Wednesday, 4 October 2023

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The discretionary power of our elected president – A timely revelation by Ho Ching?

by Joseph Nathan

Some Singaporeans were surprised when Halimah Yacob announced that she would not be seeking a second term, just days before Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong directed the Elections Department to conduct an Electoral Review for the Presidential Election (PE) 2023.

However, the dead silence that followed, where not a soul from the People’s Action Party (PAP)-led government or the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) seemed to bother to customarily thank her for her past contributions, signified that something was not right in the “highest public office” in Singapore.

When Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced his intention to run for PE2023, we saw how even PM Lee found the time for a personal exchange of letters with him.

Even Ng Chee Meng, who, despite being booted out by voters of the Sengkang GRC, managed to retain his appointment as the Secretary-General of the NTUC. He was quick to show his glowing support for Tharman, calling him “Brother Tharman”. While the NTUC warmly embraced Tharman, why was their response so cold towards Halimah?

To understand why one was greeted with a brotherly warmth while the other received a cold shoulder, we need to examine what Ho Ching, the wife of Lee and the Chairman of the Temasek Trust, shared about the role of the Elected Presidency.

The Elected Presidency, according to Ho, has two roles. The first function is its role as the Head of State that “represents Singapore as a nation and state”.

However, I disagree with Ho regarding whether it can play the role of being the “Symbol of Unity” for our country.

In my opinion, this remains subjective as we have seen just how divisive past nominees of the government have been when elected or appointed as President.

When she elaborated that the second function is to “hold a second key to help safeguard our reserves and the integrity of our key institutions”, she meant that the Prime Minister, her husband, cannot unilaterally draw upon our reserves or appoint whoever he wants to head our key institutions without the president’s approval.

However, Ho did not go into detail about what happens if the President refuses to give consent for the Prime Minister to draw upon our reserves or appoint his preferred candidates at our public institutions or agencies.

In such an event, the Council of Presidential Advisers, who the PAP-led government currently appoints, can veto the president.

Should this happen, then the matter would be decided by the parliament. Again, with the PAP holding a majority in parliament today, the president can be overruled, and the Prime Minister can still use the reserve or appoint his preferred candidates.

As such, if we re-frame this reality as a potential “real case scenario”, then we can deduce that if Halimah decided not to support Lee in using our reserves or supporting the appointment of his preferred candidate, PM Lee could still go to parliament, where the PAP currently has a majority, to get the required support, with or without Halimah.

Could this be why Halimah decided to quit and refuse to play along in a position that lacks real power to act as “the custodian of the nation’s reserves and be an effective check against governmental decisions, should the occasion arise”?

While it’s understandable that she may be tired of enduring the endless curses and swearing from Singaporeans angry with the controversies surrounding her presidency, we must also acknowledge the fact that, in the final analysis, she may well be doing what is right for the people.

The limitation of the Elected Presidential Discretionary Power is indeed interesting to note.

According to Ho, the Elected President is “not to be an independent voice, a check on government, or an ombudsman to all the woes and ills of society”.

But when she goes on to state that “when we design an election system to safeguard the reserves, this is typically at odds with the desires of the electorate”, I find it very troubling that she actually used the word “we”, as if she was involved in the design of the current election system for the safeguard of our reserves. If so, she is not only a very honest person but must also be a very powerful lady, no?

However, when she drew the conclusion that “most of the electorate (which means Singaporeans, both Core and New) want the government to spend more and not less, to subsidize this or that, or to make this or that free, not to prevent a spendthrift government from raising (I think she means “raiding” and not “raising”) the reserve”, she seemed to forget how hypocritical her statement really sounds.

With the Ridout’s Fiasco still fresh in the minds of Singaporeans, we can see just what a bunch of hypocrites the PAP politicians really are.

They are asking Singaporeans to accept that being “land-scarce”, we have to accept smaller public housing flats that look like shoeboxes, while they are behaving like “Crazy Rich Politicians”, living the high-life at our expense.

