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Highlights of the Forum on the Elected Presidency

Dr Tan Cheng Bock's intention to contest in the next Presidential Elections (PE) on Friday morning (11 March) was but a curtain-raiser for what is set to be a long drawn battle for the office of the Elected Presidency. The next Presidential Election will only be due by 26 August 2017.

The incumbent President, Tony Tan Keng Yam, will still be eligible for re-election, although he has yet to express his desire to run for office again. Also in the works is the Menon Constitutional Commission - a potential game changer, or as we like to call it around these parts, a potential goalpost shift.  With a potential candidate and the very institution of the elected presidency up for review, it is of utmost importance for us citizens to keep abreast of not only the developments, but also the fundamentals of the office of the elected presidency.

The forum on the Elected Presidency held last weekend featured a thorough and thought-provoking speeches by distinguished speakers Prof Kevin Tan and Dr Ian Chong that would help you, the reader, to be in the know.

In this piece, I aim to summarize the highlights of the forum.

Shift in Goalposts?

The Constitutional Commission, constituting of 9 men who, arguably, are cut from the same cloth, was commissioned by PM Lee earlier this year to review the office of the Elected Presidency. The Constitution were given 3 Terms of References to focus their deliberations on. Views from the general public on the three following areas were also sought.

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As the incumbent Tony Tan won the last Presidential Elections with only 35.20%, I wouldn't blame the more cynical amongst us for viewing the reviews simply as an exercise to entrench candidates endorsed by the People's Action Party (PAP) in the Istana. In fact, some even go as far as to argue that this exercise is simply to disqualify Dr Tan Cheng Bock or another candidate like him from running in the next PE.

Will there be changes to the Qualifications?
Will there be changes to the Qualifications?

After all, as the runner up in PE 2011,Dr Tan Check Bock won only 0.35% less votes than Tony. A margin that may be too close for comfort. A margin, that seems to have re-triggered what gave rise to the Elected Presidency in the first place - Paranoia.

"The office of the Elected Presidency is all the result of one man's paranoia." - Professor Kevin YL Tan

One Man's Paranoia

Chiam See Tong and JB Jeyaretanam
Chiam See Tong and JB Jeyaretanam

The idea for the Elected Presidency was first mooted in the 1980s, where PAP's hegemony in Parliament was first broken by the election of JB Jeyaretanam and Chiam See Tong in 1981 and 1984 respectively. Even though the PAP held all but 2 seats in Parliament House, the Premier Lee was still very wary of the potential that a Non-PAP Government might one day come to light. In order to prevent such a Government from emptying our coffers and causing the nation to crawl on it's bended knees, the Elected Presidency was introduced as a safeguard against "bad governance" With Powers such as the right to withhold assent to bills and withhold drawing from reserves vested in the office of the Elected Presidency, it is clear how a President endorsed by the powers that be can be a roadblock for a Parliament House filled with color.

ong-teng-cheong-sgag

Ong Teng Cheong, the first elected President was first elected into office in 1991. Despite being the PAP-endorsed candidate, not many foresaw the tremendous impact he had on the Office. Loyal to his new post, he cut off all partisan ties and became a real pain in the neck for the Goh Chok Tong administration by doing exactly what the Elected President was supposed to do - check on the Government. Following their 'blunder', the PAP endorsed candidates since then have been, more or less, subservient to the Government.

A Position of High Moral Authority?

Ong Teng Cheong, as Prof Kevin Tan argues, was the only President who could clearly say that he had the moral authority to make the decisions that rested with the Office. Only with two men vying for the post, can the eventual winner claim the right to a moral mandate. This is because the winner will have to win the support a majority of Singaporeans. In the case of the last PE, if a Presidential Elect won with 35% of the votes, does he really have the moral authority to withhold assent to bills passed by the Government who have the support of 70% of the populace? It would seem almost absurd. Ideally, such a scenario can be prevented with a run-off between the two highest polling candidates but that didn't happen in the last round of hustling.

Tan also argued that in the case of SR Nathan's Presidency, he had absolutely no moral mandate as he ran uncontested. An exercise of public affirmation was not undertaken either. Tan shared with the audience about a conversation he once had with SR Nathan at the Istana.

SR Nathan: This man (Kevin Tan) says that I wasn't properly elected.

Prof Kevin: Sir, I never did say that you were not properly elected. I only said that you were not elected

Minority Representation in the Office

One of the Terms of References for the Menon Commission was the possibility of guaranteeing minority representation in Parliament. Some have likened the proposal as one that attempts to square a circle. This is not because Minorities aren't good enough for Office but because the two ideas of egalitarianism and minority representation seem, prima facie, to be at loggerheads.

President Yusof Bin Ishak, the only Malay Head of State to date.
President Yusof Bin Ishak, the only Malay Head of State to date.

Some ideas which were raised in the forum during the Q&A session to ensure Minority Representation included designating a Minority Election once every 4 terms. By far the most interesting idea that emanated was having a 'GRC System'.

"An idea that I proposed recently was to have a GRC system. A team of 3 candidates from different races will run. Since a Presidential Term lasts for 6 years, each member of the team will hold the office for 2 years. Since the President can nominate two members to the Council of Presidential Advisors, the other two will sit in the CPA with one chairing it. In the event of the President's absence, the CPA Chair will take his place under the current provisions. Under this proposal, even the CPA Chair will have the mandate to take over the Office." - Prof Kevin Tan

Another alternative is, of course, a upper chamber - much like the House of Lords of our former Colonial Masters. This idea was quickly dismissed by PM Lee in his speech regarding Constitutional changes in Parliament earlier this year. The crux of PM Lee's argument seemed to be that Singapore is too small to need an Upper House and what an Upper House can do, an Elected President can do better - with the need for a mandate. As we saw in the arguments above, mandates are not a given when it comes to the Elected Presidency.

Conclusion

The proposals of the Menon Commission will be due by the third quarter of this year. With the announcement of Dr Tan Cheng Bock's candidacy, there will be increased scrutiny of the proposals to ensure an absence of any ulterior political motive. As Yudhish, an undergrad, put it,

"Forthcoming Constitutional amendments will inevitably be viewed through the lens of his candidacy - i.e. the G won't be able to get away with relegating his response to a "post-amendment media soundbite" that'll die off before the polls. Any move to suppress his attempt will result in an unhappy electorate. The G will have to tread carefully."

It is often said that in the UK, the Queen reigns while Parliament rules. In fact, I would go as far as to argue that whether we get a President who is Ceremonial or Custodial in nature would depend on the actions and omissions of our future President himself.

Despite the increased cycnicsm, I hope we get to see a President that will return to the roots of the Office. A President that raises the bar set by Ong Teng Cheong. Personally, it matters not whether the President comes from a minority race, what matters to me and many Singaporeans is whether the President has the interests of the majority of Singaporeans at heart and acts on it - even if it means burning bridges. What we need is a President that is loyal not to old friends but to the Office and the masses.