Why words when deed is there for the doing?

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.

17 Responses to “Why words when deed is there for the doing?”


  1. 1 Sin Pariah 6 September 2011 at 20:07

    Just do it, you say? That’s Nike!

    This is PAP. Minister Tharman said this recently about the Elected Presidency: “But no system works well if you have to constantly refer to the letter of the law. It works well when the spirit of the Constitution and its intent is understood, respected, and there’s a harmonious relationship. And informal conversations, discussions are the way in which a healthy set of institutions works.”

    So Singapore’s reputation of “Rule of Law” is sometimes strictly according to the letter of the law” and at other times by “by the spirt of the law”.

    Then what kind of law? Just laws? Or Unjust laws. But Rule of the Law it is.

  2. 2 Sweet Pie 6 September 2011 at 22:29

    Based on what I have seen PAP said and done since GE2011, PAP’s strategy is likely going with the change in STYLE (massively) but little change at the fringes in substance or policies.

    Since redrawing of boundaries will be less effective next GE, PAP will also covertly accelerate the increase the number of new citizens, especially in battleground GRCs, to win GE2016.

    Whatever PAP does at the margin, it does so to perpetuate its own system and not to reform itself. That I am 100% sure.

    • 3 DetachedObserver 7 September 2011 at 22:50

      Since the collective, equivalent charisma of Lee and his ministers is no better than a shredded piece of cloth and the PAP’s brand is now so toxic and valueless, any endeavour to change their STYLE is largely doomed to failure.

      Not even Steve Jobs can help them when they keep shooting themselves in the feet.

  3. 4 Ben 6 September 2011 at 22:38

    PM Lee mentioned that “In the event of Cabinet wishing to ride roughshod over the President’s views and refusing to refer a particular matter, there would be considerable public pressure exerted on the Government to so refer.”

    The Cabinet cannot underestimate the power of the people, especially if the President is elected by popular support. But, in any case, I doubt that Article 5a would serve any purpose now that we have a compliant President.

  4. 5 Sam 6 September 2011 at 23:37

    I have heard the opinion (from a constitutional law prof, no less) that there is, in effect, a de facto safeguard that acts in a manner similar to the as yet inoperative Article: Public opinion. In the event that a rogue government circumvents the President’s blocking powers or otherwise tries to do something without him giving his assent, public outcry could, in theory, put a stop to it. However, this would only happen in the case of some egregious actions by the government that generates an outcry the likes of which their current machinery cannot cope with. Although I am pessimistic that our current president would ever disagree with anything the PAP does, I do wonder, how effective do you think such a check is? Or are we just deluding ourselves?

  5. 6 cl 7 September 2011 at 08:16

    The problem is pm NEVER means what he says. I don’t read what he says a long time ago because they are all EMPTY words.

  6. 7 Anonymous 7 September 2011 at 09:15

    Oh pur-lease, one must be naive to think that the Lee Monarchy would enforce policies to curtail their own control over their little fiefdom of Singapore.

  7. 8 so1trg 7 September 2011 at 10:12

    Agree with Sweet Pie. Its politics after all. And if PAP doesnt do what politicians does, they will lose their votes.
    Just wait patiently for the tipping point. it might come in 2016 it might not. But i am optimistic.

    • 9 Vane 7 September 2011 at 18:08

      I’m afraid their pro-immigration policy is a means for them to retain majority of seats in the parliament. They are giving out citizenship in hopes that new citizens will vote for them. By 2016 maybe only 30% of our population are Singaporeans and 15% will still vote for PAP.

    • 10 PAP Supporter 8 September 2011 at 14:20

      By your reasoning, if another party is in power, they will behave like PAP. So I don’t see why not this ranting and raving about the current government. Look at the French revolution, they threw the monarchy out and what happened? In came Napoleon. Sigh! Everything in the world changes except human folly. People who are against the current ruling power wanted to change the system because they are not in the ruling class to enjoy it and are angry. But once they are in power, they would have forgotten all that they stood for. PAP, DAP, WP whatever it is.🙂

  8. 11 TheRedPill 7 September 2011 at 12:19

    PAP has been self-serving. So as long as it is not in the interest of the PAP’s to have Section 5A operative, it will never be operative.

  9. 12 lobo76 7 September 2011 at 17:37

    It’s sad really, that all of us (include the USA) are so powerless even when we call ourselves a democracy.

  10. 13 Penetrated 7 September 2011 at 17:39

    Please, give the man some time, he needs to talk to Papa and Wife first and let their permission

  11. 14 Jake 7 September 2011 at 19:55

    Think the articles for the Council of Presidential Advisers are also worryingly skewed towards perpetuating PAP dominance. Of the six members, only two are entirely at the President’s discretion to appoint. The other four are either directly or indirectly tied to the government.

  12. 15 Rabbit 8 September 2011 at 18:27

    Consitutions are drafted in such a way that PAP holds the magnet and the president hold a small piece of steel. Similar to many other PAP self-served constitutions passed in parliament , It is no wonder our human rights are always for PAP taking.

    If PAP continue to pass illogical constitutions to entrench its power, Singaporeans should hesitate to stand up as one united big pile of metal, than PAP magnet will be weakened and draw to it instead.

    The united force witnessed in GE2011 and PE2011 have already proved PAP can no longer hold to its magnet. 40% Singaporeans have matured and growing, and 65% Singaporeans do not fully support PAP policies. Thus, how can 2/3 (or 65%) in parliament be construed as mandate from the people or representatative of Singaporeans view when PAP didn’t pass 65% mandate in both elections this year?

    When parliament opened in October this year and 87% are seated by PAP people, we see no logic in such arrangement. The constitutions are to blame for all these glaring unfairness.

  13. 16 @non 12 September 2011 at 06:08

    From what I know, the anomaly with Article 5A has not gone unnoticed. NMP Prof. Thio and NCMP Sylvia Lim (as she then was) both raised questions in Parliament as to why the article is yet to be entrenched. The official line is somewhere along the line that the Elected Presidency is an unique system in the world (quite true as most countries follow the Westminster model or the US Presidency model) and the government must retain the ability to tweak the system by amending the Constitution. Once the system is working, the article will be in play. Of course, Article 5A has been there for almost 20years now. I shall refrain from speculating but the anomaly is interesting indeed.

  14. 17 SoT 15 September 2011 at 22:00

    Article 5A is old man Lee’s final back up – it will become operative on the verge of a hostile (to the PAP) parliament. it assumes the president will be a PAP man.

    of course, the recent elections has thrown a spanner into old man’s grand plans.

    5A is Lee’s attempt to protect the reserves from a populist government, should one ever emerge.


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