25 April 2016

New Elected Presidency for Singapore: Is an update or rethink really needed?

Faster than a speeding bullet, or Minilee's premature constitutional contractions!

As public hearings for the constitutional commission on the changes to Singapore's Elected Presidency continue, so do our analysis to shed light and push back on what may be described as yet another hasty, ill-conceived exercise at constitutional amendment by the long-ruling People's Action Party.

Our previous post establishes the fact that despite the effort of the mainstream press, the proposed changes to the Elected Presidency are not mere updates but radical rethinks of the presidency. For the prime minister to moot the changes in parliament, convene the constitutional commission, call for feedback, let it hold public hearings, compile a report, study it, then craft the bill and allow his cabinet colleagues to sell it in parliament, have three readings of the bill all within the year, Minilee and the national press need to sell the changes as minor, perfunctory, and incremental. Otherwise, the prime minister's constitutional exercise will lose its credibility and it will be difficult to wash off the stench of unholy haste in the proceedings.

(For a real world yardstick of how long a radical change to the office of the presidency should take, we present Mr Lim Boon Heng, in 1988, on the motion for "Constitutional Amendments to safeguard financial assets and the integrity of the public services". Note that the actual amendment to the constitution to institute the office of the elected presidency was read in 3 separate bills between 1990 and 1991)
...the proposal for a popularly elected President is a major constitutional change. It is therefore necessary for the proposal to be thoroughly discussed and debated. The Government has not rushed through this proposal. It has taken its time since the idea was mooted publicly in 1984, before presenting this White Paper. In other words, the concept of a popularly elected President to protect our financial assets was made public before the 1984 General Elections. Notwithstanding this, the Government has taken the step to present a White Paper for public discussion. The people of Singapore now has the opportunity, once again, to give their views on the subject. Indeed, many people have done so by writing to the newspapers, by voicing their views to the Feedback Unit, and also at constituency-level discussions. Today we have a further opportunity to debate on the concept in this House. I have no doubt that pertinent points will be noted by the Government in the drafting of the Bill.
Proposed changes reflect govt's poor thinking processes?

No doubt the constitutional commission has received all manner of feedback through the official channels on the constitutional changes. We at Illusio hereby propose to the commission that these changes and their foundations are indefensible and mired in logical quicksand, and are an indication of a third-rate national leadership.

Let us start with what establishment dresses up as a minor update to the elected presidency: increasing the minimum requirements for eligibility.

Minilee's argument goes that because of inflation (S$1 in 1991 is now $1.58) and the ballooning of Singapore's GDP (from $72 billion to $400 billion) since 1991, the minimum criteria for the Elected President must therefore be scaled up to an equivalent amount.

But should the financial criteria be scaled up? Is the quality measured by these criteria even scalable?

What has changed since 1991 is the increase in companies with a market capitalisation of more than $100 million. Yet during the same period, the definition of an SME (small to medium enterprise) in Singapore has only changed marginally. Singapore's economy has not become far more complex, nor have subsequent changes in the structure of the economy since 1991 forced a change in profile of the Establishment candidate for the elected presidency. Minilee's rationale for changing the criteria therefore smacks of economics illiteracy.

Minilee cannot simply wave away the "2,100-plus" candidates who qualify for the job, by shifting the goalposts so that once again, only 150 people in Singapore qualify. Constitutionally, the criteria for the elected presidency is not graded on a bell curve, but on the qualitative properties of a CEO or Chairman of a company holding X capitalisation, or of an appointment holder of a government ministry or statutory board.

Would any corporate leader say that indeed, a CEO running a company of S$100 million in 1991 has far different, heavier responsibilities and qualities than a CEO running a company of S$100 million in 2016? In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it would appear that instead of having "CEO grade inflation", Singapore has the fortune of having an explosion in the number of corporate honchos who are of presidential quality.

Should the election of a minority president be ensured constitutionally?

In his speech in the debate on the President's address on 27 January 2016, Minilee offered his personal opinion that the constitution should be changed to "ensure minority Presidents periodically".

It is a reflection of our degenerate times that while Papalee regularly made crackpot suggestions like giving extra votes to middle aged married Chinese men with families, Minilee's crackpot suggestion has met with no open refutations, much less ridicule.

To suggest the constitution be changed so that certain races win in certain years shows the political and legislative illiteracy of Minilee's government. Conceptually, representative democracy is not intended to offer an elected assembly that is the mirror image of the voting public, not is it supposed to. Modern representative democracy means that the franchise is equally open to all, and elected office is equally open to all. This concept is in the blood and roots of our Westminster democracy, unspoken, implied, and apparently unrecognised and unappreciated by the infant terrible leading our nation, who ironically insists that Singapore's system is, despite the legislative deformations inflicted by Papalee and the PAP, still Westminsterian at heart.

AWARE's presentation is an attempt at reductio ad absurdum of the poor thinking processes behind Minilee's suggestion that the elected presidency should be changed so it can go to minorities. But why stop there? Why not ask: shouldn't the constitution be changed to ensure that actual CEOs and chairmen be elected president, instead of state office holders, retired senior civil servants, ministers, and other grandees in search of a sinecure? Why not ask: shouldn't the constitution be changed to ensure that candidates between the age of 45 to 60 be elected president, instead of state office holders, retired senior servants, et al?

We at Illusio hope that the constitutional commission will submit a report that assures Minilee, his cabinet, and the parliament that the elected presidency does not require the legislative changes he proposes, to ensure the outcomes that the powers that be seem to want for all the wrong reasons.

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