cast their vote in favour of Dr Tan Cheng Bock, also another former PAP member. And then there are those who had voted PAP during the GE, but had also grown tired of the perceived elitism among the higher ranks of the PAP. To them, Dr Tony Tan represents the elite group.

Likewise, it doesn’t mean that all the pro-opposition votes would go to Tan Jee Say or Tan Kin Lian. (While Tan Kin Lian claims to be the most independent of the candidates for not having been a PAP or opposition party member, by virtue of frequently speaking out strongly on various issues, he has all but forfeited the centrist position that he wants to occupy in the eyes of many.) Amongst the opposition voters, there is a sizable conservative group who would not hesitate to vote Workers’ Party, but given a choice between the PAP and Singapore Democratic Party – of which Tan Jee Say had been a member – would pick the former. They are likely to pick the least of the ‘evils’ – namely Dr Tan Cheng Bock.

Much has been said about the unifying role of the President – with every single candidate claiming to be able to play that role. But let’s face it. – voters pick who will best represent them, not who will unify them. The late President Ong didn’t earn the title of the People’s President until he has proven his independent streak.

Those in power, and those vying for political power will do well to pay attention how the votes are cast this time round.


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