Thursday, August 18, 2011

Redefining the president-government relationship

Weighing in on the contest for the Presidency, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said that the government will respect the voters' choice and work with whoever the voters choose in the interest of Singapore.

This is very magnanimous, especially coming from a government that has every reason to want its preferred, although not publicly endorsed, candidate sitting in the Istana. Only time and the outcome of the presidential election on 27 August will tell if this government will live up to its word.

Against the backdrop of an intensely contested presidential election, PM Lee had also taken the opportunity to outline the parameters of the relationship between the government and the president, describing it as one of good mutual understanding and a constructive partnership.

But beyond just understanding and partnership, I would also hope to see the relationship to be one founded on mutual respect and not one which is based on a case where one party directs and the other is directed, if we are to take a literal reading of the Constitution which states that the President must act in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Like it or not, the office of the Elected President is one which is based on a popular vote, thus making the president accountable to the citizens who voted for him, and despite the absence of executive powers, he carries with him a moral obligation to serve the interest of the people, in addtion to the responsibilities already enshrined in the Constitution.

In the run-up to the presidential election, much has been said and explained about the 'real' powers of the president, at times making it seem that the president's office was effectively impotent when it comes to defending the interests of Singaporeans. If we are to simply accept what the powers that be have said, then this whole affair of the presidential election is just a case of much ado about nothing.

The powers that be would have us believe that the authority and influence of the president have been clearly defined in the Constitution, thereby providing no avenue for him to pursue his own agenda or speak his mind outside the confines of the structures of governance. But faced with a barrage of criticism against such a narrowly defined role of the president and the threat of a looming economic downturn, the government appears to have adjusted its discourse.

In my previous post, I had indicated that what the people want of the next president is someone who will give a listening ear to the people and who will also have the listening ear of the government. But beyond just listening, both parties must also be committed to act on what they have heard, and not just give lip service. Don't let it become a case of all talk and no action.

And as I have also alluded to earlier, appropriate channels (both formal and informal) are already in place to facilitate opportunities for the president to gather and collate feedback from the people and then relay them on to the government.

In performing his ceremonial duties, the president has many opportunities to meet and engage the people. Instead of simply gracing events and making speeches, what is to stop the president's office from including in the president's itinerary time for the president to dialogue with the people for the express purpose of hearing their feedback.

Of course, it would make sense to state upfront that issues to be raised to the president should be issues that affect us as a nation or issues that revolve around causes championed by the president. And while there is no stopping the people from raising municipal issues, the president can, through his office, ensure that they are directed and addressed by the relevant authorities.

But what is the president then to do with all the issues and feedback that he has gathered? Well, PM Lee has provided the answer when he said that he has monthly lunch meetings with the president. What more appropriate forum than this for the president to engage in an exchange of views with the head of government and raise the issues and concerns relayed to him by the people.

No doubt the government will probably say that all of this and possibly more is already happening. But it is all happening behind closed doors. How can you blame the people for coming to the conclusion that the president is ineffectual and does nothing of importance save for acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister and Cabinet?

In the interest of upholding the dignity and standing of the office of the president and in the interest of the desire for greater transparency by the people, what is to stop the government from keeping the people updated on the regular lunch meetings between the president and prime minister?

Can we not have both men meeting the press in the Istana garden after their lunch (assuming that the lunch is held there) to share, in broad strokes, the key issues discussed, consensuses agreed on, and matters that would require further deliberation. Of course, I am not saying they should go through a laundry list of everything that was covered during lunch, just the issues that have an impact of the lives and well-being of the people.

I sincerely believe that this openness will go a long way towards forging a much greater degree of trust between the people and the government, and address the needs of an increasingly information-hungry populace.

Trust, like respect, needs to be earned, and in the wake of the last general election and incidents in the following months that have only served to cause people to further question the moral authority of the government, it is not a matter of choice for the government. It is key to the survivability and sustainability of the government.

Such an openness would also show that the government is willing to 'put your money where your mouth is' when it comes to getting the politics and policies right.

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