Quite likely, any president determined to do that will trigger a constitutional crisis, for the convention in a Westminster-type system is that the head of state acts on the advice of the cabinet. But this would be a good constitutional crisis to have if it means one more step towards the end of the death penalty.
Lee Hsien Loong and his government may protest as much as they like about such a president flouting convention, but he and his government have lost all claim to the moral high ground by repeated flouting of legal and constitutional convention themselves. The use of detention without trial, the negation of judicial review over the substance of charges leading to such detention, the suppression of constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and assembly, and the continued defence of Section 377A which flies against constitutional guarantees of equality are just the most obvious.
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Now that ex-foreign minister George Yeo has decided against running, the Straits Times is speculating whether former deputy prime minister Tony Tan might be the government’s preferred candidate (Straits Times, 17 June 2011, Tony Tan seen as likely candidate, by Tessa Wong, Elgin Toh & Andrea Ong).
Frankly, I don’t know why the government needs to put up a preferred candidate at all. After all, as Law Minister K Shanmugam made clear last week, the President is largely powerless.
Law Minister K. Shanmugam issued a three-page statement reiterating that Singapore has a parliamentary system of government, not a presidential one.
Under this system, the president has ‘no role to advance his own policy agenda’, as policymaking and the running of government are the preserve of the prime minister and the Cabinet.
‘This is so for all policies, whether they concern security and defence, immigration and population, or housing and social safety nets,’ he said.
The prime minister and the Cabinet are accountable to Parliament, where policies are ‘debated and endorsed’. And ultimately, it is the electorate that decides every five years ‘who to elect to Parliament and to govern Singapore’.
The statement followed remarks on Thursday by former senior minister S. Jayakumar, who said he was ‘surprised and disappointed’ that would-be presidential candidates seemed to think the president was ‘a centre of power unto himself’.
Like Professor Jayakumar, Mr Shanmugam re-stated the president’s constitutionally specified role in the following areas:
- The protection of past reserves.
- The appointment of key personnel.
- Internal Security Act detentions, investigations by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau and restraining orders connected to the maintenance of religious harmony.
He dispelled notions that the president has any substantive power outside these narrowly defined areas, saying: ‘On all other matters, under the Constitution, the president must act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet.’
— Straits Times, 11 June 2011, President ‘has no role in policymaking’ , by Elgin Toh
So, if the President’s role is limited, why should the government care who gets elected to the office? They shouldn’t set about trying to control the outcome of the election any more than a British prime minister would want to determine succession to the throne.
Reality of course, has two impulses in play. The first is the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) compulsive need to have total control of all levers of power however minor; to step back and not try to influence the outcome of a presidential election would go against their psyche. The second is the likelihood that many voters would seize the opportunity to send a dissenting signal — something that the PAP would find discomforting.
In the only presidential election ever held, in 1993, a total unknown, Chua Kim Yeow received 43.1 percent of the votes against a well-known former deputy prime minister, Ong Teng Cheong. Given the mood of the electorate, as demonstrated in the recent general election, this tendency is likely to be amplified in 2011. It is quite possible that the candidate who is furthest removed from the government might win, in which case, he might see his mandate as that of being a check on the government to the extent possible.
This would be such irony. When the notion of an elected president was mooted in the early 1990s, the PAP intended it to be a check on any opposition party that might win a future general election, thus forming the next government. Lee Kuan Yew had nightmares about what he termed a “freak” election result producing a spendthrift government ready to distribute the state reserves like confetti to entrench its popularity, so the scheme was hatched to have an elected president holding the “second key” needed to unlock (or, per the plan, refuse to unlock) the reserves.
There’s a morality tale somewhere in this, in the way Singaporeans have turned the tables on the PAP. Today, a possible majority might seize this device of an elected president to keep a check on a PAP government.
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The PAP has far bigger electoral problems to worry about than the presidency. The loss of Aljunied Group Representation Constituency in the general election, forcing the exit of two cabinet ministers, George Yeo and Lim Hwee Hua, have forever changed the calculations. The risk of defeat and humiliation is now a notch higher, making it harder to recruit new candidates for the next general election that has to be held no later than 2016.
As it is, few of the 24 new candidates they fielded during the recent general election were from the private sector; the PAP itself admitted that despite trying, they didn’t quite succeed in getting as many as they would have liked from there. In the end, most of the new candidates were from the civil service, the military or the government-controlled trade union, a pattern that brings in train a higher risk of inbreeding and groupthink. It has been remarked that many who do agree to stand for election under the PAP banner see politics as a career move. You have to wonder about passion and beliefs.
Does this mean that in the medium term, the calibre of PAP candidates will decline? We have already seen how public speaking skills — and surely in politics, the ability to engage with and move a crowd is important — are almost non-existent among PAP candidates. This probably accounts for the fact that the PAP can no longer persuade. Increasingly, they have to buy support with all sorts of goodies.
Especially as the party has reached a point where a further six-percentage-point decline in vote share would put it in peril, these two weaknesses are looming large. A party filled with people that were groomed from within the system will find it particularly challenging to reform. Priorities and assumptions are too hard-wired to question. Yet neither is it capable of persuading people that its direction is the right one to take, since its communication skills have atrophied.
See, for example, this comment by Lee Yi Shyan, Minister of State for Trade and Industry and Minister of State for National Development:
Mr Lee Yi Shyan, an East Coast GRC MP, contrasts the mood within the party to that in 2006: “Then, we were more focused on the programme over the next five years, as part of our continuation of national and societal development.
“But now, there’s a bit of reflection and pausing and looking back and saying, we are running ahead but do we have everybody on board? Which groups are being left out?
— Straits Times, 15 June 2011, PAP takes hard look at election showing, by Li Xueying
You still get the sense that they are convinced the direction is right; you don’t see any element of doubt. The only “reflection” going on is whether they may be moving too fast (“running ahead”), with a possible look at whether some segments of the population might have fallen by the wayside. The only thing in question is execution, not the direction of policies themselves.
Lee Yi Shyan has a profile that is typical of the PAP leadership. His entire career has been in the civil service, starting with the Economic Development Board. Yet, at the rate things are going, the party may have no choice in 2016 but to field more of the same stripe. The danger this presents is far bigger than any president voters might pick to keep an eye on a PAP government.