Do we still want a Nathanesque presidency? Part 2

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.

22 Responses to “Do we still want a Nathanesque presidency? Part 2”

  1. 1 Poker Player 23 August 2011 at 17:40

    “The poor sod won’t even be able to defend himself because doing so would violate the Official Secrets Act.”

    This is a very SIngaporean mindset. While no-one can “violate” a law of physics, human laws are violated all the time. You just have to decide if it’s worth it. Nelson Mandela decided it was worth his life – I don’t remember the salary he was getting at the time.

  2. 2 georgia tong 23 August 2011 at 18:11

    Good analysis. We should circulate it amongst our friends.

  3. 3 Loh 23 August 2011 at 19:55

    Wow, I love your poem. And you made a great point that what defines the presidency is not the legalistic clamp around it. I would say power comes not from a piece of paper which we call the constitution. Power comes from the people who supports the president. And the more there are, the greater his power. Just look around us. Dr Mahathir holds no official post but he has the power to bring down the prime minister of Malaysia. Thaksin does not even reside in Thailand but he has the power to affect their election results. Closer to home, LKY holds no official post either but no one would doubt he wields tremendous power still.

  4. 4 Anonymous 23 August 2011 at 21:32

    The Prime Minister has given the game away when he used the word “grid lock”. If he believes that there is only 1 centre of power, how could there be a grid lock. Obviously, there is more than meets the eye in terms of what the President will be able to accomplish.

  5. 5 Rabbit 23 August 2011 at 22:21

    No one should be kept silence, Istana is not a prison watched over by Gurhkas or PAP appointed superintendents. Even in the quietest dungeon of the earth there is still murmur of the wind and sound of water dripping. For the past 12 years, our Istana look as dead as museum and quiet as Patrick Tan’s 12 years of NS deferment.

    We can take a leaf from the recent saga happened in Aljunied GRC, to justify why our elected President must not be PAP-backed candidate.

    WP was mandated to represent the people of Aljunied GRC, but PAP used HDB & PA to create unfair blockage for WP to mingle with their residents.

    What WP eventually did was right, speak out by issuing public letter, and make known the ilk of PAP thru face book. Within a day, the whole of Singapore was abuzz with news, shaming Lee Hsien Loong for his cheap talks below”-

    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.

    Unlike WP, the people president is the highest office holder. He could easily put a stop to any unfair treatment deliberately created by PAP, on its opponents and anti-establishment residents. Singapore national anthem and our daily pledge do not subscribe to PAP unethical actions. As a result, PAP is conflicting itself with what it wanted Singaporeans to achieve as ONE NATION, ONE SINGAPORE.

    As such, Singaporeans have every reason that a new president must not acted like PAP. He must think fair and have the courage to stop PAP from misconducting itself in a manner inconsistent with Singapore philosophy.

    Unfortunately, S R Nathan did not stop PAP from threatening Singaporeans with lift upgrading during election. He chose to see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil of PAP who misused taxpayers’ money for political gain. When LKY threatened Singaporeans who wish to vote for opposition, the president did not mutter a word of disapproval. Simply, PAP-backed president did not protect the people from the ruling party. In this day and age, such president is considered obsolete by any standard.

    With or without the constitution, it is only common sense that the president of Singapore must protect the fundamental reasons for Singapore existence – Democracy, humanity, harmony, equality, unity, justice across the board. Economy was not even mentioned on its forefront. If any of the fundamentals was violated by PAP, the law cannot deny the president from standing up to make it right and to block PAP from objecting it.

    Singapore flag and president photos hung inside and outside our supreme court are not for display purpose, but served as important reminder that they are there to uphold justice without fear and fervent and to keep law away from any political affiliations.

    Singapore flag is not a symbol of PAP, but our people, our president and our country.

    We want a people president to stop PAP from making threatening remarks to buy vote, hoarding state land for own political agenda, depriving the opposition ward of tax resources for residents’ life betterment. PAP is dividing the people, not unifying it. Having PAP backed president in Istana, here is what happened:-
    Chen Sao Mao encounter is strong evidence that PAP continue to act above the law because we have a dumb president for the past decade. Such deafness and fearfulness inside Istana cannot remain forever for the good of building a happy nation.

