13 October 2017

Endgame for the 2017 presidential election

Who won the 2017 presidential election?

The big winner of the 2017 presidential election is not the PAP nor its proxy candidate, Halimah Yacob. This honour goes to the outgoing president, Dr Tony Tan.

Despite making the incredibly hilarious boast that it had the foresight to look 30 years into the future and solve problems preemptively, the People's Action Party did not appear to have foreseen or mitigated way in advance the perfect storm that unravelled during the election. We note that the PAP failed to assuage voters and the establishment (and most notably, the Constitutional Commission) that a racially reserved election was necessary and appropriate, and instead raised increasing public concerns throughout the campaign that it was sacrificing the national values of meritocracy and multiracialism just to ensure only its preferred candidate would qualify and win.

What appeared to be a carefully designed reservation turned out to be a quagmire for everyone involved. Instead of becoming a mere formality, race and culture became a hotly contested issue, and communal politics made a triumphant return to Singapore. The public questioned if all three candidates were really Malay (and was criticised for it by the PAP's proxies), the candidates themselves appeared to make half-hearted efforts to assure the Malay community that they were Malay, and the electoral commission itself asked highly inappropriate questions to the candidates, as if to test their racial and cultural purity (and was not criticised by the PAP's proxies).

Given how the ruling party, state apparatuses, the candidates, and the voters behaved, it might be a good thing that the election ended the way it did: without an election, and without a further campaign. Ironically, it also means that Dr Tony Tan has a far better mandate than Halimah Yacob, having won an actual election under a presidency that was far less controversial and contrived.

The PAP game for the presidency

Being an unelected president means that Halimah Yacob, in Lee Hsein Loong's own words, does not really have the mandate to exercise her custodial powers to veto or approve government requests to say, raid the reserves, appoint retired and senior civil servants to sinecures, or appoint the prime minister's personal lawyer as the next attorney-general.

Whether or not Madam Halimah wishes to run for reelection in six years, the PAP is locked into campaigning to restore the mandate of her presidency. While Tony Tan did his custodial work in relative quiet, Halimah will be the centre of a non-stop publicity relations campaign focusing on her ceremonial work. Victims of Singapore's mainstream media will not be able to escape the barrage of photo-ops seemingly putting her left, right, and centre of the civil society and charity landscape. Those on social media will not escape Madame President's official social media posts. They might even confuse her online verbosity for that of Trump's.

This campaign has already begun, albeit with Madame President's ill-advised decision to stay in her uniquely elite 9-room mansion in "public housing", turning an entire apartment block into the Yishtana.

The ugliest and worst-designed awning in Singapore, JB, and some say Batam
While the Ministry of Home Affairs had to step in to declare her initial decision impractical, it was only after three entire weeks of public derision. One wonders if the PR wizards and spin doctors in the PAP had paid any attention to the uproar over president Trump's original intention to return to his Trump Tower residence for weekends, and how many times he's actually been there since.

That being said, expect the PAP to develop over time and trial and error (or A/B testing), a slick campaign for Constant Candidate Halimah Yacob, to play up her role as a uniter of all Singaporeans.

The game for the presidency, for the rest of us

To raise the issues of Tan Cheng Blocked and Ong Teng Cheong is to fall into a trap and ignore the real problems with the presidency, beginning with Mdm Halimah. She may be fully legitimate, but still lacking a mandate.

Custodial powers the issue, not ceremonial powers

The correct response to the permanent and constant PR campaign for the president would be to highlight that however well-liked, however hardworking a public campaigner for whichever causes and agendas that the PAP allows her to champion, she still doesn't have the mandate to exercise her role as a custodian. However much publicity and news Halimah generates in her efforts to be a symbol of the people, the real issue is whether she is capable of exercising her role as custodian, independently and publicly. However much she attempts to appear at charities and photo-ops sessions, the real issue is whether she owes a duty to be accountable to Singaporeans in her duty as a custodian.

The question needs to be asked: Why does the president have the mandate to exercise her theoretical custodial powers in the name of the people, when she (and her predecessors) isn't accountable to the people? For years, the presidents of Singapore have exercised their reserve powers without the knowledge of the electors whom their mandate draws on. And apparently, the presidents have allowed reserves to be drawn without their own knowledge!

It is not unreasonable to argue that as the elected president's mandate lies in being elected by popular vote (PM Lee's words, not mine!), she is theoretically accountable to the people. People can campaign for the cabinet and the office of the president to exercise greater transparency, to automatically and immediately inform the public whenever a request has been made to exercise the president's reserve powers.

How about a return to ceremonial presidents then?

We have pointed out before that the history of Singapore's elected presidency is a history of a regression to the norm. While Papalee envisioned a powerful president who can say no, his successors and their cabinets have steadily taken that power away and instituted more intervening layers of committees and advisers to rob the president of even his veto, in response to President Ong Teng Cheong's request to the cabinet to clarify exactly how they wanted his presidency to function.

Several constitutional "clarifications" and tweaks later, it appears that in terms of procedure, Singapore's elected president functions no differently from a ceremonial head of state or constitutional monarch with royal prerogatives exercised only with the actual consent and advice of various councils, panels, and committees.

The constant constitutional tinkering to the presidency highlights that the post has become a reserved sinecure for the innermost circle of the People's Action Party and senior bureaucrats in a civil service long colonized by the ruling party. Worse, the elected presidency, as drawn up and revised over the years, increasingly appears to be a legal instrument with more and more artificial and unnatural clauses piled on, with the unfortunate effect of legally facilitating accountability avoidance for any government (and its preferred president). Future tinkering is guaranteed, only because of the complete hash the 2017 election has made out of the presidency. And future tinkering will only further discredit an already indefensible institution.

We believe it is for these reasons that the Constitutional Commission recommended a return to the ceremonial president.

But there is always another solution: the return of the constitutional monarchy. If Singapore's leaders are serious about minority representation for its head of state (and actually have the power to decide who the next establishment candidate should be), they could do no worse than to invite the liberal and racially inclusive Sultan of Johor to rule an independent and sovereign Singapore as its Yang di-Pertuan Negara, in a personal union. It is possible to argue that a constitutional monarch is the best guarantee against the excesses that happen when political parties and leaders gather too much power for themselves. In other words, while parliament and the ruling party may represent the efficiency of government, they can never usurp the dignity of government if it lies in the hands of a monarch.

Whatever the case may be, it is clear that this reserved election won't see the last of changes and innovations to the presidency. Singaporeans need to seize the chance and shape the discourse instead of leaving it to the incompetent clown show that gave us this year's presidential election.

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