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Presidential thought process

by: Choo Zheng Xi/

I’ve lost count of the number of times my friends have asked me how I’m voting on Saturday and why, so I thought I’d set out my thought processes here to spark debate and discussion. The short answer is I am leaning in a certain direction, but haven’t made up my mind yet. Here’s what I think of the candidates so far.

Tan Jee Say

Many people I’ve spoken to are surprised that I still haven’t made up my mind who to vote for on Saturday. Most who know me automatically assume I’m rooting for Tan Jee Say because of my liberal political inclinations.

I can’t deny that of all the candidates running I feel Jee Say’s values most resonate with mine. I managed to interview him for TOC on the evening he announced his candidacy for the general elections. I conducted the interview with Andrew Loh at a Hainanese restaurant in Golden Landmark Hotel. The overriding impression I came away with was that Jee Say is a man of conviction, who was entering politics with nothing to prove, and who was concerned primarily for the wellbeing of the country.

This has come through extremely clearly in Jee Say’s public speeches and televised debates, particularly in the TOC forum in his answers relating to detention without trial and his principled position against all forms of discrimination.

However, I’m not too convinced that Jee Say’s understanding of the constitutional position on what the President can do is accurate. For example, I do not think the President is constitutionally empowered to make sure the reserves are well spent on schools and hospitals, as he suggested in his Toa Payoh rally. I’ll elaborate on this more in later sections of my note.

Further, I do not believe that the solution to an unsatisfactory result in a parliamentary election is to turn the Presidential election into a second bite of the cherry for those who would like to see a check on the government: the nature of the Presidential check is qualitatively different one from that of Parliament.

Finally, I’m also not particularly happy with the free pass many liberal minded friends of mine are willing to give Jee Say on his political affiliations, while criticizing the other candidates for their links to the PAP. In all fairness, I believe the political independence of the Elected Presidency entails a qualitative independence from partisan politics, whether government or opposition.

Tony Tan

Conversely, in recent days I’ve given some serious thought about the basis for the strong opposition to Tony Tan’s candidacy.

Online campaigns have compared Tony Tan’s record in Cabinet unfavourably with Ong Teng Cheong, but I can’t help feeling this is rather disingenuous because those lionizing Ong Teng Cheong now do it with perfect hindsight. As a little thought experiment, if Ong Teng Cheong was running in this election on the strength of his record in Cabinet and with the full backing of the unions and the government, would those who oppose Tony Tan now be giving him a free pass? Unlikely.

My point is I don’t think party affiliation alone makes the President.

The question I need to be satisfied of is whether the person I’m voting for has both the standing and understanding to perform his constitutional role independently of his previous political affiliations.

An interesting perspective by someone in the PAP and supportive of Tony Tan’s candidacy was this: Tony Tan is not going to be a pushover President and has the experience and insight into government to robustly exercise his constitutional duties. He will be able to make informed decisions about public service appointments because he has had personal experience working with them and would have a strong sense of their suitability.

I can’t say I’m convinced by this line of thought, but I’m trying to keep an open mind.

As someone who is legally trained and who has an interest in constitutional law, I also have some sympathy to Tony Tan’s call to “run for the office that exists”. The Presidency was never intended to be an alternative centre of power, and this was made clear in the three published White Papers on the powers of the President.

In fact, in the 1988 televised debate on the Elected Presidency then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong explained the intention of the government quite clearly:

“The Elected President must consent if the government wants to spend reserves which it itself has not accumulated, to make certain key appointments, for example, appointments to members of the Public Service Commission or judges of the Supreme Court. The Elected President will have the custodial powers, custodial powers to say no in these two key areas, and the moral authority to block the elected government again in these two areas. He will not have the right to initiate policies himself even in these two areas, be given any powers in other unrelated areas, or be an executive President, like the US or French President”.

One of the reasons Mr Goh probably felt the need to spell out with such clarity the circumscribed role of the Elected President in 1988 was not because the government took a perverse joy in creating a separate institution without any real teeth.

It was actually because the main concern from the opposition of the day was that the role of the Elected President would undermine parliamentary democracy.

In the same televised debate, Mr J B Jeyaretnam set out the Worker’s Party position, which subsists until today:

“But the Party believes that already we have adequate safeguards in our institution of parliamentary government”.