    In fact, the new president could also put in place a solid legacy & legal systems, far surpassed that of our late Ong Teng Cheong. He could set a harsh tone & protocol to protect our civil servants, from the ruing party, to serve this country whole-heartedly and independently. If PAP were to make unreasonable request from any civil servants for political reason, such as borrowing muscle from HDB & PA as political tools against the sons our republic namely in Aljunied, Hougang and Potong Pasir, the affected civil servants can inform the people president to take immediate action against such misconduct by the ruling party. An independent committee can be formed and protected by law to ensure political fair play in Singapore and not controlled by the PM office.

    As you can see from the above, there are so much power and conscience our president can achieve for this nation, and turned Istana into a more vibrant and people functional entity respected by Singaporeans and world leaders.

    Politically correct tone from Tony Tan cannot bring him far on world stage as much as his press has never achieved much flattering ranking in the world press freedom index. How can that make Singapore proud?

    Come 27 August 2011, I am voting for an Istana where I can proudly showed to our foreign friends that it is Singapore symbol of impartiality & people justice and not some overpaid mannequin-like, semi retired politician’s slumber ground – dumbed and dumped by the ruling party.

    I am voting for Tan Jee Say.

  6. 6 Anonymous 23 August 2011 at 22:40

    The son likes to Say “All arguments are useless, I have never heard of a useful argument before”. Similarly, “most governments/presidents are useless; but an Elected President may be useful when there is an argument between the government and the people”.

  7. 7 Rajiv Chaudhry 24 August 2011 at 10:12

    I suggest the time has come to think in terms of an elected Upper House.

    The Council of Presidential Advisors (CPA) is, in effect, an Upper House, seeing that it has considerable powers and that, in many instances, the President is bound by its decisions. Yet, the CPA consists largely of members appointed by the executive branch of government (see is inherently contradictory, seeing that the President is meant to be a check on the executive and not the other way around. How is this to be possible when five of the eight members of the council (including alternate members) are nominated by the Prime Minister or branches of the government that exist in symbiosis with it?

    The current Presidential Election (PE) has been an instructive experience for Singaporeans. It has provoked a lot of thought and opened up the interpretation of the President’s office to much discussion. At the very least, it has shown that the President’s office need not be a passive one. I suggest a future government takes this to its logical conclusion and widens the scope of the PE to include the CPA as well. Only then can there be a proper check on the executive.

    • 8 yawningbread 24 August 2011 at 12:52

      For the record, the precise details are:
      The Council of Presidential Advisors consist of six persons, of whom 2 are appointed by the president at his discretion, 2 nominated by the PM, 1 nominated by the Chief Justice and 1 nominated by the Chairman of the Public Service Commission.

      There are two Alternate Members (to fill in for any temporary vacancies), of which 1 is appointed by the president at his discretion, and 1 by the PM/CJ/PSC jointly.

      The president appoints one of the six members as Chairman of the Council.

  8. 9 ThePasserby 24 August 2011 at 10:43

    On the point about a president, being elected by the people, to have moral authority, what if the votes are evenly split? Suppose all four candidates get between 22% and 28% of the votes. Such a president would have been one supported by less than a third or the electorate. The elected president would be hard-pressed to justify his role as the nation’s moral leadership.

    And on this point, I’m wondering if Nathan, never having been elected, ever questioned his own moral authority, hence his reluctance to push the envelope.

    • 10 Robox 25 August 2011 at 05:59


      “Suppose all four candidates get between 22% and 28% of the votes…The [president elected] would be hard-pressed to justify his role as the nation’s moral leadership.”

      First, I would like to point out that it is not “moral leadership” that he may (or may not) have but instead the “moral authority to lead”, which he does. What such a president does not have is the popular mandate.

      But since the Constitution already provides for such an eventuality, as Alex also pointed out in a recent article, this is how one would justify that moral authority to lead:

      1. The Constitution had been amended by Parliament to create the EP with such a eventuality already having been envisaged.

      2. You voted the Members of Parliament and gave them the mandate – the moral authority – to make such an amendment. (I know that sounds very accusatory, but “you” just means “the majority of Singaporeans”).

