All the President’s Men – Taking a closer look at the Council of Presidential Advisers

by: Bhavan Jaipragas/

When the next President of the Republic is sworn into office next month, he will inherit a council of advisers who have held or are holding chairmanships in the likes of Singapore Airlines, Temasek Holdings and OCBC, and have an average age of over 72.

This cabal of wise men will be expected to advice the democratically elected President in the exercise of his custodial and discretionary powers under the Constitution.

Former top civil servant J Y Pillay heads the current Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA). Mr Pillay, 77, who was once hailed by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew as ‘equal to the best brains in America’, is the longest serving member in the current CPA, having served a decade since he was first appointed to the council in 2001. He has been chairman of the high-powered council since 2005.

The other council members are: Mr Suppiah Dhanabalan, 74, chairman of Temasek Holdings and former cabinet minister; Mr Yong Pung How, 85, former Chief Justice; Mr Po’ad Bin Shaik Abu Bakar, 63, member of the Public Service Commission and former managing partner at Deloitte and Touche; Mr Goh Joon Seng, 76, former Supreme Court judge; and Mr Bobby Chin, 60, chairman of the Tote Board and a member of the OCBC Bank board of directors.

The alternative members – who step in to serve as ordinary council members when any of them are unavailable – are former Keppel Corp Executive Chairman Lim Chee Onn; and Mr Stephen Lee, chairman of the Singapore National Employers’ Federation.

The constitutional role of the CPA, which surprisingly has not been closely examined in the ongoing public debate about the actual role of the Elected President, cannot be underestimated.

When President S R Nathan approved the first ever drawdown of past reserves in 2009 to fund the Jobs Credit scheme amidst a global economic recession, he had emphasised the significant role the CPA played in his final decision.

In a press conference that was held to clarify his role in approving the S$4.9 billion drawdown of past reserves, President Nathan said: “I left it to (the Council of Presidential Advisers) to deliberate on their own and then give me their recommendation, which was consistent with what I felt I should do”.

Checking the President’s blocking powers

The existence of the CPA in effect means that the elected President’s blocking powers are not unfettered.

He is obliged to consult with the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) when exercising several of his functions – including the approval of the appointments of public officers, members of statutory boards, and the directors of government companies, as well as the approval of budgets which draw upon past reserves.

If the President’s decisions on these functions are contrary to the CPA’s recommendations, the Constitution states that Parliament can overrule the President with a resolution passed by two thirds of its members. If the CPA concurs with the President’s veto on these functions, the veto is final.

The president’s executive powers in other areas – which include those relating to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, the Internal Security Act and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act – can be exercised at his own discretion, and he need not seek the advice of the CPA.

Unique appointment system

Key individuals in the state nominate the six-man council and the two alternate members who stand in for the others when needed. The President appoints two members at his own discretion; the Prime Minister appoints two members; with the Chief Justice and Chairman of the Public Service Commission appointing one member each.

The President appoints one alternate member at his own discretion; with the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice and the Chairman of the Public Service Commission jointly nominating the other alternate member.

According to a Straits Times article in 1999, the apportionment of nominations is to ensure that the CPA is impartial to both the government and the elected President.

Inner workings of the council

Very little is known about the inner workings of the CPA, with members very rarely granting interviews to the media over the years. In his farewell interview with the Straits Times earlier this month, President S R Nathan said he met with the CPA at least four times a year during his two terms of office. He added that he regularly held consultations with Mr Pillay.

Under the constitution, decisions made by the CPA are adopted by a simple majority of votes cast by members. The chairman gets an additional vote in the event of a deadlock. The recommendations that the CPA offers the president on the approval of budgets and appointments of key office holders are also made available to the Prime Minister and members of the Parliament.

The constitution provides for the CPA members to be paid for their services, with the President having the discretion to determine the fee amount. The 2011 Budget statement indicates that the CPA is expected to have a total expenditure of S$347,000 this year. This amount includes payment to the council members as well as the salaries of permanent staff supporting the council.

Selecting a new point man

One of the first orders of business for Singapore’s seventh President will be to nominate a Chairman of the CPA. Under the constitution, current CPA chairman Mr Pillay will have to vacate his position when a new President takes office.

Both Presidents Ong Teng Cheong and S R Nathan reappointed the then incumbent chairman of the CPA Mr Lim Kim San when they assumed office in 1993 and 1999 respectively. Mr Lim, a former Cabinet Minister from the PAP Old Guard, served as the chairman of the CPA from its inception in 1991 until 2004.

Whether or not the next President reappoints Mr Pillay as his CPA chairman will be an early indicator about his views on the current CPA, which undoubtedly has very strong links with the establishment. Apart from this appointment, the incoming President will have to work with the current composition of the CPA until at least 2013, at which point the current terms of Mr Po’ad Mattar and Mr Yong Pung How end.

Standing up to scrutiny

With the constitutional role and eligibility criteria of the elected president coming under intense scrutiny in the lead up to the upcoming election, it is only apt that the CPA faces similar critical analysis in the public sphere.

The Presidential Elections Committee signaled an unprecedented move towards greater transparency last week by releasing the reasons for the issuance of certificates of eligibility for Presidential hopefuls. Similarly, this must be mirrored in the selection process of the CPA. It would bode well for the President, the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice and the Chairman of the Public Service Commission to make clear the criteria they use in selecting individuals as members of the CPA.

This is the least that Singaporeans must demand of this council of six handpicked men, who have the power to check the highest elected office holder in the land.

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