So despite my dissatisfaction with the current constitutional arrangement, with the mildly absurd result that a President elected by all Singaporeans could arguably have less freedom of speech than an ordinary citizen, Tony Tan’s position on what the President’s powers are is quite plausible.

My main discomfort with Tony Tan is his unwillingness to publicly state his personal opinion on the campaign trail, which makes it difficult for me to discern whether or not he shares my values. I dislike his invocation of the Official Secrets Act to not discuss his personal opinion on the “Marxist” detentions of 1987, while in the next breath touting his opposition to the graduate mother’s scheme.

Tan Kin Lian

The only candidate I’ve clearly ruled out voting for is Tan Kin Lian.

I know Kin Lian from his time contributing to TOC, and have the deepest respect for his courage in taking a very public stand on behalf of investors who lost their money in structured products. I’ve always found Kin Lian personable and self-effacing, and till this day I appreciate how he contributed his thought provoking articles to TOC. If Kin Lian were running for Parliament I would strongly consider voting for him.

Unfortunately, I can’t help feeling that the office of the President is a bit out of Kin Lian’s depth.

I dislike his flip-flopping over whether or not to seek elective office, and believe this raises serious questions about his sense of judgment. Early on in the structured products saga, I was discomfited by Kin Lian’s statement that he would run for President if he gathered 100,000 signatures. I understand he managed to gather less than a fraction of that, but decided to run anyway.

Later on, after he had announced his decision to run for President, he qualified it a few days later by saying he would conclusively make up his mind if he was granted the certificate of eligibility by the PEC. Even when he got the certificate of eligibility, he made it public knowledge that withdrawing from the race before nomination day was a possibility if the other candidates approached him to do so.

The final straw came when, at the forum organized by TOC for the Presidential candidates, he needed Mr Alex Au to explain what section 377a of the Penal Code was.  While the Elected President’s job scope does not entail a grasp of legislative minutiae, to be unable to recall the provision that was at the centre of a headline grabbing national debate is appalling. That, coupled with his appearance at former ISA detainee Tan Jing Quee’s memorial while acknowledging he had never heard of the man, gives me the impression of a Presidential candidate whose campaign has come grievously unstuck.

Tan Cheng Bock

Many people I’ve spoken to have described Tan Cheng Bock as their compromise candidate. My PAP friends who are loyalists say that Dr Tan might not be the government’s top choice, but he is a choice that the government can work with. Several of my friends who are opposition supporters likewise would like Jee Say to win, but are willing to vote for Dr Tan to keep Tony Tan out.

For all the 4 candidate’s talk of unifying the country, I think Dr Tan comes the closest to genuinely being able to do so. Several former PAP parliamentarians are supporting his campaign, and I was pretty surprised to bump into the NSP’s Christopher Neo canvassing for Dr Tan in Hougang. That same evening, a WP old-timer Melvin Tan tagged me in a note plugging Dr Tan’s candidacy.

At a TOC organized appreciation dinner for Mr Chiam See Tong, I was pleasantly surprised to see Dr Tan in attendance to pay tribute to his parliamentary colleague.

More substantively, I have been suitably impressed by Cheng Bock’s independent streak and track record of standing up for what he believes in. In particular, his opposition to streaming, his vote in Parliament against the NMP scheme, and his 1984 warning to the government that they had to be more responsive to popular dissatisfaction.

However, our values aren’t exactly in perfect alignment. He did not give a straight answer when asked at the TOC forum whether or not he now believes the Marxist conspirators of 1987 were really conspiring to overthrow the government.

Addendum

This note is probably going to make everyone unhappy, particularly those who disagree with my understanding of the constitutional limitations on the elected President.

Alex Au has pointed out to me in that there are areas of constitutional ambiguity over how the President can exercise his custodial duties, and that several of Jee Say’s pronouncements can be interpreted as values statements about how he would exercise his custodial functions.

I agree that one can plausibly read ambiguity into the Constitutional provisions, but the weight of history, parliamentary intent and the plain language of the Constitutional provisions suggest that one needs to err on the side of a more circumscribed role for the elected President.

Again, my final caveat is that this position is far from satisfactory, but for now that is my view of how things stand.

I’m indebted to Nathaniel Koh who has taken the painstaking effort of transcribing the 1988 debates here: http://nathanielkoh.blogspot.com/2009/04/transcript-of-1988-tv-debate-on