Elected presidency in Singapore: A reflection on late Ong Teng Cheong’s legacy and questions on Tharman’s independence

Elected presidency in Singapore: A reflection on late Ong Teng Cheong’s legacy and questions on Tharman’s independence

When the news broke that Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, a stalwart of Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) for two decades, would be resigning his party and cabinet roles to contest the upcoming Presidential Election, local media outlets were quick to highlight his many achievements.

Mr Tharman himself spoke of his intent to serve as a “unifying figure”, dedicated to upholding the integrity of Singapore’s system and fortifying its social compact.

“I put myself forward to serve to the best of my ability using all my experience in economics, finance, and international affairs, as well as the standing I have internationally,” he declared, expressing humility about his chances of winning the election, which must be held before 13 September.

Yet amidst these affirmations, we must ask: how effective and independent can Tharman be in providing a check and balance to the PAP-led government as an elected president?

An examination of the tenure of Singapore’s first elected president, the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong, who is fondly remembered as the ‘People’s President’, may provide some perspective.

Ong Teng Cheong: “I had a job to do”

Mr Ong served as Singapore’s president from 1993 to 1999, having held various ministerial portfolios in the PAP government and the position of secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) prior to that.

His experience in the presidential role was not without its challenges, though, as he revealed in a press conference in July 1999, announcing his decision not to stand for re-election.

During this press conference, Mr Ong raised a “long list” of problems he had encountered in trying to protect past reserves.

These included the amount of time it would take the Accountant-General to produce a list of the Government’s physical assets, his own “unpleasant” encounter over withholding approval for a statutory board’s budget that would have drawn on its past reserves, his disappointment over the Government not needing him to unlock past reserves to finance its cost-cutting measures, and his concerns over whether Net Investment Income (NII) should be treated as current reserves or past reserves.

He also raised concerns about the approach to accrual accounting, stating that it could potentially allow a profligate Government to hide its lavish spending under the guise of capital expenditures.

These concerns triggered responses from key government figures, including then Finance Minister Dr Richard Hu Tsu Tau, who attempted to clarify misunderstandings over the Accountant-General’s statement on the “56 man-years” needed just to value the existing properties and defended the government’s position on accrual accounting.

Similarly, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong acknowledged the disagreements between the President and the Government but underscored that these differences were neither irreconcilable nor unhealthy.

Mr Goh clarified that the Government’s reluctance to support Mr Ong’s re-election was solely due to concerns over his health rather than any perceived inadequacy in his performance or exercise of his custodial powers.

In a 1999 Asiaweek interview after he stepped down as president, Mr Ong revealed he wasn’t given a full accounting of Singapore’s reserves until five years into his term, despite his constitutional responsibility to protect them.

“As president, I have to safeguard them and they can only be drawn upon with my permission. So I said to Mr Goh: It’s already halfway through my term, but until today I still don’t know all these figures about the reserves.” said Mr Ong.

His repeated inquiries over three years resulted in piecemeal data and a compromise to only provide a list of governmental properties, not their actual values. Even after a long delay, the property list was incomplete, reflecting the difficulty he experienced in obtaining necessary transparency to effectively fulfil his duties.

In the interview, Mr Ong also expressed frustration with the lack of transparency from the government regarding key decisions.

Despite constitutional provisions granting him access to all cabinet information, he was often left in the dark about matters concerning the nation’s reserves, learning of significant decisions like the sale of the Post Office Savings Bank (POSB) to DBS Bank from newspaper reports.

“Even in my last year as president, I was still not being informed about some ministerial procedures. For example, in April last year, the government said it would allow the sale of the Post Office Savings Bank POSB to DBS Bank. In the past, when there was no elected president, they could just proceed with this kind of thing.

Mr Ong said, “But when there is an elected president you cannot, because the POSB is a statutory board whose reserves are to be protected by the president. You cannot just announce this without informing him. But I came to know of it from the newspaper. That is not quite right. Not only that, but they were even going to submit a bill to parliament for this sale and to dissolve the POSB without first informing me.”

“My office went to tell them that this was the wrong procedure. You’ve got to do this first, do that first, before you can do this. It was question of principle and procedure. We had to bring all this to their attention. That they cannot forget us.”

“It’s not that we are busybodies, but under the Constitution we have a role to play and a responsibility. Sometimes in the newspaper I came to know of things that I am responsible for, but if it had not been reported in the newspaper I would not know about it.”

When asked if Mr Ong was angry that this was still happening in his last year as president, Mr Ong said was a bit grumpy and maybe not to the liking of the civil service.

” They did not like what I said. But I have to be a watchdog all the time, you see. So this is where they are supposed to help me to protect the reserves. And not for me to go and watch out when they do right or wrong.”

“…I sourced much information from the cabinet papers. But they are not used to it. So I said: I understand, it’s something new, and I know you don’t like my interference and busybody checking up and so on. But under the Constitution it is my job to do that.”

Rubber stamps?

The historical context of Mr Ong’s presidency is crucial as we consider Tharman’s potential candidacy.

Since Mr Ong’s tenure, PAP has amended the constitution in 1996 to necessitate presidential consultation with the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) on matters concerning past reserves and key public appointments. If the president’s decision diverges from the CPA’s advice, Parliament can override it with a two-thirds majority vote.

This amendment, coupled with the substantial parliamentary majority of PAP, arguably renders the purpose of an elected president moot.

The president, rather than acting as an independent check and balance on government power, may instead be relegated to a largely ceremonial role, rendering them little more than a rubber stamp for the ruling party’s decisions.

It could even be wondered whether opinions expressed by Mr Ong to the PAP Government during his tenure led to these amendments to the Constitution in 1996.

Reflecting on history, there has been no known instance of an elected or walkover president vetoing the ruling party’s requests. This includes requests ranging from the drawdown of reserves to the appointment of key office holders which are proposed by current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, such as Mr Lucien Wong.

Despite being the former lawyer of PM Lee and being above the retirement age for an Attorney General, Mr Wong has been appointed to this position three times without question.

So, as Mr Tharman embarks on his presidential bid, Singaporeans must question: Can he maintain his independence under the current Presidential system?

Despite his stellar track record, one wonders whether Mr Tharman will face struggles similar to those Mr Ong encountered during his presidential term. After over two decades as a politician with PAP, can Mr Tharman put aside his past political connections like Mr Ong? Or, will he follow in the footsteps of Mdm Halimah Yacob’s six-year presidency?

Ultimately, these questions can only be answered with time and if and when Mr Tharman is elected President by Singaporeans in the upcoming Presidential Election.

Additionally, Mr Tharman’s prior positions as the Minister of Finance from 2007 to 2015, as Chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) since May 2011, and as Deputy Chairman of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) since May 2019, which all entailed reserve management, add complexity to the issue.

Will Mr Tharman be tasked with auditing the work he executed in his previous roles?

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