The President of Singapore, Halimah Yacob has issued a statement on her Facebook (FB) page saying that she has given her support for Singapore to draw on its past reserves to fund a fourth support package — a sum of $33 billion — in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in principle.
As most people will know, among the powers of the office of the President in Singapore, is the power to veto any drawing on the reserves.
Without going into the details of whether or not this drawing is necessary, there is still a pervading question that needs to be asked. Does Madam Halimah know what is in our reserves in the first place? If she doesn’t, then, on what basis is she giving her approval?
In order to exercise her powers responsibly, does she not need to assess the facts for herself?
When the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong was the President, he had sought to take this power seriously. He had repeatedly asked for the details of what was in our reserves only to be met with a wall of obfuscation. Ong was however persistent, saying later that he “had a job to do, whether the government liked it or not”. He later stated that he was unable to protect what he didn’t know what he was supposed to protect.
So responsible and determined he was that he ended up in a dispute with the government. When he ordered a report on the national reserves, he was told by the government that it would take 56 man years to produce a dollar and cents value of its assets.
From this example, and also from the retort given by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat when Pritam Singh of the Workers’ Party asked about the reserves, it is clear that anything to do with the reserves is a hush hush topic. So, it might be a guess based on precedent that Madam Halimah does not know what is in the reserves.
What then is she supporting?
This goes back to the question of why there is any power given to the office of the President at all or why that role is even necessary? What is the point of giving a power that you have no intention of honouring (Ong’s example)? What is the point of giving a power when the person wielding it appears to assent just for the sake of it (ostensibly Halimah Yacob’s example)?
Madam Halimah’s support could well be meaningless in this case because she may not even know what she is agreeing to.