The coming presidential election is an interesting moment in Singapore politics. We’ve never really had a serious contest before — the last contested one in 1993 was a rather staged affair — and the office of the elected president is still a work in progress. What should the office be about? How much of a caged parrot should the poor sod be? How does one conduct an election campaign for a largely ceremonial office?
At the root of the issue is the fact that the elected president has no real power, except “blocking powers” in five areas:
The Constitution gives the elected president blocking powers in five narrowly defined areas: the spending of past reserves, key public service appointments, Internal Security Act detentions, Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act restraining orders and Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau investigations.
— Straits Times, 22 July 2011, President’s free speech: Lessons from Britain, by Elgin Toh
Even so, what exactly is meant by “blocking powers”? The actual power varies from one area to another, and sometimes the blocking power can be blocked.
In the area of key public service appointments, the Constitution allows the president to override appointments or sackings by virtue of Article 22 (1)
Notwithstanding any other provision of this Constitution, the President, acting in his discretion, may refuse to make an appointment to any of the following offices or to revoke any such appointment if he does not concur . . .
The Constitution lists the appointments that he can override, and these include Supreme Court judges, Attorney-General, Auditor-General, military chiefs and the Commissioner of Police, Director of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau. However, the Constitution also says that Parliament by a two-thirds majority can overrule the president’s veto.
With respect to detentions under the Internal Security Act , Article 21 (2) (g) says
(2) The President may act in his discretion in the performance of the following functions:
(g) the withholding of concurrence under Article 151 (4) in relation to the detention or further detention of any person under any law or ordinance made or promulgated in pursuance of Part XII;
But 151(4) appears, by my reading, to limit this power. The president can only act if a conflict arises between an advisory board and the Executive. If you know anything about Singapore politics, the Executive would have long ago packed the advisory board with “reliable” people who would never dream of contradicting the wishes of the Executive, and thus the opportunity for a president to exercise his discretion will not arise. See this:
151 (4) Where an advisory board constituted for the purposes of this Article recommends the release of any person under any law or ordinance made or promulgated in pursuance of this Part, the person shall not be detained or further detained without the concurrence of the President if the recommendations of the advisory board are not accepted by the authority on whose advice or order the person is detained.
As for investigations of corruption, the president can override the prime minister’s blocking. Article 22G of the Constitution says:
Notwithstanding that the Prime Minister has refused to give his consent to the Director of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau to make any inquiries or to carry out any investigations into any information received by the Director touching upon the conduct of any person or any allegation or complaint made against any person, the Director may make such inquiries or carry out investigations into such information, allegation or complaint if the President, acting in his discretion, concurs therewith.
Outside of these five areas, the president’s functions are strictly governed by Article 21 (1):
Except as provided by this Constitution, the President shall, in the exercise of his functions under this Constitution or any other written law, act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or of a Minister acting under the general authority of the Cabinet.
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Any hope that the People’s Action Party (PAP) government would adopt a hands-off approach to the presidential election has now been dashed. While ministers themselves have been very careful to say nothing inappropriate, the mainstream media, widely recognised to be a propaganda tool when the need arises, have shown their hand. Veteran journalist P N Balji, writing in Yahoo!, noted that not only has Tony Tan, the former Deputy Prime Minister, been suddenly giving speeches all over town, his
. . public pronouncements, though lacking in real news value, have been getting a lot of media exposure. The latest saw most of the newspapers giving the views of Dr Tan, the former chairman of the Singapore Press Holdings, Page One treatment, with The Straits Times going further by also reporting nearly every twist and turn of his quotes in a full page inside and using excerpts of his speech in the comment section.
— Yahoo Singapore news, 20 June 2011, Where is the new normal in ISngapore politics? by P N Balji. Link
The Sunday Times scraped the bottom of the “insulting our intelligence” barrel when on 24 July 2011 it published this photo of Tony Tan and wife “lending a helping hand”:
It had all the hallmarks of a posed picture. The stupendously pregnant question is why nobody in the newsroom saw what a huge turn-off this kind of heavy-handed propaganda was. In a more educated, newly-politicised electorate, such shameless selling backfires.
