Former President SR Nathan recently said that: “the role of Singapore’s president cannot be defined easily or clearly”. He also alluded to the fact that it would be difficult to educate Singaporean’s on the role of the president. (link)
I agree that the exact remit of the President’s powers are challenging to grasp. But is the confusing state of affairs a necessity? I would imagine not. Instead of claiming that it is an uphill task to educate muddled citizens, would it not be simpler to clarify and streamline the role of the President?
The President was traditionally a figurehead. He was a symbolic head of state, separate from the chaotic world of political power. That was a concept that was easily understood and most Singaporeans did love their Presidents.
However, that changed with the creation of an elected Presidency with limited powers. While I applaud the move to introduce a process of elections, I find the concept of the elected President’s limited powers superfluous. This is especially in light of the fact that the President is never able to exercise independent discretion.
Most, if not all of his powers can only be exercised with either the approval of Cabinet or the advice of the Council of Presidential Advisers. The intent behind the President’s limited powers is ostensibly to act as a check against the ruling one party majority government. However, if the President is ultimately beholden to the advice of Cabinet or the Council of Presidential Advisers, will he actually be able to fulfil his role as an effective check?
The current status quo is therefore needlessly murky. If the President is meant to be a symbol, let’s remove his “powers” for as it stands, they are not real powers anyway. If the President is meant to be an effective check, then the powers that he does possess will have to be clarified to include more autonomy.
The lack of comprehensibility by the general public on the ambit of the President’s powers has led to a situation whereby there is a mismatch between the public’s expectations and the reality of the President’s role.
In the run up to the Presidential election campaigns, there were candidates promising things they could not possibly have fulfilled under the current rules, despite the best of intentions. The electorate was alive with debate. It was almost as if we were voting for an alternative seat of political power.
Many in government were understandably frustrated by this. Indeed, in his interview, Mr Nathan betrayed a degree of the vexation he must have felt. However, is that the fault of the electorate? I would counter that it is not. A system which gives muted and controlled discretion marketed as power would be confusing to anyone. So perhaps, the answer lies not in educating the public or hoping that the public would become enlightened but in rethinking the objectives of the role of the President.
If he is to be an effective check, give him the genuine ability to do that. If he is to be a symbol, let’s remove the concept of limited powers altogether. That way, no one will be in doubt about what the President can and cannot do.
The role of the President can be defined easily and clearly. There just needs to be political will to do so.