Presidential candidate Tan Kin Lian pre-empted my question the day before I had a chance to meet up with him. Wanting to query his campaign slogan “Voice of the people”, I had intended to ask: How are you going to know which of many voices to hear?
What followed was a rather in-depth discussion about how he might collect feedback from the ground, sift through them and bring them up with the cabinet. It struck me that his was not just a catchy slogan, but that he intended to realise it by giving it structure. I will come to this a little further on.
In the short time that I had — understandable because he was in the heat of a campaign — I also covered two other areas, both where Singapore’s constitution gives the President some discretion: detention without trial and the reserves.
Kin Lian, in his first television broadcast, told Singaporeans about his humble childhood and youth, starting work when he was 18, and how he “had nurtured an insurance company for 30 years, looking after the savings of over one million people and managing assets of $17 billion.”
He also fleshed out his “voice of the people” slogan, saying that if elected, he will “form a President’s Personal Council comprising people from many segments of our society. They will help me identify the important issues that affect many Singaporeans.”
In our conversation, we walked through how this might work in practice. First, he said, ideas had to go through a process of validation. Are the facts correct? Are all the facts there?
“We will also need to identify individuals or groups who have the resources to frame the problem better; people or NGOs who have tried in the past to deal with the issues.”
Other aspects like practicality of an idea, the true need and cost will also have to be assessed.
Ideas or issues that pass this stage will probably go to a consultative panel that will help him decide on priority. While it may be too early to speak about who he would include in such a panel, Kin Lian thinks that it is best to have experts in different fields. This panel is needed because, to be realistic, the president can only bring up about one concern a month to ministers.
“But given the cabinet’s strict understanding of the division of power, will they be amenable to such discussions?” I asked.
“I want to be optimistic,” he said. “If the president’s proposals are well thought out, I’m confident they’ll hear him out. Of course, there may be inputs that the government has that the president’s process did not pick up, for example we may be bound by external treaties, but if so, I’m sure the president will respect that additional input, and both sides together can arrive at a consensus.”
I told Kin Lian that by my observation, ministers and their civil servants can get defensive about existing policy.
“If so,” he responded, “quite likely it’s a matter of mindset. There’s this fear . . . they don’t want to be wrong. But as Lee Kuan Yew, I think, once said, a minister needs to be wrong before he becomes right.”
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This carefulness about facts came up again when we discussed detention without trial. Under the constitution’s Article 151(4), when an advisory board, which must be formed within three months of a person’s preventive detention, recommends the release of that person, then that person cannot be further detained without the concurrence of the president.
“How do you envisage going about making your decision?” I asked. “Would you want to hear the other side too?”
“I’m sure the Internal Security Department will be presenting their facts, but I would expect other sources of information, for example, from detainees’ families, or one can research the internet.
“If there are opposing allegations about the ISD, I would expect ISD officers to give their answers to them. I would want it in writing, because from my experience dealing with insurance claims, people generally do not want to state in writing any blatant untruths,” he noted.
“Would you think it necessary to speak with the detainees themselves for their side of the story?” was my next question.
“I would get somebody to talk to them.”
Continuing, he said, “When you have facts from both sides, honestly and fairly presented, I think it should be possible to come to a fair judgement.”
However, I still wanted to know what his underlying perspective is on detention without trial. To that, he said, “To have indefinite detention, you will need very strong reasons. You have to be very convinced.”
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Next, we spoke a little about reserves. Under the constitution, if any government wishes to spend reserves accumulated by a previous administration, it must get the concurrent approval of the president. Much of the debate so far in this presidential campaign is about who has the experience in economics and managing funds, but frankly, that is almost beside the point. The president is certainly not going to be in charge of investing the reserves. Nor is he there to manage economic policy though he needs some understanding of it in order to judge when dipping into reserves might be called for.
But crucial to forming any judgement must be some idea about what the reserves are for, and how much is enough?
Tan Kin Lian: “Reserves should be adequate for the government to take care of its future uncertainties, just like individuals need savings for a rainy day. These uncertainties may arise from an economic downturn. The reserves are also needed to protect the Singapore Dollar from attack.”
The problem, from the public debate perspective, is that we do not know how much we have in reserves. Whoever is elected will of course be informed accordingly, and then he’ll need to make a judgement. “We do not need to accumulate beyond what is needed. We don’t want people to suffer the cost of that, of pouring in reserves to an excessive degree.”
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As a final question, I asked what he thought people were looking for in a president, as so far seen in this contest. He felt it’s a mixed scene. Some are very clear what they’re looking for, others are not.
“Some want someone independent of the government, and some even prefer a person as confrontational as possible. Others prefer someone who would not rock the boat.”
I guess the big unknown at this time is the relative sizes of these camps.
“I think a large number will want a candidate to be their voice,” he said, reprising his campaign slogan. “Going forward, we may need a new process involving the voice of the people,” giving by way of example, the Baby Bonus policy which came up in a face-to-face forum Thursday night, and again at the press conference an hour before I was scheduled to meet him. His intention was not to meddle in it but was only citing it as an example of a policy that is not working as effectively as had been hoped for.
Referring to how the Baby Bonus policy was crafted in a top-down way, Kin Lian argued: “We can carry on the old way, but is it effective? Or for example, take a look at the Feedback Unit — there are structural issues with it. The old way, or we can have a new process?”