Friday, June 10, 2011

Is the Presidency merely a Rubber Stamp?

Former Senior Minister S Jayakumar says that he is surprised and disappointed by the statements made by some of the presidential candidate hopefuls.
Well, truth be told, I am just as disappointed with the statements made by Professor Jayakumar which has only served to confirm what many of us have long believed to be true – that the President is only there to rubber stamp government’s decisions, even if such decisions may not be to the liking of the people.
In stating that the President only has some discretionary custodial powers, which is limited to blocking government decisions when it impacts on the protection of the reserves or appointments to key public offices or on matters related to ISA detentions, CPIB investigations and Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act restraining order, and that in all other areas, the President under the Constitution must act on the advice of the Cabinet, Prof Jayakumar has managed to show to Singaporeans that for all intents and purposes, the President is but a paper tiger.
Prof Jayakumar’s statements suggest that the government has hard-coded its relationship logic with the President in such a way as to ensure a harmonious relationship with a PAP-supportive President and in the case of a not so PAP-supportive President, ensure a benign presidency that can do little to effectively act as the people’s guardian.
No surprise that such a clarification on the legal position of the President has come from Prof Jayakumar since he was one of the key architects in the crafting of the Elected President laws when he was Law Minister in the 1980s.
In one fell swoop, Prof Jayakumar, who has indicated that he will not be contesting the presidency, has for dismissed the goals outlined by the two frontrunners in the forthcoming presidential election due by 31 August, suggesting that their lofty ambitions were simply ambitions.
I would like to say to Prof Jayakumar that we, the citizens, are fully aware that the office of the President is one without executive powers, that the President has no power to initiate decisions or policy, but we are also of the belief that given the stringent qualifying criteria stipulated for one to be considered eligible for the office of the President, the person elected by the people as President would have the substance and wherewithal to engage, advise and even disagree with the government privately in matters relating to Singapore’s assets and appointment of top leaders and require them to review their decision.
I would hate it if the President is there to merely read the documents tabled to him and sign off on them without having formed an opinion and raised questions on decisions taken by the government. Why would we need an Elected President, one who is chosen by and accountable to the people who voted for him, if he is there to simply and unquestionably endorse all government decisions?
Looking at the goals articulated by some of the presidential hopefuls, in all honesty, I would have to say that they are well-within the scope of the Articles 21 and 22 (in particular Article 22F President’s access to information) in the Constitution. No where have they suggested the expansion of their role to include executive powers or to see themselves as a centre of power distinct from the government. If anything, their goal is to be able to work more effectively with the government of the day, without feeling as though they had to do so with one hand tied behind their back.
While the form of the Articles in the Constitution does seem to suggest limits on the power of the President, it is in implementation of those Articles that we should hope for there to be a generous and judicious exercise of discretion and judgement to ensure responsibility and accountability in government and governance.
Given the current climate of change following the watershed May 2011 General Election and the open season on sacred cows, should we not adopt a somewhat more enlightened approach to the relevant articles in the Constitution, that is, while we should respect the spirit of the intent of said articles, we should not be overly dogmatic in circumscribing the powers of the President to the point that he is reduced to being nothing more than a rubber stamp.
Ultimately, I believe that Singaporeans are clear about their expectations of the role of the President. We know that the President has limited powers, but I also believe that we would like the President to be able to counsel the government through a process of engagement with the Prime Minister and his Cabinet and active deliberations of government decisions.
This engagement and deliberation would be predicated on the President having a good feel of the pulse of the ground, which should be the case since the President is after all elected by the people for the people.
And only if he can truly do that, can we honestly say that we have our next people’s president.

Afternote: As of Friday evening, Minister for Law K Shanmugam had issued a statement to reiterate the points that have been made by former Senior Minister S Jayakumar and President S R Nathan, which is that the President only has custodial powers and not executive powers. Hmm, tell me something we don't already know.... .


Kojakbt said...

bro, nice article. So I have your permission to publish this on other sites? Thanks! :)

Maverick said...

Bro, please do share this with as many people as you can. The issue of the EP is important to all of us, and the more people know the non-PAP narratives, the better for all Singaporeans.

Kojakbt said...

Will do :)

Alan Wong said...

The way I see it just like the GRCs, our PAP govt has dug a grave for themselves ie. they are shooting their own leg.

With that kind of warning from Jayakumar, it goes to show that the elected Presidency was meant to be a political tool for PAP and not for the overall good of Singaporean in the first place.

Isn't it ironic that the President's pay is much higher that than of the Prime Minister when its role and responsibilities is so diminished in comparison ?

And what is exactly wrong with the a presidential candidate's calling upon the executive govt to be more transparent with the reserves that the President is supposed to guard ?

Is our PAP govt leaders worried and not particularly pleased with this type of calling that Jayakumar sees it fit for him to come out with that warning ?

Kojakbt said...