20 September 2016

New Elected Presidency for Singapore: Mission accomplished?

The workmanlike quality of the constitutional commission's report is to to be commended, for its efforts to ensure Minilee's quest to amend the constitution proceed on time.

The commission cleanly rejects complicated solutions and radical remodelling of the office of the presidency (Split the presidency into a 3-header! Let the Council of Presidential Advisers be an elected body!), not least because of the unnecessary burdens these changes will place on Singapore's Westminsterian system, but more likely because they would entail a far longer and deeper deliberation that will derail Minilee's timeline.

The commission acknowledges, and then cleanly rejects fundamental objections to reserving the presidency for selected races from time to time. Even if it galls even establishment intellectuals both giving evidence and sitting on the commission to know that Singapore will move from "regardless of race, language, and religion..." to practical tokenism. And even if the members of the commission know deep in their hearts that representative democracy is not intended to offer an elected assembly that is the mirror image of the voting public, and that modern representative democracy means that the franchise is equally open to all, and elected office is equally open to all.

It can hardly be a case of cognitive dissonance when the commission ends its report with a suggestion it was not mandated to make. Why did the commission suggest, yet not explain its recommendation that Singapore return to having the president as a ceremonial head of state? And that the council of presidential advisers take on the president's custodial role?

Why does it sound like the commission is saying, We don't need no elected president? And what basis does the commission have to say that?

A Rightful Royal Rumble

We note that a certain phrase and concept of RESERVED POWERS seems to have been excised, from the instance of conception of the Elected Presidency to Minilee's proposed reboot of the office. We argue that it is necessary and not merely convenient for the concept of reserved powers to be forgotten, for the office of the Elected President to be invented (and hyped) and then to be depowered (and played down with splashes of water from Judge Dredd Minister Shanmugam).

It used to be that the monarch of England and its successor states was the embodiment of the state and made the law. Under the modern constitutional arrangement, it is parliament that makes the law in the name of the sovereign, who then signs it into law ("gives royal assent") under advice of the Privy Council (which the monarchy has never rejected since Queen Anne).

In her Dominions, the Queen's governors general give assent to bills passed by parliament, under advice of their respective Executive Councils.

In the Commonwealth, presidential heads of state give assent to bills passed by parliament, under advice of a Council of Ministers.

In Singapore, both the President and the Elected President give assent to bills passed by parliament, under advice of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, and the Presidential Council of Advisers.

The monarch of England, her governors general, and even other Commonwealth presidential heads of state all have other powers (all exercised under advice of their councils) which may prove familiar to followers of the Elected Presidency in Singapore, such as the power to:
pardon convicts (otherwise known as the royal prerogative of mercy);
appoint (or reject) ministers, officers in the civil service, police, and judiciary;
approve (or reject) the budget (only in some Commonwealth states; the Queen doesn't have it, her governors-general don't have it, while the EP only has power over the reserves of the previous parliament);
dismiss or prorogue parliament;
appoint the prime minister (which explains why it was Tony Tan who appointed Minilee as PM, after the election results were announced); and
command the armed forces (which is why the Singapore Armed Forces oath is to the President and Republic of Singapore)

The custodial role of the EP is not a new invention, despite the mythologising in public discourse regarding this office. We stress that when the constitutional commission summarise the "custodial role" of the Elected President to safeguard the reserves and integrity of the civil service, they are speaking of the power, duty, and role that has been well established for the head of state in the UK, Her Majesty's Dominions, and the Commonwealth states.

The powers of the EP can even be said to be a cut and paste job of the reserve powers of the Queen, the governors-general of her Dominions, and the presidents of other Commonwealth states. And just like the Queen et al., these powers of the Elected President are to be exercised upon "advice" from the Privy Council, the Executive Council, the Council of State, or even the Presidential Council of Advisers.

And just like the Queen, her governors-general, and presidents of other Commonwealth states, the EP may indeed choose to disregard or disagree with their council and plunge the nation into constitutional crisis. Just like the Queen, et al., this is a power that will almost certainly not be used, however at odds or hostile the head of state and the country's executive leader may be.

This is why the constitutional commission is supremely confident in making the suggestion that the elected presidency be scrapped and Singapore revert to a ceremonial president: the powers of the head of state will be completely unchanged, the head of state will continue to be advised by his council, and the head of state will be briefed on a weekly or fortnightly basis by the cabinet.

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