25 September 2017

Before the reservation: The internal contradictions of Singapore's elected presidency

Lee Hsien Loong's People's Action Party (PAP) government began in 2016 its radical reforms to the elected presidency, a rush job of the highest order.

A case was made out for the necessity of the changes at the beginning of the year, a thoroughly respectable constitutional commission was convened, public and expert feedback was canvassed through the commission, the commission's report and recommendations pored through and discussed in cabinet, the cabinet's proposed Bill drafted as a response and debated, the Bill read twice and passed in parliament, the expected constitutional challenges and their respective appeals heard and fended off—all in an attempt to ensure the 2017 election would be run under new order rules. (Note: the exercise still ended missing a crucial deadline: Dr Tony Tan's presidency lapsed before his successor was elected.)

In justifying its shifting of the goalposts to engineer its win, Lee has forgotten what was really wrong with the office of the elected presidency to begin with, and has failed to fix it.

Bob the Builder would've done a better job fixing the elected presidency
Was the elected presidency flawed from the start?

The elected presidency is an office rife with internal contradictions, some of which were built in as features, and others introduced right in its infancy. As with the previous presidential election, various PAP ministers this year have sought to "remind" candidates and the public that they have been greatly mistaken about the roles and powers of the elected president. In actuality, the PAP itself made up the president's roles, powers, functions on the fly, often contradicting their original vision.

The original concept: A president who can say no

In the aftermath of the 1984 general election, Rajaratnam castigated the electorate for blackmailing the PAP, while Lee Kuan Yew thought long and hard about the possibility of a "freak election result" that would one day send an opposition party into power, a "rogue government".

Perhaps no one dared to educate Papalee on how elections work; assuming an election is legal, clean, and fair, no result it generates is ever a freak result and every government it elects is the government. The only freak in the room is the man who thinks he has written the constitution to ensure that his side always wins.

If that day should come, Papalee reasoned in parliament in 1988 when prime minister Goh Chok Tong delivered his EP White Paper, his Singapore would be saved by a separately elected president who would veto a rogue government's impulse to raid the reserves to hand out goodies and bribes to win future elections. You know, like enacting what the nation-building press bluntly calls an election year budget by throwing free cash at people in the form of one-off items like GST vouchers, Pioneer generation packages, Medisave top-ups, New Singapore Shares, and Economic Restructuring Shares, all while railroading attempts by the president and the public to scrutinise Singapore's reserves.

We got this guy instead to fix the elected presidency
The reality: A president who can say no, but...

For all Papalee's political paranoia about the electorate kicking out the PAP and political fantasy of a PAP-approved or former CEO president safeguarding the nation and reserves from a "rogue government", reality set in almost immediately when Ong Teng Cheong, the first elected president, decided to test the powers of his office by a compilation of Singapore's reserves and assets.

The PAP government, headed by Goh under the eternal tutelage of Papalee, balked. And the clawback began. Goh's cabinet clarified the role of the president and how he was supposed to function in a series of White Papers after Ong's request: government would create a presidential council of advisers, he would have to seek their advice and they would have to concur for a veto to go through.

Ong's account to the now-defunct Asiaweek magazine paints the clawback as a mere clarification of procedures. Yet it is telling that Ong had to "press" the government to "finalize" principles and procedures of the presidency only after the government of Goh and Papalee denied his request.

In the previous presidential election, certain PAP ministers have gone as far as to bluntly state that the president can be very easily rendered powerless by the cabinet.

We sent Wreck-It Ralph to demolish the elected president over the years
The elected president is a second-rate ceremonial president

Today in practice and by declaration of the minister of laws, Singapore's head of state is not allowed to have a political agenda, must be consulted by and checked by a panel on reserve powers. In any other country, this would describe almost to a T, the theoretical powers and limitations that belong to the constitutional monarch in dominions of the Commonwealth (aka the royal prerogative), or to the ceremonial presidents taking her place in some former colonies of the Commonwealth.

That is, a head of state who gives assent to Bills passed by parliament, reads out a speech (written by the head of government) opening each parliament session, gives assent to senior civil service appointments. Certain ceremonial presidents also give assent to the budget. In the exercise of the royal prerogative or the presidential prerogative, the head of state is advised by a privy council or its equivalent (usually comprising the cabinet, the head of the opposition, and the head of the civil service).

For all the costly window dressing and constitutional amendments through the years, the evolution of Singapore's elected president has been to regress towards the mean, to the tried and tested forms of ceremonial presidency. Except in Singapore, the elected president has less powers than a ceremonial president. That's right: the elected president cannot withhold assent from "core constitutional bills".

Researched by Terry Xu of The Online Citizen
Image courtesy of the National Library of Singapore
Presidency as sinecure for loyal ministers and senior civil servants

Singapore's presidential recruitment ad asks for a seasoned executive, while the job description is as far from executive as possible. The recruiter claims the equivalence of executive decision-making and civil service consensus-by-committee skills, while the processes of the job diminishes any executive impulse. Assuming one meets the eligibility criteria, why would a CEO (with the stress on executive) choose to be advised on a day-to-day basis by a panel of senior and retired civil services or the cabinet to concur with every decision and request of the government?

The presidency then devolves into a tool for rewarding loyal ministers and senior civil services. You know, to ease ministers out, to exit the political arena. And to give senior civil servants a sinecure after their mandatory retirement. In either case, the office falls to the characters who by virtue of their political or bureaucratic careers, are least expected to be independent, to exercise their role to check on the government, much less exercise their constitutional right to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn.

It is said that the man in the street cares not for the office of the president. The man in the street may be right but has not articulated his feelings that the presidential office is one riven with so much internal contradictions and continued disappointments that there is no reason to give it due attention.

Internal contradictions not important?

None of the internal contradictions inherent to the elected presidency and the PAP's tinkering of the elected presidency were addressed in the most important reforms to the office to date. One might even say that these internal contradictions have served the People's Action Party so well, they have become incapable of understanding the public contempt for this politicised office. One might even say: this great affective divide, coupled with the PAP's immense self-regard, has fuelled the party's insistence to rework the presidency further in their favour.

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