Isn’t the PAP-led government equally hypocritical & spendthrift when they start spending billions to build the extravagant Jewel at Changi Airport and the massive Mandai Wildlife Reserve, citing that this is part of their latest economic plan to draw in the “projected” tourism dollars?

The Elected President vs. The Council Of Presidential Advisers

So Ho’s line of argument suggests that should a day come when our government is spendthrift and keeps throwing good money away by making poor investments or rehashing empty promises, like as if “we can qualify for FIFA World Cup by 2034”, or “we are building these iconic developments to draw in the tourism dollars”, even then, there is nothing that the Elected President can do in its current form.

That means if the Elected President wants to object or convene an inquiry, like in the case of the Keppel’s bribery scandal, the Council of Presidential Advisers, who are appointed by the government, can still use their veto to block the President and refer the matter to parliament.

But if the majority of the parliament is controlled by the same government, then the Elected President can just go suck his or her thumb while the government continues with their extravagances and foolishness.

Why is the Council of Presidential Advisers given so much power that they can veto a democratically Elected President? Isn’t this a flawed system that may favour a rogue government someday? How can Singaporeans effect change in this discrepancy?

Can Tharman Do Better Than Halimah?

If what Ho has stated is true and accurate, then someone should be asking Tharman some tough questions. How on earth is he going to “be thorough and impartial in fulfilling the constitutional duties of the president with regard to the prudent use of the nation’s reserves and key appointments that preserve the integrity of the Singapore system” when the Council of Presidential Advisers can veto him from doing what is right?

And when the vetoed motion is referred to the Parliament where the PAP has the majority to rule in its favour, what is Tharman going to do about it? If he has no answer or solution to this, why is Tharman so eager to boast about his past credentials as if they can help him circumvent the Council of Presidential Advisers?

If all the executive power is currently vested in the PAP-led government, then isn’t the Prime Minister technically the most powerful man in Singapore? If so, then what does PM Lee actually mean when he says that should Tharman be elected, he is going to “carry out these duties scrupulously and with the independence of mind” as he always has displayed” when Tharman technically has no power to even check the Prime Minister?

Seriously, someone should be asking Tharman some of these questions to validate the Hard Truths that Ho has painstakingly espoused with great honesty.

What Does Tharman Have To Say About The President’s Discretionary Power As A Politician?

As a Senior Minister and a former Cabinet Minister, there is no way that Tharman can pretend not to know about the limitation of the Discretionary Power of the Elected President.

If he has been part of the team that designed the Election System, then he will now need to explain to Singaporeans, while he is still a PAP politician, why the Council of Presidential Advisers, who are appointed by the PAP-led government, have more power than the Elected President that Singaporeans have elected democratically and constitutionally?

If he had no problem with this discrepancy when he was still a PAP man, how can that be a problem should he get elected as Singapore’s Ninth President?

As such, Singaporeans must realize by now that Tharman is primarily a career politician who is trained to be an obedient “yes-man” and “do as he is told” type of guy.

So Who Can Truly Unite Singapore In PE2023?

The road ahead will not be an easy ride for any independent candidate.

Like in PE2011, where 64.8% of the votes went against the PAP’s nominated candidate, who only managed to garner just 35.2%, there is a high probability that a multi-cornered fight may “conveniently” take place yet again.

If it had been a straight fight between Dr Tony Tan and Dr Tan Cheng Bock, we can safely state that based on the votes that went against the establishment, Dr Tan Cheng Bock would have become Singapore’s seventh President.

For some unknown reason, that high margin of 64.8% seems to have struck deep fear into the PAP when they realized that Singaporeans are looking for a change to restore our country.

Looking ahead as the campaign for PE2023 gains more traction, patriotic Singaporeans must stay united and vote wisely if we still believe that Singaporeans deserve better…

This was first published on Joseph Nathan’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission

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