SINGAPORE: A Bill proposing amendments to the constitution allowing the President of Singapore to take on roles with international organisations was passed in Parliament on Wednesday (Nov 22). However, all seven Workers’ Party MPs and one Non-Constituency MP from the Progress Singapore Party voted against the Bill.

Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said that the President may accept appointments to international organisations in a “private capacity.” Denying that this would be a type of extracurricular activity, Mr Wong added that this would be part of his or her presidential duties.

President Tharman Shanmugaratnam currently holds several such roles, including chairman of the board of trustees of the Group of Thirty, a member of the World Economic Forum’s board of trustees, co-chair of the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, and co-chair of the Advisory Board for the UN Human Development Report.

Three WP MPs delivered speeches in the course of the debate on the Bill, explaining why the WP is opposed to it.

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Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) reminded the House of the promises President Tharman made earlier this year, including those made during his inauguration about his commitment to strengthen multiracialism and enhance respect among communities, as well as statements made during his campaign emphasising the need for a “different character to the presidency” and underlining “the role of the President in checking the governance system, fostering unity, and evolving Singapore’s norms and culture.”

These are substantial commitments that will demand a significant investment of the President’s time and effort. All of us — even the President — have only 24 hours each day… Surely the role of the President is significant enough to merit his undivided attention,” said Mr Giam.

He also noted that the total budget allowed for the President’s office is over S$12 million this year and added that “this is a substantial amount of taxpayer money. It is only reasonable for Singaporeans to expect that he dedicates all his time and energy in his official capacity to meeting his promises to the people.”

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Mr Dennis Tan (Hougang SMC) brought up points similar to Mr Giams and added that many of the Singaporeans he and other WP MPs have spoken to have said that “they expect our President to concentrate fully on his role as President and they hope our President would not be distracted by the roles he is holding in his private capacity.”

When the President is undistracted by other responsibilities, Mr Tan said, he or she can be encouraged to serve Singapore more fully. He also brought up the issue of conflict of interest and asked if remuneration for the President from an international organization would be allowed.

In his speech, MP Jamus Lim (Sengkang GRC) said that the WP opposes the Bill due to the problematic nature of retroactive lawmaking, saying that this should only be done on select occasions. He added that if the amendments were important enough, the Bill should have been passed earlier.

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“Does this House regard the use of retroactive lawmaking embodied in this Bill—that we should retrospectively allow the President and Ministers to take on positions in their private capacity, should it serve the national interest—as one that is sufficiently grave as to justify bending away from the sound, general principles of prospective lawmaking?” he asked. /TISG