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(Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

Amendments to the Elected Presidency, how PAP stop at nothing to avoid checks and balance on itself

Mandate from the people to carry out the President's duties, but does anyone really believe in all that?

The whole narrative about the proposed amendments to the Elected Presidency has been about how the feelings of the minority races have to be looked after for and that there is a need to relook at the qualifying criteria for aspiring President candidates so as to find the right candidate to be the "second key" of Singapore's precious monetary reserves. And with this, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that Elected President must be elected in order to have a mandate.

The government's White Paper echoes PM Lee's view on the amendments to the EP, "The President will require a popular mandate if he is to “have the authority to act as the custodian of the nation’s reserves and be an effective check against governmental action, should the occasion arise”. An appointed President is unlikely to have the standing or authority to legitimately withhold concurrence to a decision made by a democratically elected government."

However, let us take a look at the existing "powers" of the President.

president-power
From the table created by the Constitutional Commission, we can see that the President does not really exercise much of his own discretion when it comes to financial matters. He or she would have to consult the Council of Presidential Advisors (CPA) and seek their approval before he or she can exercise the powers vested in the President.

Under the statues of the Elected Presidency, the President cannot act without the advice of the CPA. Therefore, even if the Elected President does feel strongly on a matter that the withdrawal of reserve or a certain actions or appointment is not right, he or she cannot act upon his perspective on any financial decisions. Making it almost redundant to have a candidate qualified based on his/her prior experience in managing a large company.

The PAP government has accepted the recommendation as shown in the White Paper that the President will be obliged to consult the CPA before exercising his discretion in respect of all fiscal matters touching on Singapore’s reserves and all matters relating to key public service appointments.

And to make it even worse, the government has also accepted proposed amendments from the Constitutional review commission to increase the number of CPA from 6 to 8, making it seemingly by default that the Prime Minister and his associates have the super majority of the CPA votes. (3 from President, three from Prime Minister, one from Head of Civil Service and one from Chief Justice)

Therefore, even if the Elected President is given the people’s mandate through the election with 100% votes to his or her name, the President will still have to be subjected to the decisions of CPA and the cabinet.

PM Lee in his parliamentary speech and his interview by Channel News Asia (CNA) kept harping on the need for the President to have a portfolio of having to manage a company that has more than 500 million — adjusted for inflation since the figure was set — so that the President can exercise his or her power to act as a second key to the reserves.

But given that the restrictions upon the Elected President as well as the provision in which the government can veto the decision of the Elected President, isn’t it a fallacy to say that the President is an effective mean to improve governance as a second key?

After all, it is the same entity giving instructions to another entity, to check upon itself? Nothing says better of this situation than Pritam Singh’s famous quote, “Ownself check ownself.”

One other thing that is awfully strange is that there has been no adjustment on how civil servants are qualified. Equally strange is that the offices of the Accountant-General and the Auditor-General are removed as qualifying candidates. Is PAP afraid that someone who has a mind of his own, would come out to contest for the position with their anointed candidate?

A self-orchestrated political move to bar Dr Tan Cheng Bock from contesting and winning the Presidential Election

15 Jan 06 - President Tony Tan in his speech highlighted that there is a need to reform the Elected Presidency
27 Jan 06- PM Lee agrees in Parliament that the Elected Presidency needs a review.
10 Feb 06- PM Lee calls for the review of the EP, Constitutional Commission formed. 
18 April 06 - Public consultation conducted with 19 individuals and organisations. (Suggestions are seemingly cherrypicked to suit a certain agenda.)
18 Aug 06 - CNA-IPS survey was published to state that people vote by race.
4 Sept 06 - PM Lee goes on CNA using the same survey to justify the need to review the EP.
7 Sept 06 - Release of review report by Constitutional Commission.
15 Sept 06- Acceptance of report by Parliament in its White Paper.
10 Oct 06 - Reading of amendments to the EP for the first time in Parliament. (expected to be passed in second reading in November)

One has only need to look at the amount of propaganda on the issue of EP and the speed in which the amendment process was brought up and carried out to figure that there is a story behind the whole review process.

Also, note that PM Lee had noted himself during the CNA interview on 4 September that no minority group has spoken up on the issue. PM Lee said, “We are not in a situation where the minorities are demanding something and the majorities are pushing back saying 'We don’t want it' - I think it is something that which we need to do. I’m pushing this not because I feel pressure from the minorities or because we need to make a political gesture, but because I think it’s a right thing to do. It’s a right thing to do. Nobody is asking, but I think it’s something which we ought to do and do now for the long term of Singapore.”

So why did the President voiced this matter in his speech in January, well, we have to refer to what Law Minister K. Shanmugam said in a forum at the Institute of Policy Studies on 5 August 2011. Mr K Shanmugam said, "The president can speak on issues only as authorised by the Cabinet...He must follow the advice of the Cabinet in the discharge of his duties." He further noted that the president has to speak and act on the advice of the Government.

Therefore the whole idea that PM Lee was inspired by the speech by Mr Tony Tan to call for a review is somewhat nonsensical, given that he would have been the person to give the directions of what Mr Tan was to say in his speech.

Why does PAP fear Dr Tan Cheng Bock as the Elected President?

First and foremost, did you know that the government withdrew 55 times from the reserves between 2002 to July 2010? Read "Reserves used 55 times but how much?"

Although the government tried to justify that the 55 withdrawals were for the purpose of land reclamation and acquisitions, it still does not detract from the fact that the public was kept from the matter with the silence of late S R Nathan during his full 12 years term. This alarming fact was only brought to light when Non-constituency Member of Parliament, Lina Chiam asked a question in Parliament.

