Monday, 25 September 2023

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The Singapore president should be truly independent

by Toh Han Shih

Recently, several prominent figures have expressed their views on the role of the Singapore President, which is highly pertinent since the president will be elected by the people in a few months. They include Ho Ching, the wife of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and two presidential hopefuls, George Goh and Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

Apparently, Ho Ching will not run for president, thus dispelling rumours that she might. Nonetheless, she has expressed her opinions on the presidency in multiple Facebook posts.

Ho Ching made a Facebook post on June 14 which said the Singapore president “is not to be an independent voice”, a check on the government, “or an ombudsman to all the woes and ills of society.”

“For that the usual political, civic and civil processes will be the right avenues, including voting for a (government) during a general election,” she wrote.

“So folks, by all means, step forward to run for the Presidential elections in (Singapore). But don’t fly the false flag of independence, check and balance, complaints bureau, etc.,” she added.

On June 16, Ho Ching said in her Facebook post that the presidency is not about choosing someone to “check” the government or to “check the accounts” of the government.

In her Facebook post on June 24, Ho Ching said the elected president is “not intended to be a partisan or divisive figure.”

In a Facebook post on June 21, George Goh, a businessman, said, “What does independence mean to me? It means that I have no political ties and will not work in the interest of any party, but for Singaporeans alone.”

“In the media interview yesterday, I said that I have no intention of going head to head with the executive on issues and am committed to working with the Government of the day. But I am also clear that the Constitution has laid out two key areas of the reserves and key appointments that the President has power in, and I intend to exercise this power faithfully and to my best ability,” George Goh wrote.

On June 11, Senior Minister Tharman told reporters that if elected president, he will be like a referee, not teammates with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), of which he has been a minister for many years.

Tharman gave more nuance to his position when he spoke at a seminar of Chatham House, a London think tank, on June 13. At the Chatham House talk, Tharman clarified that the president’s role is not to challenge the Singapore government on behalf of the people, but rather the president is elected by the people to preserve the integrity of the Singapore system, financial integrity as well as the integrity of key appointments to public service.

So how independent should the Singapore president be?

Consider two extremes.

On one extreme, the last emperor of the Han Dynasty, Emperor Xian, was a puppet under the tight control of the warlord Cao Cao who dominated northern China roughly 1,800 years ago.

On the other extreme, a constitutional leader can wield significant power, as in the case of Australian Governor-General Sir John Kerr, who sacked Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975.

Lee Kuan Yew’s perspective

It is worth recounting the views of the late Lee Kuan Yew since he was the chief architect of the elected presidency.

In an article of the Straits Times on 12 August 1999, the first prime minister of Singapore said the elected presidency was his proposal. Ong Teng Cheong was the first person to be elected Singapore president in 1993. Previous presidents were not elected.

“I proposed it in the mid-80s, because I was thinking in terms of what would happen several elections down the road. My worry was two-fold, that in the nature of our system there’s no guarantee that you will not get a government of opportunists and adventurers, in which case, the reserves which we had accumulated over 30 years will be depleted just within five years,” Lee Kuan Yew told the Straits Times.

“Next, worse, you have ministers interfering with the selection of men for top civil service positions because they want officers who carry out their orders. I don’t need weak men in strong positions. My job was to get strong men to get these top jobs done,” he added.

“There can be only one centre of government in the country. You cannot have two sources of executive power. That executive power is in the Prime Minister and his Cabinet and they are answerable to Parliament. The president is elected by the people to do a specific job, to block bad actions by a bad government but not to interfere in the running of the government. He has no executive powers to initiate anything; certainly not to stop the government from doing anything. He can only block it spending reserves or making bad appointments. The comments in the press were based on false premises, that he is a counter-force to the government. He cannot be, because then the government will be immobilised,” Lee Kuan Yew clarified in the Straits Times article.

Lee Kuan Yew further gave his views on the presidency in a Straits Times article on 5 September 2009.

Commenting on a hypothetical scenario of a bad prime minister coming into power, Lee Kuan Yew said that the elected president and the parliamentary system would be a check against the excesses of any prime minister, said the Straits Times article.

“Singapore’s prime minister remains in office only as long as he commands the confidence of the majority of MPs (Members of Parliament) in parliament. If he turns bad, ministers and MPs will know that he will be a liability and not lead them to victory in the next elections. They can remove him by a vote of no confidence and/or the elected president can require the PM (Prime Minister) to seek a vote of confidence in the house,” Lee Kuan Yew told the Straits Times.

