Dr Tan Cheng Bock, former Member of Parliament and candidate in the Presidential Election 2011, raised the question to the Singapore Government in a press conference held on Friday (31 March), whether it is correct to set the Presidential Election 2017 as a reserved election under the newly introduced amendments to the Elected Presidency.
“I would urge the Government to explain, or refer AGC’s opinion to Court to confirm whether AGC’s advice is in sync with the Commission’s spirit and purpose for having reserved elections.” said Dr Tan.
Under the amendments, a reserved election is set aside by the government for a minority race if no candidate from a particular minority group has been elected as the President after five open elections.
The Government has said that the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) advised Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that 2017 will be the first reserved election. This is based on AGC counting 5 consecutive presidential terms beginning with President Wee Kim Wee.
Questionable advice from AGC
Dr Tan in his speech, questioned whether AGC’s method of counting is actually in line with the spirit and purpose put forward by the Constitutional Commission for having a reserved election.
He pointed out that the report from the Constitutional Commission which the Government has accepted, originally said: “..if free and unregulated elections produce Presidents from a varied distribution of ethnicities, the requirement of a reserved election will never be triggered.”
Noting that the “free and unregulated” elections mentioned by the Commission, are “open elections” that are not closed to a specific group of candidates. Elections where candidates of all races can stand, and voters can elect a President who is Chinese, Malay, Indian or any other race.
Dr Tan noted that the AGC included a nominated President in their count despite Commission’s emphasis was on open elections, where voters fail to vote in a minority president.
No debate in Parliament about AGC’s advice
Dr Tan pointed out that there was no debate on whether AGC advised the Government correctly and that it also declined the opportunity to explain this in Parliament.
This is in reference to a question posed by Member of Parliament, Sylvia Lim to Minister in the Prime Minister Office, Chan Chun Sing, who avoided the MP’s question by asking her to go to the courts if she feels that there is anything improper.
Ms Lim said in her speech,
“Clause 3 introduces a new section 5A that to determine whether an election is reserved under Article 19B of the Constitution, one has to refer to the new Schedule. The Schedule sets out a table showing President Wee Kim Wee as the first President to be counted. Together with the subsequent presidential terms of President Ong Teng Cheong, two terms of President SR Nathan and one term of President Tony Tan, these formed five terms where a non-Malay President was in office. Thus the Government reaches the conclusion that this year’s Presidential election will be reserved for Malays.
Madam, this is a conclusion that has left Singaporeans bewildered and suspicious. To recap, during the November debate, the Prime Minister told the House for the first time that the Government had received advice from the Attorney-General’s Chambers on how to apply the hiatus-triggered mechanism for reserved elections, that is, which President’s term to count from. We were told that the advice was that counting should begin from President Wee Kim Wee who was the first President to exercise the powers of an Elected President. This advice was surprising and illogical to many Singaporeans, given that President Wee Kim Wee was never elected to office. When I asked Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean then whether the Government would publish the AGC’s advice for Singaporeans to better understand the reasoning, the Government appeared reluctant to do so and even asked me whether I was suggesting that the Prime Minister was not being truthful.”
Mr Chan retorted Ms Lim’s point in his speech by saying:
“Ms Lim once again questioned the Attorney-General’s advice. I am a bit bewildered by this. I would like to clarify: (a) Is Ms Lim suggesting that the Attorney-General did not give the Government the appropriate advice? Or (b) that the Prime Minister has not been truthful with the Attorney-General’s advice? If it is the first, then I think Ms Lim, as suggested by Deputy Prime Minister Teo, can challenge this in the courts. But if it is the second, then I am afraid it is a very serious issue to cast aspersions on the integrity of our Prime Minister. Ms Lim, you are a lawyer; I am not a lawyer. You will know that when you get advice, you do not freely publicise your advice and you may have various reasons why you do not publicise all your advice. And as a lawyer, I think you will know this better than me. So, I think we should not impute motives on this Government or the Prime Minister.”
Dr Tan said that he had already resigned that the fact that he cannot stand in the upcoming Presidential Election but found something to be amiss when the Minister responded to the question in such a manner.
He said, “…that triggered me to study this issue very very well. Because why do you want to push somebody to court to challenge you? There is no need to, it is just a simple question. Tell me, whether this is the right approach or whether this is the wrong approach, And if you convince us that it is the right approach, we close the case. We will just move on.”
History shows four open presidential election in Singapore so far
Dr Tan states that history shows that Singapore has only invoked 4 open presidential elections. The Prime Minister only issued 4 writs of Presidential Elections: in 1993, 1999, 2005 and 2011.
“Our 1st open election returned President Ong Teng Cheong. President Nathan was returned unopposed in the 2nd and 3rd open elections. The 4th open election produced President Tony Tan. Following the Commission’s recommendations as accepted by the Government, 2017 should be an open election.” said Dr Tan.
He added that President Wee never stood for election, “He was a President nominated by Government. He only exercised the powers of an elected president for less than ½ a term. Those powers were given to him by Parliament as a transitional provision. But his term was never an Elected Presidency.”
Dr Tan referred to the comments by Dr Jack Tsen-Ta Lee, Assistant Professor of Law of the Singapore Management University who wrote about the matter, “Although he (President Wee) exercised all the discretionary powers of an elected president, the first truly elected President was Ong Teng Cheong.”
He said, “In all my 26 years in Parliament we had always referred to Mr Ong Teng Cheong as the first elected President. Our Presidents past and present, and Ministers and MPs in Parliament have ALL referred to President Ong Teng Cheong directly or indirectly as Singapore’s first elected president and his term as the 1st elected presidency. Even the Constitutional Commission’s Report contains a statement calling President Ong Teng Cheong the first elected president. That is also the view of most, if not all, Singaporeans I’ve spoken to.”
Presidency should not be defended by money
When asked about him being not qualified under the new regulation for financial experience of the candidate, Dr Tan said that he will leave the decision to the select committee. “I got the first COA, that means I must have qualified.”
“But if you ever want to defend the presidency by money. Then I am so sad for this country. We must never define the presidency by money. We must define presidency by people who believes in multiculturalism. People who have the right character, who have served this country for a long time, who believes in the people. That is the kind of President, we want. But if you want to define the presidency by money, I don’t know what kind of legacy I am going to leave to my children or my grandchildren.
He later answered in a subsequent question, ” if one person comes from a foreign country and become a Singapore citizen and he owns a big company. He is more qualified than me to stand for election as President because he has reached $500 million paid up equalities. And is that type of people you want to qualify?”
Elected Presidency be tainted with the suspicion of preventing Dr Tan’s candidacy
Dr Tan who nearly won the election from the People’s Action Party endorsed candidate, Dr Tony Tan back in 2011, losing a mere 0.34% after a recount, said that if the Government simply accepts AGC’s advice without explaining why they accepted the accuracy of the opinion, he is concerned that the Elected Presidency will always be tainted with the suspicion that the reserved elections of 2017, was introduced to prevent his candidacy.
He said that he will leave his options open and has his team ready anytime the election is being called. He said, “If you ask me, I want to serve you. I want to serve you to the best of my ability… I run town councils, I run CDCs. In fact I am so familiar with Singapore, the workings of Singapore that I am prepared to assume that role to look after your reserves and to make sure that the appointments of people in the government are in the right order. And that would require people with independence, people with integrity, transparency, and that is what I bring with me if ever I would want to go into the Presidency.”