In the Channel News Asia report by Lianne Chia, Minister in the Prime Minister Office, Chan Chun Sing was quoted to say “No good politician would sacrifice his political capital for a problem that may arise in future generations. Most good politicians in the world would try to preserve their political capital for themselves to manage their current problems.”
This was said after he had asked participants of a forum organised by the Institute of Policy Studies forum on the Reserved Presidential Election, to raise their hands if they thought the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) had and will pay a political price over the recent changes to the Elected Presidency, and the debate surrounding it, including the hiatus-triggered model to ensure minority representation.
No political gain for PAP to amend the Elected Presidency
In response to the agreement of many in the hall, Mr Chan said: “Why, then, did we do this?”
“There are many conspiracy theories out there,” he added. “But for every conspiracy theory that is out there, I have a very good answer for you… If it has to do with an individual, then there are many other ways,” he said. “And if it is for political gain, then surely we are not achieving it as you have rightly pointed out.”
Minister Chan is further quoted saying that PM Lee had taken it upon himself to put in place a system to pre-empt potential issues from arising in the future. “Not for himself, not for his political capital, but always thinking about what this country needs,” he said. “We are prepared to pay the political price, because we think the future of our country is much more important than any political capital that we may have.”
So what Minister Chan is saying is that given the unhappiness regarding the reserved elected presidency, PAP is willing to pay the political price for the interest of the country and clearly not for any political gain.
Now, that is actually logical reasoning if Minister Chan puts it that way. Why would any sensible politician risk their approval ratings with the voters if there is no political gain?
PAP has everything to lose if a non-PAP candidate gets elected
However, look from the other angle, what will PAP be faced with, should an unpreferred candidate be elected as President?
The Elected President, other than functioning as a ceremonial figure who meets with foreign dignitaries, waving his/her hand during National Day Parade and having his/her photo hung everywhere, holds the second key to the national reserve and has the authority to veto key appointments.
This means the government need the President’s signature to withdraw money for government expenditure if there is a need and have appointment of key positions, such as Auditor-General, Attorney General and etc to be signed off by the President, with the power to veto the positions if he or she deems the person unfit or unsuitable for the position.
Other than the above two powers, the President also can issue amnesty for death row convicts. While it will be on the advice of the Parliament cabinet, but a President can still choose to make comments to public about his or her view on the matter. The approval of the President also has to be sought to extend the detention of individuals held under the Internal Security Act, detention without having any trial to prove guilt.
PAP fears checks and balances on its government
Anyone with the slightest of political sense can see from past elections, PAP has its preferred candidate in each and every election, with its last candidate, Dr Tony Tan, former PAP minister nearly losing to Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a former PAP MP by just 0.35% of total votes cast after a recount with Dr Tan Cheng Bock winning in the first round of counting.
The purpose for the introduction of Elected Presidency in 1991 is meant to prevent a rogue government, presumably a political party that is not PAP which takes over the reins of government, from wantonly spending the reserves that have been built up by the governments before.
But what if the President is neutral and not in anyway swayed or influenced by the party that placed the person in the position? Look no further than late President Ong Teng Cheong, who wanted to know how much exactly Singapore had in its reserve and tried to know more about the country’s operation by asking each individual ministry. Instead of being given straight answers, Mr Ong was being hampered in all sorts of ways to do his work and given minimum resources to collate data. (Read Mr Ong’s interview with Asiaweek after stepping down)
On 19 July 1999, Mr Ong had to hold a press conference, likely without the approval of the PAP government to highlight the problems that he is facing. He noted,
(a) It would take the Accountant-General “52 man-years” to produce the list of physical assets of the Government.
(b) One “unpleasant” encounter where he had to withhold approval of a statutory board budget because it would have caused a draw on its past reserves.
(c) Whether Net Investment Income (NII) should be treated as current reserves or past reserves.
(d) His “disappointment” that the Government did not need him to unlock the past reserves to finance its package of cost cutting measures because it had changed its treatment of NII.
While the government addressed his concern in Parliament, but clearly PAP was not happy that such matters are being brought out in open. Just look at the way how he was treated during his term and how he was remembered after his death, lack of state funeral and etc.
Given that with the terms of late President Nathan and President Tony Tan were smooth sailing with no complaints what so ever, did it mean the government has changed its way and addressed the issues that Mr Ong faced during his presidential term?
Clearly, that is not the case, especially highlighted by the allegations made by Dr Lee Weiling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang against their brother, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who cleared his name by proclaiming himself of being innocent in Parliament, not in court and not through an investigation. Mr Tony Tan kept quiet throughout the entire saga, only emerging from his hiding to appear at National Day Parade to wave his hand to the cheering crowd and families at their TV set.
Therefore, given the current absolute lack of checks and balances that persist in the government, an independent President who finds him or herself answerable to the electorates instead to the PAP administration, is a nightmare for the party which had virtually free rein over what it wants to do.
So when Minister Chan said that the introduction of the amendments for the Elected Presidency to make it a racist unmeritocratic process as being something along the line of “Not for himself, not for his political capital, but always thinking about what this country needs,”, he fails to note that it is crucial for PAP’s candidate to win the election to ensure any abuse of power or improper deals, such as one appointing one’s personal lawyer as the Attorney General, to stay hidden from the public eye.
Tactful comment by Minister Chan on PAP having to face political repercussion
Minister Chan’s comment on political repercussion to the forum is also politically tactful in the case of Singapore politics and how it influences voting behavior of the electorates.
On the eve of the next election, the media and party will recall all the negative stuff that happened over the span of years and regret their poor behavior over the past few years, maybe shedding a tear or two again during their rallies.
“PAP leadership hints possible loss of power” will be published as the headlines on cooling off day after speeches made by PM or the PAP chairman the night before at the rally with people will coming to a conclusion that PAP will be voted out as government.
In fear of an opposition-run government, and the absence of exit polls to indicate how votes are cast, voters will be inclined to vote on the safe side to ensure PAP stays as the ruling party because they have no idea what a Singapore would be with scattered opposition parties as the ruling party or coalition. With that, PAP will likely be voted in with high votes again.
The ironic scenario where the worse PAP performs, the more likely it will get more votes because of the local voter mindset.