In the Straits Times article on 5 September 2009, Lee Kuan Yew, who was then no longer prime minister, said it was not true that the prime minister could have all the important institutions under his control.

Key appointments were subject to the agreement of the president and the council of presidential advisers, and top office bearers could not be removed by the prime minister without the consent of the president, he added.

Based on what Lee Kuan Yew said, the Singapore president’s powers tend towards that of the Australian Governor-General, and the Singapore president is definitely not a helpless puppet like the last emperor of the Han dynasty.

However, the role of the president is not to deliberately oppose the prime minister like the leader of the opposition under the adversarial parliamentary democracy which Singapore inherited from its former colonial rulers, the British.

In that respect, George Goh is right in saying he does not plan to go head-to-head against the prime minister if elected president, and Ho Ching is correct in saying the president should not be a partisan figure.

Lee Kuan Yew is on the same page as Ho Ching in saying there should be only one centre of power in Singapore, namely the prime minister.

Nonetheless, Ho Ching’s statement on Facebook on June 14 that the president should not be an independent voice or a check on the government is not totally in tune with what her father-in-law said.

One of the president’s powers is to decide whether the contract of a senior public officer like the chief executive officer (CEO) of Temasek, a Singapore sovereign wealth fund, should be renewed, as listed in the President’s duties. Ho Ching was previously the CEO of Temasek.

The president also has the power to authorize a corruption investigation on some public official, even if the prime minister objects to it, according to the President’s duties.

If the Singapore Internal Security Act (ISA) advisory board decides that an ISA detainee should be released, but the government objects to it, the president’s concurrence is required for the continued detention of the detainee, as stipulated in the President’s duties.

Thus, the prime minister cannot use the ISA to detain political rivals for long periods on his whim.

Independent non-executive director of Singapore

As I see it, the president of Singapore is partly like an independent non-executive director of a company. The term “non-executive” means the president does not have executive power like the prime minister, but the president should be independent.

An “independent” director is one who has no relationship with the company, its related corporations, its 10 per cent shareholders or its officers that could interfere, or be reasonably perceived to interfere, with the exercise of the director’s independent business judgement with a view to the best interests of the company, according to the Singapore Exchange (SGX).

For companies listed on SGX, the SGX stipulated, “There should be a strong and independent element on the Board, which is able to exercise objective judgement on corporate affairs independently, in particular, from Management and 10 per cent shareholders.”

For Singapore-listed firms, SGX requires independent directors should make up at least half the board where the chairman and CEO are the same person or the chairman and CEO are immediate family members. Independent directors make for better corporate governance. George Goh should understand this, since he controls several companies listed on SGX.

Walter Woon, a former attorney-general and solicitor-general of Singapore, goes further in saying the Singapore president is partly like the chairman of the audit committee of a company. The chairman of the audit committee leads the audit committee in its duties of ensuring a company’s financial statements are reliable, and the company has effective internal controls.

Similarly, the President may veto any budget or transaction if it is likely to lead to a draw on the nation’s past reserves, according to the President’s duties.

In her Facebook post on June 24, Ho Ching said the function of the president “is not to peer into the safe, but to judge if there is a real emergency, and if the amounts being asked for is reasonable as a rainy day need or even as a contingent need. So no lah! We can jaga (guard) the house without going into the house to touch the bed or inspect the bathroom, right?”

How can a president and the Council of Presidential Advisers decide whether to approve a drawdown of the nation’s past reserves, unless they know how much past reserves the country has?

Consider this hypothetical scenario of the government wanting to withdraw S$1 billion from past reserves. When the president decides whether to approve this transaction, it makes a big difference whether the nation’s past reserves is S$1 billion or S$10 trillion.

Consider another scenario of a wife asking her husband for money to buy a diamond necklace. Whether the husband agrees to his wife’s request depends on the family’s bank balance.

Thus, in order to make a sound decision on whether to allow the government to withdraw from past reserves, the president should know the situation of the past reserves.

Therefore, the Singapore president is not an adversary of the prime minister but should be independent and has the potential to check the abuses of a hypothetical bad government, regardless of which party the government belongs to.

Tharman is correct in wanting to play the role of a referee if he becomes president. The Singapore slang “referee kayu” refers to a bad referee. Let us hope Singapore’s next president will be a good referee, not a kayu referee.

Toh Han Shih is chief analyst of Headland Intelligence, a Hong Kong risk consulting firm.

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