When it comes to understanding the management of our reserves, all three candidates now vying to be the next president are qualified in varying degrees. I would not lose sleep over this. But there are other roles he would have to play at this juncture of our history – and that will make a difference in who the successor of Halimah Yacob should be.
This Presidential Election is not just about whether we are going to elect a president to protect our reserves through a so-called second key and to help preserve a first-class public service. These are important functions. But they are already well defined in the Constitution, which comes complete with clear steps and scenarios to prevent deadlocks.
No big issue. Nevertheless, it is not quite true that the president’s second key function is nominal. It can be more than that. President Ong Teng Cheong, through his persistence but still working within the system as a team player, had been able to help enshrine a 50-50 approach to the usage of the reserves – use half of the reserve earnings for current use and keep the other half for future. But that was part of a period when the government was still learning how to get better mileage out of the national nest egg. Each new president may have a fresh approach, So nothing is and should be cast in iron.
Tharman Shanmugaratnam as President should not be the same as Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the Monetary Authority of Singapore, GIC or Temasek man. He will no longer be just a corporate head honcho. If elected, he has a different, broader horizon as the head of state, working hand in hand with the government to work out the budgets to keep the nation going. Similarly for Ng Kok Song, a former chief investment officer of the GIC, and Tan Kin Lian, a former chief executive officer of NTUC Income as well.
I think many Singaporeans do not realise that the next president would have to be more than a head of state with ceremonial and custodial responsibilities. This PE is very important because of what is happening at this juncture. The three candidates – individually and collectively – and the media have not done a proper job of educating Singaporeans on this.
But before we come to that, much has been said about the president being the “voice of the common man”. Yes, the president can play that role, but in a very limited way because that is not what he has been elected for. He may become another channel to add to many, many others, including official feedback mechanisms, MPs’ meet-the-people sessions, constituency walkabouts, special dialogues plus the Forward Singapore conversations and media, especially online. No lack of places to voice out one’s frustrations.
And, remember, we do have an Opposition in Parliament to bring up issues and check the government. They are the ones pushing the boundaries in the ultimate journey and hope of replacing the existing government in a democratic system. Can the president freely air the “feedback” he receives publicly? I don’t think so because his speeches would probably be vetted and have to be approved.
So, let’s not waste time talking about roles which do not exist.
At this point, other things are much more urgent. Singapore’s future may depend on the working relationship between the new president and the next Cabinet headed by a new prime minister. We are in transition during a difficult period. The US-China rivalry, invasion of Ukraine, and supply chain disruptions – are all changing the world order we had been used to.
Whoever is going to be in the Istana would have to have a good working relationship with the current PM, Lee Hsien Loong, as he completes his handover to a new team. This good working relationship will be the basic template for what comes next for this new national team. It has to be exemplary, smooth and inspiringly productive.
Singapore’s well-being in the immediate future will be in the hands of the new president working closely with the new 4G leaders. And if the president can use his charisma to let Singapore continue to punch above its weight on the world stage, so much the better.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a magazine publishing company.