So, how should a presidential election campaign proceed? I have the feeling that, precisely because the actual powers of the office are so few, voters will be deciding even less on a rational basis, and more on an emotional basis than was the case in the recent general election. Since there is almost no decision that any president makes that will impact our lives under normal circumstances, there is nothing to weigh rationally in terms of pros and cons.
Yet, people have to decide whom to vote for, and so two factors, which are always present in any election, will now come completely to the fore in this one: likeability and affinity.
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Likeability is hard to define, but easy to grasp. Some people are just more approachable and have better intuition as to the level of engagement desired by whoever they meet. They extend warm handshakes, they appear genuine, and they are able to listen and respond with sincerity and goodwill. They know how to adjust their formality/informality to suit the comfort level of the other person and the context, and they also have a good sense about other people at the back of the crowd, with whom verbal engagement may not be possible because of distance, but eye-contact, a wave, a broad smile or a nod is freely given as acknowledgement in lieu.
Affinity is a different thing. It is what the person represents by way of values. People will always prefer to vote for someone who shares a similar worldview and guiding principles. This is actually harder to communicate than it may first appear. Some people have the knack for being able to communicate in broad brush terms; others have a tendency to get bogged down in specifics or technical details. Talking about transport or housing policy is not the same as talking about values. It takes a lot of hard work, and perhaps an intangible gift of oratory, to find inspirational language.
Unlike likeability however, the affinity factor can never win everybody over. Not everyone shares the same values, after all. But affinity binds supporters loyally where likeability merely makes support possible.
Going out to speak about values may be particularly relevant with respect to the five areas where the president has a little discretion. It would be good to know from each aspirant what his personal opinion, deeply held values and gut instincts are in relation to
- accumulation, transparency and use of reserves
- key public service appointments including judicial ones
- detention without trial
- the state of racial and religious relations, and
- issues of corruption, including nepotism and abuse of power for partisan advantage (which is another form of corruption)
I would also add two more: his views on the death penalty and gay equality. I will never support anyone who believes that gay people should be discriminated against.
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The problem is, if you read between the lines, the government wants a president who knows his place, that is, who knows that his is a ceremonial job, with no room for discretion or input, except in the five prescribed areas. Law minister K Shanmugam was at pains to point out that the elected president had only custodial powers in restricted areas. The implicit message is that a more activist president would not be welcome and even if elected, might be cold-shouldered by the cabinet.
I hope people don’t see this is a scary threat, though knowing how risk-averse Singaporeans are, the very thought of “governmental deadlock” (however unrealistically overblown it may be) may cause many to buy the government’s position wholesale and dutifully vote for whoever they think the government has endorsed.
Personally, I would rather have an activist president than a compliant one. Sure, constitutionally, he has very little room for manoeuvre, but all it takes is a bit of smarts and creativity to create the job. Political messaging in Singapore is so heavily skewed in favour of the PAP’s agenda, that a president can do great service to the public interest and the long-term well-being of the republic just by using his office to rebalance it.
Well, consider this as an example: The Film Commission of Singapore refuses to fund a very talented filmmaker’s project on the basis that the script for his proposed film features a gay couple in leading roles. The president tells the filmmaker, if you can organise a fundraising dinner, I will go and lend my profile to it.
Or this: Single parents, sick and fed up of the systemic discrimination they face (not to mention the undertone of moral condemnation), are invited to the Istana on one of the public holidays for which the palace grounds are open. The president makes it a point to mingle with them and their children, and says some supportive words (and some other words obliquely critical of policy) within earshot of reporters. It is also video’d by the single parents themselves, going up onto Youtube.
The president may not have any role in making policy, but he can lend legitimacy to alternative viewpoints. Or he can speak out in ways that help focus any public debate on the key question, even if, in the process, he has to subtly debunk arguments put forward for the government as red herrings, which is something that the PAP government often resorts to. Most importantly, his role is to articulate regularly the aspirations of Singaporeans, be it for more compassion, more equality, more openness or more hope. In other words, his role is to provide moral leadership, and if you ask me, Singapore has waited too long already for anyone capable of providing that.