04 June 2005

Elected Presidency Sweepstakes

A ST Still Doesn't Get It Edition

M Nirmala of the Straits Times writes more convincingly and professionally than her colleagues at the paper. However in her article "Why so few takers for this job?", she misses the entire point of the weakness of the Elected Presidency. She mistakes the man for the office, procedural legitimacy for credibility, the symptom for the problem. The issue is not whether the next Elected President, most likely be unopposed, will be seen as illegitimate; the issue is whether the office of the elected president will be seen as a discredited institution.

Recall that the Elected President has, since 1993, the power to veto spending of national reserves and key public appointments, and powers to override ministers who try to cover up graft investigations. As the received wisdom goes, previously the presidency was a ceremonial post, but now there is real power - the power as a watchdog and rapper of heads of irresponsible and profligate governments.

Ong Teng Cheong tested if he could indeed exercise his powers, by asking for a list of the national reserves. He did not say he wanted to veto anything or to investigate graft, but you do need to know what the reserves are. We know from history that then-PM Goh Chok Tong's government stonewalled the President, then rewrote the constitution to curb his powers. And so on.

In their roundup and summary of SR Nathan's following presidency, the ST (Singapore's Xinhua News Agency) applauded his "non-activist" style, his studied avoidance of conflict with the government, and most interestingly did not bother to elaborate that this avoidance could only come about by not exercising his constitutional duties as a guardian of the reserves. No, the genial gentleman is remembered more for attending charity concerts and cutting ribbons. And refusing to pardon a former Singaporean athlete from his death sentence. But genial and jovial overall. This reversion to a ceremonial presidency by Singapore's first unelected elected president (Nathan stood unopposed in 1999) does not diminish Nathan's legitimacy, it does however diminish the credibility of the office.

The lack of contenders, according to M Nirmala, may lead to a key weakness of the institution. That is slightly incorrect: the institution of the elected presidency, with its strange rules that seem to limit contenders to only high-level senior civil servants and businessmen, is weak because there is no interest in it. If you (say, Ngiam Tong Dow) were a top-level senior civil servant in charge of national policy before your retirement, and were still interested in commenting on civil service reform, the Elected Presidency will be your ideal platform tomb. If President Ong (alledgedly) got into trouble for trying to do his job seriously, imagine what will happen if the next President decides to influence public debate and foster reform? Why, that would be an abrogation of MiniLee's domain?!

So, our leaders have created a post that expected a smart and independent brain, but demand its holder to act pretty. Very few people (top civil servants? elite businessmen?) would want to jump for this sinecure, unless they're very unmotivated and undriven.

After almost 50 years of Presidents of Singapore, Lee has finally found his machinations foiled: Singapore has run out of top civil servants in their sunset years, cabinet ministers will treat an "invitation" to run for president to be a convenient way of being kicked upstairs, and businessmen are more ambitious than accept the intellectual death the presidency implies.

1 comment:

Vernon said...

Sorry for posting a non-related comment, but thanks for linking to my blog!