In Part 1, I discussed how the reality is that no constitution can exhaustively delineate what the president can or cannot do. There always remain grey areas. The type of presidency we’re going to get depends a lot on what the office-holder does with these grey areas. We can have a totally passive one or someone else who is more creative about using opportunities to put focus on important national issues.
I also debunked two notions that I sense our mainstream media is keen to advertise as incontestable. Firstly, that the president must never publicly disagree with the government. Not true, I said. There’s nothing on that in the constitution, and anyway the late President Ong Teng Cheong himself did so. Secondly, that it would be irrelevant and “over-promising” if any candidate spoke about issues other than the specific areas where the constitution grants the president blocking powers. Not true, again, I said. Since a president will be in regular contact with the cabinet, he will have some influence. The question of his overall philosophy on various matters must surely matter, because voters need to know the general direction in which he may apply that influence.
In Part 2, I will deal with two more notions. The first is that conflict between the government and the president is no good, therefore voters should not vote for any candidate with a potential for conflict. The second is that the we should apply a very narrow reading of constitutional powers, and the president should never step out of what is explicitly allowed to him.
Criticism and conflict
Now the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, has now come as close to interfering as he could without actually doing so. He was reported by Channel NewsAsia to have said:
“And we must have harmonious political system where we make important decisions in the best interests of Singapore and Singaporeans, and keep ourselves safe in this uncertain environment.”
He added: “We are too small to be able to afford impasse and gridlock, to have two sides blocking one another so you can’t move, you can’t solve problems, you can’t go ahead.
— Channel NewsAsia, 21 August 2011, Singapore too small to afford political paralysis: PM Lee, by S Ramesh. Link.
What could he possibly mean by a “harmonious political system”, or “two sides blocking each other”?
I said at the Maruah talk on 20 August 2011, it is ironic that ministers and their mainstream media are now hawking the notion that the president should be one who avoids conflict with the government, because conflict is precisely what the institution of an elected president is for.
The scenario painted in 1991 when the idea was mooted was that the president needed an electoral mandate of his own, so that he can stand up to the government of the day. What does “stand up” mean, if not conflict?
A variant of the government’s argument might be that while conflict might occur within the areas where he has blocking powers, e.g. reserves, appointment of senior officials, judges and heads of government-linked companies, he should not provoke conflict in any other area.
This is too simplistic. If, for example, the government requests use of past reserves because of a budget shortfall due to ridiculously low taxes on the rich, and the president refuses to unlock the reserves, would his refusal not be tacit criticism of the government’s taxation policy in general? And its economic directions overall?
If the president refuses to approve the appointment of the prime minister’s wife to head a major government-linked company, would that not be criticism of a potentially nepotistic mindset among cabinet ministers? Would that not call into question an entire philosophy governing the use of government-linked companies for power-protection rather than for the national good?
So, despite the line being pushed by government ministers, the average Singaporean voter probably knows better: that conflict is inherent in the relationship between president and cabinet. Thus, we should not be afraid of choosing someone who does not lose sleep over taking opposing positions. Better yet, I would say, the best president would be one who has the fortitude to withstand bullying.
Moral authority and leadership
We should also avoid being trapped in an overly legalistic view of the presidency. It is ultimately a political office, and the force of politics will always find a way to mould law.
As Yahoo! quoted from me, voter expectations will shape the office.
To start with, the president, unlike a monarch, is popularly elected, and with electoral mandate always comes moral authority. As you can guess, that moral authority is not derived from the constitution or the law, but from the dynamics of politics.
But here’s the other interesting thing that we tend to forget: With moral authority comes an obligation to lead. The failure to lead is one of the most common reasons for erosion of moral authority. Failure to lead is the neglect of a leader’s reciprocal relationship with those who looked up to him.
Take, for example, a highly religious community which looks up to religious leaders. Say, there is a huge problem of littering or school bullying in that community. Any religious leader, conscious of his overall social duty will feel a sense of obligation to speak out on these issues, even if there is nothing specifically religious about them. This is what I mean by the obligation to lead.
Likewise with elected presidents. Chosen by the whole voting population, he too will feel the same obligation. Kevin Tan, at the same Maruah talk, painted a scenario wherein there is rising racial or religious discord in society. Should the president speak out even if these issues are not within the specified powers of the president? Won’t large numbers of Singaporeans expect the president to show some leadership?
This being the case, what’s wrong with candidates in their campaigns expanding on issues outside the enumerated blocking powers of the president? What’s wrong with them signalling to voters their deepest convictions over a range of issues? Voters expect leadership and are quite within their rights to want to know how that leadership may in future be exercised.
The government is doing us a disservice by trying to snuff out such a discussion.
Ah, but while the government may fail to persuade voters to shut up, they may still be able to cage the president. Perhaps, in preparation for the worst-case scenarios, they are preparing a letter to be thumped down on the president’s desk five minutes after he takes office? Totally speculative of course.
Which then brings up this question: is there a moral case for whistle-blowers?
Then what happens when the six years is up and the president wants to stand for re-election. Voters will ask him why he has been so quiet all these years despite his initial claim to champion the common’s man’s issues? The poor sod won’t even be able to defend himself because doing so would violate the Official Secrets Act.
Ah, but if one is creative, there will be a way. For instance, a silenced president may spend a little time learning Chinese calligraphy and one day write something that goes like this:
Trees pride themselves by their leaves
This morning they are bare
Their leaves all fallen
Chilly gusts, invisible as wind is,
Swept through overnight
Bringing the silence of winter
Voters will know. And will know what to do. Which is my point. Ultimately what defines the presidency is not the legalistic clamp around it. Ultimately, it is a question of politics and of human will.