As the People’s Action Party grapples with an increasingly polticised electorate, the thing to watch out for is a tendency to speak soothing words, but yield little of substance.
For example, at the inauguration of Tony Tan as the new President, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the elected president’s key purpose of being a ‘second key’ to safeguard national reserves and the integrity of public service appointments will not change (Straits Times, 2 September 2011, President’s role as second key won’t change: PM, by Andrea Ong & Teo Wan Gek).
Well, if he really means it, he should make Article 5A of our constitution operative with immediate effect.
Specifically, the words in Lee’s speech were:
Our elected Presidency is hardly two decades old. During this time, the Government has worked with successive Presidents to adjust and refine the Constitutional provisions and working arrangements, as we learnt from our experience and dealt with unforeseen situations.
We need to continue to develop and adapt this important institution from time to time, to take into account new circumstances and our growing experience. This will give Singapore a more resilient and stable political system, that continues to deliver good government for the benefit of citizens. But the fundamental purpose of the second key will not change: to have the President and Council of Presidential Advisors act as a safeguard to ensure that our reserves are not squandered, and the integrity of the public service is protected.
— Text of speech as released by the Prime Minister’s Office, Link.
The constitution may indeed give powers to the president to do these things, but at any time, parliament may revoke these powers by amending the constitution. The president has no discretion to refuse assent to any constitutional amendment once it has been passed by a two-thirds majority of elected members of parliament (i.e. excluding non-constituency and nominated members). Currently, the People’s Action Party (PAP) holds 81 of 87 elected seats.
This absurdity was not unforeseen. Article 5A was drawn up to deal with such a contingency, by giving the president discretion whether to give assent to such amendments that would strip away his powers. But here’s the thing: Article 5A is “not in operation” at the present time — according to the web version of the constitution.
What does Article 5A do? I have summarised the process that it sets out in the flow chart below. The white part is what is operative (i.e. the president MUST give assent), the grey part is currently inoperative:
As you can see, Article 5A tightens up the requirements, so that the government of the day cannot circumvent or curtail the president’s “second key” powers by amending the constitution against his will. At last resort, the matter is referred to the people by way of a referendum.
Why is this provision inoperative? I don’t know. What does it take to make it operative? I don’t know either; though I suspect it will require a 2/3 majority of elected members of parliament.
But my point is this: If Lee means what he says, don’t just say it. Do it.