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Reserved PE: Paying a political price or is it for a political gain?

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By Leong Hze Hian

I refer to the article “Govt prepared to pay political price over changes to Elected Presidency: Chan Chun Sing” (Channel NewsAsia, Sep 9).

It states that “It will be a “hard journey” to convince people about the need for changes to the Elected Presidency and the Government will pay a political price but it is prepared to, said Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing on Friday (Sep 8).

Speaking at an Institute of Policy Studies forum on the Reserved Presidential Election, Mr Chan stressed that as a young nation, Singapore had to evolve its systems to adapt to its circumstances – not just to meet the “here and now” but also to anticipate and pre-empt challenges that may arise in the future.

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Mr Chan asked those at the forum to raise their hands if they thought the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) had and will pay a political price over the recent changes to the Elected Presidency, and the debate surrounding it, including the hiatus-triggered model to ensure minority representation.

Noting the agreement of many in the hall, Mr Chan said: “Why, then, did we do this?”

“If we are all good politicians, we won’t and we shouldn’t do it,” he said. “No good politician would sacrifice his political capital for a problem that may arise in future generations. Most good politicians in the world would try to preserve their political capital for themselves to manage their current problems.”

“There are many conspiracy theories out there,” he added. “But for every conspiracy theory that is out there, I have a very good answer for you.

“If it has to do with an individual, then there are many other ways,” he said. “And if it is for political gain, then surely we are not achieving it as you have rightly pointed out.”

A POLITICIAN VERSUS A POLITICAL LEADER

To explain, Mr Chan related a story about a conversation with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, which he said taught him the difference between a politician and a political leader.

“We asked ourselves – PM, do we need to do this now? Because we had anticipated it would be a hard journey to convince people and we would pay the political price, at least in the short term,” said Mr Chan. “PM Lee’s answer will forever be etched in my mind, and that distinguished a politician from a political leader.

“He said ‘Yes, we are likely to pay a political price. Yes, we may not have a problem here and now, but what if we have a problem 20 or 30 years from now? Will the fourth, fifth or sixth generation of leaders have the liberty, and the luxury of time and space for them to put in place a system?’” said Mr Chan.

Mr Lee, he added, had taken it upon himself to put in place a system to pre-empt potential issues from arising in the future. “Not for himself, not for his political capital, but always thinking about what this country needs,” he said. “We are prepared to pay the political price, because we think the future of our country is much more important than any political capital that we may have.”

Mr Chan stressed that it was a “very difficult decision” to make, but the Government owes it to the future generations to put in place systems to prevent issues.

“If the issues don’t arise in future, then we will be very happy and proud. And we have done our little bit for the future of Singapore to be better,” he said. “But we will not be able to face the future generations if we have not done what we can within our means to establish the foundations for them to be even more successful than us.””

I would like to applaud Minister Chan Chun Sing for his candidness.

I agree with him that the political price may be high. But what if the political price may be so high that the Government loses its majority in Parliament in the next or future elections?

If this happens – then the political price may arguably be a “very serious price” that Singaporeans may have to pay (for this decision of the current Government) in the future.

On hindsight, the Government could have done things better – such as

… check thoroughly how many Malay candidates are likely to qualify before raising the $100 million equity requirement for either the CEO or chairman of a company, to $500 million for the CEO only?

In this connection, the New Paper said that there are 691 listed companies that meet the $500 million requirement.

In this regard, since only one of the three candidates automatically qualify, whilst the other two fall far short of the $500 million requirement – there may be a walkover on Nomination Day on 13 September.

If this happens – the political price may arguably, really end up to be very high:

– Make the constitutional change after the current presidential election. Otherwise, the obvious conclusion that many Singaporeans may come to – is that the change is to prevent people like Dr Tan Cheng Bock from running

– Don’t change the rules such that it is unlikely that there will be any rallies during the campaigning period, as it may be perceived by many Singaporeans as yet another attempt to give one of the candidates an easy win

– And of course it didn’t help that Minister Chan Chun Sing addressed the Speaker in Parliament accidentally as “Madam President”

– Should have accepted the Commission’s recommendations to increase the qualification criteria for the Speaker of Parliament to six years

– Try to choose and endorse a candidate who may not have any questions as to his or her race – which is perhaps underscored by the following remarks at the forum:

“Dr Puthucheary added that currently, while the definition of racial identity is left ambiguous, the process is clear. “So what you have is a mechanism for the process of selection of candidates to reflect what the community sentiment is,” he said. “The mechanism also leaves it open for someone in the same position to then be accepted at a later time when the sentiment has changed.”

He explained further: “The trade-off is that you get the particular individual, having that decision made about them … if you don’t qualify as being Malay, it is seen as excluding that person.

“But that person is still eligible to stand in the open election. And that opportunity to always stand – that will always be a channel. You have the same chances in the open election as anyone else.””

All is not lost in terms of the political price, as the Government can still do the right thing, after all its explanations and protestations on  “We are prepared to pay the political price, because we think the future of our country is much more important than any political capital that we may have” – by considering to have an affirmation vote by the people, as suggested by Prof Kevin Y L Tan, in the event of a walkover.

In so doing, the Government will surely turn the “political price” into a “political gain” in the hearts and minds of Singaporeans.

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