SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s wife Ho Ching has been censured online after she said in a Facebook post on Wednesday (14 June) that the role of the President “is not to be an independent voice, a check on govt, or an ombudsman to all the woes and ills of society.”
Her comments came a day after the Elections Department opened the eligibility application window for presidential hopefuls. Although the campaign period has yet to begin, with sitting President Halimah Yacob still occupying the head of state seat, it has already become clear that independence will be a pivotal election issue that may determine the results of the upcoming poll.
The two most prominent individuals who have collected Certificate of Eligibility application forms are establishment pick Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and entrepreneur and diplomat George Goh Ching Wah.
Although Mr Tharman is perhaps one of the most well-respected People’s Action Party (PAP) politicians and has enjoyed for years the distinction of being the “people’s choice” to become Singapore’s next Prime Minister, his longstanding political career has led to critical questions on how independent he can really be from the ruling party if he is elected.
Mr Goh, on the other hand, has made independence a major election message in his bid for the presidency. He has repeatedly stressed the need for an independent President who is not affiliated with any political party since he made his presidential aspirations public this week.
Referring to the fact that three out of Singapore’s four elected Presidents have been PAP ministers, Mr Goh has asserted that past contested presidential election results show that the people want a truly apolitical head of state.
The country’s most beloved past president Ong Teng Cheong won just under 60 per cent of the vote while the veteran PAP Minister narrowly became President, despite losing 65 per cent of votes in the four-cornered fight for the hot seat in 2011. Incumbent President Halimah Yacob cruised to the Istana in an uncontested election after revised eligibility requirements disqualified two hopefuls in the 2017 reserved election.
Amid heated discussions about why the President should be an independent figure, Mdm Ho has caused a stir with her remarks that the president’s responsibilities do not include being an independent voice or a check on the government.
Asserting her perspective that the President’s primary roles are to represent Singapore as a nation, symbolize unity among its people, safeguard the country’s reserves and maintain the integrity of key institutions, the Prime Minister’s wife said:
“The role of the elected presidency is two-fold. The primary role is that of a head of state, representing Singapore as a nation and state, and the symbol of unity for our people. The secondary role for which the election is to be held is to hold a second key to help safeguard our reserves and the integrity of our key institutions.
“It is not to be an independent voice, a check on govt, or an ombudsman to all the woes and ills of society. For that the usual political, civic and civil processes will be the right avenues, including voting for a govt during a general election or by election for political representation in parliament.”
In what appears to be a pointed comment, Mdm Ho said: “So folks, by all means, step forward to run for the Presidential elections in Sg. But don’t fly the false flag of independence, check and balance, complaints bureau, etc.”
Reminding candidates to “just remember the 2 key roles of the Presidency,” which are to be a “titular head of state” and to “hold a 2nd key for our reserves,” the former Temasek CEO said:
“I know it’s difficult bcos the instincts for potential candidates is to go for popular support as well as the instincts of the electorate to project their fears, hopes, grievances and tribal clanishness onto their candidate choice.
“Given the critical role of our reserves, and the importance of our institutional integrity, our President needs to be both a credible symbol of our nation, and also a person of courage and integrity willing and capable of doing the right thing even if it is unpopular.”
Mdm Ho added, “And remember that in a parliamentary system, the parliament is the ultimate decision body, as one commentator pointed out. This is not to underplay the importance or the critical role of our President. It is to remember that it is not a political role in a parliamentary system.”
Her comments drew swift backlash from Singaporeans who have argued that her stance undermines the principles of accountability and transparency that are vital in a democratic society, as she has effectively reduced the already limited role of the President to a mere figurehead. Some have also asked whether PM Lee shares his wife’s views.
One vocal Redditor, going by the username u/Curiq, rebutted Mdm Ho’s views in a detailed comment that has won close to 800 upvotes.
The Redditor directed netizens to the Government’s own White Paper, which states that the President will require a popular mandate if he is to “have the authority to act as the custodian of the nation’s reserves and be an effective check against governmental action, should the occasion arise”.
They also noted that the Government also stated that it believes that the “second key” is better held by an elected body with a direct mandate from Singaporeans to ensure that the institution has the moral authority and mandate to veto an elected Government and to ensure that the holder of the “second key” is not just able to disagree with the elected Government in the identified areas, but that he is seen as legitimately doing so.
u/curiq said: “In conclusion, I think that HC is either smoking something or trying to smoke you.”
Capturing the frustration of many Singaporeans who believe that Mdm Ho’s perspective diminishes the importance of the president’s role as a watchdog and protector of national interests, with a simple yet powerful TLDR (too long, didn’t read), another Redditor u/hibaricloudz wrote: “HC: S’pore President is only meant for being a pretty face and saying yes to whatever the gov requests.”
Mdm Ho’s portrayal of the president’s role as primarily symbolic has also drawn significant backlash. Redditor u/dunbugmepls questioned the purpose of having a “second key” to safeguard reserves and institutions if the president is not meant to be an independent voice.
The netizen’s sentiment, which others online appear to share, raises concerns about the potential erosion of checks and balances within the government.
Some also expressed frustration that Mdm Ho can express controversial views without facing the same consequences as politicians since she is not an elected official despite wielding considerable influence as the PM’s wife.
Addressing the issue of Mdm Ho’s influence, u/nova9001 remarked, “LHL is the good cop. Never rocks the boat, pretty much the nice guy in the room. Ho Ching is the bad cop, says stuff like this but no penalty because she’s not a politician.”
As the debate intensifies, citizens are questioning whether Ho Ching’s views reflect the government’s official stance. Underscoring the need for clarity and transparency regarding the government’s position on the president’s role, u/fatenumber asked, “Is Ho Ching’s view = LHL’s view?”
Countering her suggestion that independence should be a non-issue when it comes to selecting the next head of state, the sharp backlash Mdm Ho’s controversial views have received only serve to show just how important the issue of independence is to Singaporeans as the presidential election looms.
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