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Revising the Elected Presidency, and a promise broken

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By Howard Lee
Former President S R Nathan’s “innocent quip” might have drawn both indignation and peals of laughter, but the context of his interview is surely no laughing matter.
Singapore – or more specifically, the current Singapore government – is seeking to review the conditions of the Elected Presidency (EP) and the powers that the President will hold. A commission has been assembled to deliberate on this and the recommendations will surely be put through its paces in Parliament, to end in what would surely be rousing agreement to what the secretary-general of the ruling People’s Action Party wants the EP to be.
Let us not delude ourselves. The PAP’s overwhelming majority in Parliament, the formation of a commission that is more than likely to be sympathetic to the wishes of the current government, and the Prime Minister’s suggestions – nay, make that verdict – on what the EP should be is likely to develop into a clear decision that favours two restrictions to our Constitution: The President’s powers, and who gets to run.
These changes, if they do materialise, can hardly point the way forward for what our democracy should be.
To begin, we need to remember how the EP came to be. Implemented in 1991 and first fielded in 1993, the EP held powers to check on the government when granted a spyglass, not the key, to the national reserves. The President is also responsible for deciding on key public sector appointments. You might even be led to believe that the EP came about as a precautionary measure against a rogue government should an opposition party come into power. Either that, or the PAP is paranoid about corruption within the party.
But this much is clear: The powers of the EP were bestowed by the government of the day, and by democratic functionality those powers were then transferred to the people.

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Former President Ong Teng Chong

Little was made of the EP until former President Ong Teng Chong demanded a clearer view through the spyglass. Touted as a PAP man, Ong did what was clearly not expected of him – actually using the EP’s powers against the grain of the PAP’s mantra of clean and efficient governance. This episode marked Ong’s long battle that ended in a partial reveal of the state of the national reserves.
Yet it would not be too much of a stretch to believe that Ong kindled a certain questioning spirit among the very people who put him into the EP seat, and this was surely to be the way a functional check and balance on the government is supposed to be implemented. A President elected by the people as watchman of the government, even if he has limited powers, was better than all the keys residing with the government of the day. The PAP would have realised this – in spite of all the said “consultation” that went on before the EP was eventually rolled out, they implemented the system that puts these checks into place.
The system flexed its most democratic muscle in the 2011 Presidential Election, where four candidates stood and the current President won with little more than a third of valid votes, and the next best contender missing the bell by only thousands of votes. It was democratic participation at its best, hot on the heels of a deep mistrust of the PAP, and some say reflected the people’s rejection of a President too closely aligned with the PAP.
Fast forward to 2016, and how things have changed. We are looking at the very distinct possibility of the EP having to return more of his/her powers to the government or the Council of Presidential Advisors.
What, then, are we electing come 2017?
If the Prime Minister is really cognisant of the changing political landscape – one of the reasons cited for the review of the EP – he would realise that citizens are hankering for more political participation, not less. For more decentralised governance, not the monolith that is PAP in everything we do. For more checks and balances, not political expediency. For less, not more, barriers to entry. For the right to vote, not just for the people in power, but for the conditions that govern the power they wield.
Yet everything we have read so far about the changes to the EP point to the opposite direction of where we should be heading as a democracy. Only in Singapore can power, once given to the people, be so easily taken back. If we offer no resistance, is it because we agree with the PM, or that we have simply given up on building democracy in Singapore?
Nowhere is this clearer than in the comical way that former President Nathan described the national anthem being sung to him. It at once relegates the EP to one of ceremonial function rather than democratic purpose, as place of honour rather than service to the people, of piece-meal racial tolerance rather than national conciliation and understanding.
We do not sing the national anthem to the President. We sing it to ourselves as a nation, a promise we make to uphold values of progress. And the scaling back of the roles and function of the EP is anything but progress.
“Come, fellow Singaporeans
Let us progress towards happiness together
May our noble aspiration bring
Singapore success

Come, let us unite
In a new spirit
Together we proclaim
Onward Singapore
Onward Singapore”

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