As a layperson who found political consciousness when the concept of an elected presidency was already in place, I had understood it to be an office that provides some semblance of checks and balances to a government that is overwhelmingly PAP dominated. As far as I was aware, the elected president would have the right to veto the way state assets were utilised and the power to pardon those on death row.
While I was subconsciously aware of the concept of limited power being accorded to the elected president, it did not gel with my traditional understanding of the role of the president in Singapore. The president was meant to be the constitutional head of state similar to the role Queen Elizabeth II plays in the United Kingdom. Like the monarch, the president would exercise only a ceremonial role that would signify unity and continuity above politics. No executive power would be vested in such a ceremonial head of state whose power lies in the office’s ability to influence as opposed to impose.
The Singaporean concept of the elected president is therefore a hybrid role, which mixes a degree of executive power with the grandeur as the head of state that is meant to be non-partisan but yet is elected in a process that is far from apolitical. This does mar the idea of a president that is above politics unlike the Queen who is able to play such a role because her office is inherited as opposed to by popular vote.
At the same time, the elected president would be given some covert powers. He or she would not be given the right to positively formulate policy but at the same time, the office affords the ability to affect policy through negative actions after the fact; such as the right to veto and the right to pardon. But just how far does the elected president’s supposed power to influence extend? The Ong Teng Cheong saga with regards to how state reserves were spent did not bode well for how far the elected president’s powers could be exercised.
Read more - Ong Teng Cheong: I had a job to do
On top of that, it is painfully obvious that the elected president’s power to exercise clemency on death row cases will hardly be utilised at all!
With so many nuances infused into this office – it is no wonder that both the public and candidates alike were confused by the intent and reach of the role which in turn led to the conflation of aspirational and actual issues in the presidential elections of 2011.
In light of the next presidential election in 2017, it is no surprise that public hearings in relation to the role of the elected president have been held . Chief among the issues raised was the role of minority representation in the office of the elected presidency.
While undoubtedly well-intentioned, I do wonder if the elected presidency is the right forum for greater diversity in representation. Let’s go back to basics.
What really was the intention behind the elected presidency in the first place? Based on my layperson observations, I think that the concept was evolved to counteract the lack of opposition voices. At a time of PAP monopoly, the elected president was instituted to appease those who may have been clamouring for more alternative voices within the political power base.
The role was thus carefully crafted to ensure that while the office had some safeguarding powers, it had no powers to directly formulate any policies – a narrowly confined role to ensure the delicate balance between checks and balances, non-partisanship and yet elected to ensure credibility which will also appease those pesky democracy advocates for a while. The ruling government would therefore have the best of both worlds – a trump card to display their commitment to democracy and alternative voices but whose candidates are vetted by the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) before any election.
The issue of minority representation has also been thrown into the mix leading to debate on whether the elected presidency should mandate for compulsory minority representation. I am all for our political landscape reflecting the multi-racialism of our society but should this be done through the office of the president – a role that has limited power at best?
Besides, I believe that the key lies in empowering Singaporeans to embrace a Singaporean identity with much less focus on race and a much bigger focus on nationality. Mandating minority representation negates genuine cohesion and may be counterproductive to the original intention. It also dilutes the credibility of the office of president by putting the merits of a president in question – was he or she really the best person for the job or was he or she only instituted because of his or her race?
Do we really need to further muddy the waters to this already murky role?
In our current political landscape, the key to ensuring effective checks and balance while increasing minority participation is by evening the playing field for opposition parties. MPs are democratically elected which gives the role credibility. As more Singaporeans get involved in politics, race will become less of an issue, as there will be more opportunities for minorities to be heard as Singaporeans first and foremost as opposed to as the token minority candidate.
While I applaud the public nature of the presidential hearings, I wonder if the entire concept of a president is even necessary? The United States gets on just fine with just one head of government without any complications between a ceremonial and governmental head divide.