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Is President Tony Tan a minority?

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By: Bernard K

It did not escape my cynicism that when the Constitutional Commission on Elected President submitted their report to PM Lee on 17th August, the very next day on the 18th August a CNA-IPS report had this headline: Most Singaporeans prefer someone of the same race as the nation’s Prime Minister or President. And just in time so that PM Lee in his National Day Rally Speech on the 21st August can regurgitate PAP’s position, linking the office of the President to race and ethnicity. The rationale is that minorities must have a chance to be President, and given the survey this is unlikely to be the case, hence, the PAP must step-in to constitutionally enhance or even mandate minorities to be President.

Really? Deductively, given the timeline and prologue of events leading to the Constitutional Commission, it is bollocks. If minorities were important and had been at the back of PAP’s minds, why did they backed Dr Tony Tan as the Presidential candidate in 2011 when all other candidates were Chinese? Is it conceivable that Dr Tony Tan is a minority? The only thing minority about Dr Tony Tan is that he is an elite, and was among the highest paid Ministers of the world, well, now he is the highest paid President.

Let us be clear. The 2011 Presidential election coming off the GE 2011 was the most hotly contested and politicized. And one of the most compelling case for PAP to be worried about the President is that Singaporeans are seeing the office as a counter political weight to Parliament. Constitutionally, the President is a dame-duck. He has few constitutional initiatives and mostly just reactive and responding to Parliament’s requests. The most important of which is to release the Reserves when requested, and agreeing to the appointments of top civil servants recommended by Parliament.

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But invested in the President who is elected is moral authority. If there should be a standoff between the President and the Prime Minister, it is not so easy for the Prime Minister to brush the President aside. Based on tradition, most of our previous Presidents including the current one have been nothing but ‘cheer leaders’ for PAP. I should say that President Ong Teng Cheong was a possible exception to the rule.

However, in the last Presidential election, candidates Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Tan Jee Say were nothing of that sort. They were threatening to take the office and evolve it into another level. The President may not have powers to implement policies but the office can provide alternative views outside of PAP and the MSM. And given his mandate from an election, it is a very threatening counter weight to PAP’s political hegemony.

The Constitutional Commission had 3 basic tasks:

1. First, review the criteria for who is eligible to stand. The argument goes this way, it used to be someone who is capable of handling a SGD 100 million company has acquired the complexity to handle the Presidential office. But today, it has to be someone who has managed companies liked DBS or Singtel.

Well, they thought the General-Scholars were mightily qualified for our GLCs liked NOL, SMRT etc, they didn’t do so well did they? And besides, how many of our cabinet Ministers had acquired the complexity of companies liked DBS and Singtel? How many had PAP managed to pull into cabinet with the same qualifications? The answer is none. Are you then telling us that a President has to be better qualified than a Minister, a President who is constitutionally unable to implement policies, and essentially a lame-duck? And anyway, isn’t that the reason why you have the Council of Presidential Advisers to help him out in areas that he lacked the expertise?

2. Second, consider provisions for minority candidates to have “fair and adequate opportunity” to be elected, given the President’s status as a unifying figure who represents a multiracial Singapore. As I said, is Dr Tony Tan a minority? And if you want to go that way, how about provisions for minorities to be Prime Ministers? Is he not supposed to be a unifying figure also?

3. Third, consider refinements to the role and composition of the Council of Presidential Advisers, to ensure that key decisions are made after careful consideration from people with substantial suitable experience in the public and private sectors.

Lee Kuan Yew had already put into place within the Presidential office, the Council of Presidential Advisers as a counter weight to a popular President that may hinder PAP. But it seems that given that the President maybe more adversarial than just being a ‘cheer leader’ in the future, PAP wants to enhance the authority of the Council of Presidential Advisers. As it stands now, if a President and the Council of Presidential Advisers disagree, parliament can override the President’s veto by 2/3 of the votes.

What is the Constitutional Commission on Elected President really about? It really is a reaction by PAP to how Singaporeans see the Presidential office as another extension of their voice. It is an indictment of PAP’s ability to manage political pluralism. Through its’ control of the People’s Association and the Mainstream Media, PAP has an unfair advantage that curtail opposition voices. And Singaporeans seem to want to vent its political frustration via the President’s office, especially when you have the popular Dr Tan Cheng Bock.

The fact is that the Elected President has a very nominal political role. Indeed, it is Singaporeans who are aspiring for a political duality that is not constitutionally embedded in the President’s office. The Constitutional Commission on the Elected President is to stop an impending evolution of the office of the President that may threaten PAP’s hegemony.

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