Yes, until today we still do not know how much had been withdrawn, and we also do not know how many times have Mr Tony Tan approved the withdrawal of reserves.

The first elected President of Singapore, Mr Ong Teng Cheong had shared in an interview after his term as President, of the difficulties he faced trying to audit the reserves of Singapore and the finances of the government. Given that he was only given one staff in his office and had to depend on the ministries to provide the figures to him, it would seem clear that the PAP government had no intention for the Elected President to carry out his job diligently and which probably explains why Mr Ong was subsequently ostracised by the PAP leaders for just being what an ideal President should be.

As for Dr Tan, he has constantly displayed the extent of his principle and stance in many instances over the years. One notable example, is when he defied the party whip and voted against the Nominated Member of Parliament scheme.

A president with Dr Tan's character would mean that many questionable requests — not to give clemency to death row inmates, withdrawal of reserves for "welfare policies" and etc — will be made public and having the president to be vocal about controversial policies and appointment of positions by the PAP administration.

One such example of controversial appointments that a person like Dr Tan will find issues with, would be the appointment of Mr Lucien Wong as Attorney-General in November 2016 to succeed Mr V K Rajah S.C for a 3-year term with effect from 14 January 2017. Mr Wong at the age of 63, was succeeding Mr Rajah who is retiring at the age of 60.

Through the revelation on 14 June 2017 in the joint statement of Dr Lee Weiling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang, it is made known that Mr Wong has acted as PM Lee's personal lawyer on matters concerning 38 Oxley Road from 2015, and unknown when his commercial interest with PM Lee ended, or ended at all. No one knew Mr Wong was PM Lee's personal lawyer when he was appointed. Even when the Minister of Law and Home Affairs addressed concerns over Mr Wong's appointment in Parliament, he made no mention of the matter to the Members of Parliament.

While PM Lee has stated that he had cleared Mr Wong's appointment with the cabinet, CPA and the President during his closing statement on 4 July 2017, but this does not make the appointment of Mr Wong anymore justified. Any layman would ask if there is no better lawyer in Singapore who is younger and free of conflict of interest in order to carry out his or her duties as an independent individual to advise the government on legal matters. Despite PM Lee and Ms Indranee Rajah's praise for Mr Wong's exemplary performance as a lawyer, many would believe there are quite a number of lawyers who can also be up to the task.

The appointment of PAP's former MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, Mr Hri Kumar Nair as Deputy Attorney General, is also no more different when it comes to conflict of interest or the lack of public appearance of impartiality.

PAP would want to avoid an elected president that will prevent it from carrying out its little tricks for the next General Election, given that it will not have the same luxury as it did in the GE2015 to secure a large margin with the death of Singapore's founding Prime Minister and SG50 celebrations. Such as fixing the date for when the election will be held and other schemes to secure a tactical advantage for PAP.

PAP thinks that this amendment is a done deal

Mr Shanmugam had answered a question on whether the amendments are just to ensure that some individuals will not get elected at a dialogue session on 15 September 2016.

He responded by prejudging that Dr Tan will not qualify under the new eligibility rules, "You might as well mention the name of Tan Cheng Bock… Dr Tan won’t qualify (under the new eligibility rules) because he didn’t actually run a company. He was (a) non-executive. And of course, the company is not S$500m shareholders' equity. So I think the key thing in this is to really, first leave aside the individual and look at the system. And ask yourself logically, whether... do we, as a Government, do what is right, based on the system, or do we worry (that) some people are going to say this is to knock out people we don't like? You know, more than 1,000 people will qualify from the private sector. Do you think we know who they are and we can make sure that they are all going to be OK? It’s not possible."

The above statement by Mr K Shanmugam, ironically shows how certain PAP is on the new amendments being able to debar Dr Tan from standing as a candidate and it is 100% confident that the proposed amendments will go through given that it controls the majority seats in Parliament. Even if MPs from the Workers' Party were to vote against the amendments, the bill would still be passed in the second hearing.

But despite all the blatant changes to debar Dr Tan, individuals from PAP such as Mr Shanmugam seems to be afraid of having a public confrontation on the proposed amendments with Dr Tan.

REACH cancelled a dialog session that was to be held on 29 September with Mr Shanmugam and Minister of State Chee Hong Tat as speakers. REACH gave a reason of "poor response" for the cancellation but subsequently it was revealed that Dr Tan had signed up for the forum along with his family. TOC has written to REACH for clarification on the actual registred participants cancellation but has yet received any reply.

It is unlikely that a forum held by the national feedback agency would have garnered such a poor response that the forum had to be cancelled. It would be more likely that individuals had cold feet to confront the subject of their fixing or to have their agenda bare out naked in the public eye.

This amendment to the Elected Presidency shows that the PAP government has degraded to a point where it thinks that it has a blank cheque to do whatever it wants to secure its political power, and to prevent checks and balance on its administration of Singapore regardless the means used.

With all the fixing and haphazard amendments to the Elected Presidency, should this not be right opportunity to ask for the position of President to be reverted to a ceremonial appointment. To let the PAP government to have its fun in appointing its preferred candidate so as not give a false impression that an Elected President provides security against a rogue government.

Like what Mr Low Thia Khiang, Secretary General of Workers' Party, had said during a doorstop interview, the Elected Presidency was created with the assumption that the president can prevent a rogue government from squandering away the reserves. Mr Low noted that it is always assumed that a future opposition government will squander away the reserve, but on the contrary, "what is likely to happen is that you have a PAP government with an elected president which is from the establishment, both squander away the national reserves."

"That to me is the real risk" said Mr Low

Update: This article is updated with the recent revelation that Lucien Wong, a personal lawyer of the Prime Minister was made the Attorney General, despite over the age of retirement.