      3. You have thus indirectly given the government the mandate for a president without the popular mandate but nevertheless has the moral authority to lead.

      Of course arguments such as these are only theoretical ones, and in my view should never be used by the anti-democratic regimes because it assumes not only free and elections, but a free and fair political environment in between elections, as well as an informed electorate. Thus, you had chosen the right elected representatives – legislators – to give them the mandate to make such laws.

      • 11 Rajiv Chaudhry 25 August 2011 at 13:21

        Again, this is theoretical, but somebody recently wrote to Today suggesting that there should be a run-off election between the two candidates who get the highest votes. I think there is a lot of merit to this suggestion and it would obviate the kind of objection ThePasserby has raised.

  9. 12 K Das 24 August 2011 at 11:20

    I would like to add to what “Anonymous” said above.

    Taxi drivers, considered ideal to be ambassadors to reflect a good image of Singapore, are often known to badmouth about the Government and how its many policies supposedly make ordinary people suffer. Here is one my friend heard from a taxi driver on the PE.

    “The presidential candidates are like ‘yes man’ donkeys in the following order of sequence – Tony Tan, Tan Cheng Bock, Tan Kin Lian and Tan Jee Say. The first will shake its head vigorously with the second and third less so. The fourth will do so most reluctantly. It will not make any difference to you and me whichever donkey wins”

  10. 13 Poker Player 24 August 2011 at 12:47

    “It will not make any difference to you and me whichever donkey wins”

    Not true. The extent of the PAP about-turns after Aljunied fell were more substantial than expected – and continues to be buttressed by the PE – see today’s papers about the PA climb-down in Aljunied Town.

    It’s exactly because of almost 40 years of voters thinking “It will not make any difference to you and me whichever donkey wins” that the servant became the master.

    • 14 K Das 24 August 2011 at 14:35

      Anyway it is a taxi driver’s view.

      I am also a poker player like you. We study the odds carefully before we plunge in in order to gain.

  11. 15 James 24 August 2011 at 15:20

    Oh, it’s the great PAP myth that political debate leads to impasse and gridlock again. I say we give the PAP 100 year terms since elections slow the govermnet down.

  12. 16 Winking Doll 24 August 2011 at 16:54

    Love the poem!

    > an entire philosophy governing the use of government-linked companies for power-protection rather than for the national good

    Thumbs up for calling out reality.

  13. 17 Chanel 24 August 2011 at 17:53


    I believe the ruling party would take the far easier route of re-writing the constitutional powers of the President, should any candidate other than Dr Tony Tan was voted in.

    The new constitution would be highly prescriptive, essentially requiring the President to be, in the words of Mr Tan Kn Lian, “dumb”. No need for a trouble-some secretive threatening letter to the President on his first day on the job.

  14. 18 Ambiguous 24 August 2011 at 23:08

    Although under Article 21(1) of the constitution the President only has limited powers, would it not be a contradiction of Article 21(i) which states clearly that the President will have no restriction on him as long as it is necessary for the performance of the limited powers he does have.

    In essence, is it that the President can exercise his freedom of speech so as long as he can justify that it is relevant to the exercise of his (limited) discretion?

    If such, then all talk about the President being trapped in a cage with a gag would be moot, no?

  15. 19 simple mind 24 August 2011 at 23:31

    A simplistic interpretation of Article 21 (1):

    The President only needs to ‘act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet…” in the few functions prescribed to him under the Constitution. Anything else not really. Including not in accordance with the Government, because the Cabinet is not the Government.

    Naturally there is a limit as to what the advice can be, because it can’t be everything. And ‘act in accordance with’ doesn’t mean carrying out exacting as advised. An ‘act’ is ‘behavioural’…

  16. 20 Whos afraid of the astroturfers? 25 August 2011 at 00:25

    This 27 Aug 2011 will see either the triumph of the power of the state media or the power of the discerning people of Singapore. I love my country, but sad to see it crumble into such a sorry state.

  17. 21 gg 25 August 2011 at 10:59

    “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.”

    that is precisely why he only held office for one term.

    • 22 Eric 25 August 2011 at 22:16

      In asiaweek, he explained that the main reason not to run for another term is due to his dying wife, and not because the cabinet would not support him if he were to stand for another election.

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