While stressing that the Elected Presidency cannot be a second centre of power, President Tony Tan — making his first comments on the proposed changes to the EP scheme — said that the office of the head of state cannot be hamstrung “just to guard against a worst case scenario of a populist or power-hungry President”.
He pointed out that while the President “should not be unbridled in the exercise of his Constitutional Duties, it is not practical to remove all possible scenarios of gridlock and yet expect the Elected President to remain an effective custodian”. He said: “We must rely upon the wisdom of our electorate to elect a President who is able to work with the Government of the day for the proper and effective governance of Singapore.”
On Monday (Nov 7), Parliament kicked off the debate on amendments to the EP scheme, which is enshrined in the Constitution. In a speech delivered by Parliament Speaker Halimah Yacob on his behalf, Dr Tan spoke about the office’s symbolic and custodial roles. He also voiced his agreement with the recommendations by the Constitutional Commission — which have been accepted by the Government — to enhance the eligibility criteria of presidential hopefuls and to create a mechanism of reserving a Presidential Election for a specific ethnic group if a member of that group has not held the office after five terms.
Drawing on his experience, Dr Tan, who was elected as President in 2011, said the “scope and complexity of the Presidential oversight on Singapore’s key assets have increased significantly, even in the span of five years of my term”.
A former Cabinet Minster, Dr Tan helmed sovereign wealth fund GIC before he took up the presidency. He was previously chairman and chief executive of OCBC bank at one point of his career. “My finance background was useful in helping me understand the technicalities of the Government’s proposals, but the decisions often also require good policy acumen and a sound judgement on what is right for Singapore,” he said.
Dr Tan said he enjoys a “harmonious” working relationship with the Government, which keeps him informed of all its major decisions.
“On a regular basis, the Prime Minister and I meet over lunch and on other occasions, for him to brief me on his preoccupations and intentions, and to exchange views on the strategic direction in which Singapore is heading. Our relationship is built on mutual trust and respect. This, to me, is key to the effective functioning of our system,” he said.
Reiterating the need to distinguish between the President “acting as a custodian and the President acting in opposition to the Government”, Dr Tan said: “The two are not the same... (The Elected President) must act in accordance with the roles prescribed in the Constitution, and not hold back the Elected Government of the day from performing its executive role.”
He noted that the Council of Presidential Advisers was set up to provide expert advice to the President and to moderate the President’s custodial powers. “In practice, up till today, the Presidents and the Council have worked well together. There has not been any need to subject any decision to the Parliamentary override mechanism, because decisions have been well considered for the long term good of Singapore,” he said. “And in line with its stature and the principle of collective responsibility, the Council of Presidential Advisers as a non-elected body has remained above any political fray. We should maintain that.”
Noting that the president had previously been described in the House as a “goalkeeper” for his custodial role, Dr Tan said the office is also “the flag-bearer of Singapore”. “The symbolic role of the President also extends domestically, with the President engaging the different communities and segments of Singaporeans,” said Dr Tan. Adding that it is important for the office to uphold multi-racialism, he cited the “current realities”, where all but one of the Elected Presidents, including himself, have been Chinese.
Calling the work of the commission a “landmark review”, Dr Tan said that constitutional changes “should never be undertaken lightly”. “For half a century, our Constitution has served us well, with periodic adjustments to bring it up to date and keep Singapore on course. The institution of the Elected Presidency was one such adjustment,” said Dr Tan.
Dr Tan noted that he has refrained from publicly comments on the commission’s report or the Government’s White Paper, which details its response to the recommendations. He reiterated that there is no legal necessity for him to present his views on the proposals, “nor is it in the Constitutional powers of the President to endorse or oppose any specific recommendations pertaining to the Elected Presidency”. “These are decisions for the Government to make,” he said. However, the Government has made it a practice to seek and consider the President’s views when amending the Constitutional provisions which affect the President’s discretionary powers, and to make known these views to Parliament when moving the Constitutional amendments, he noted. Adding that his tenure so far has given him a “personal perspective” on the role of the EP, he said: “I have therefore agreed with the Prime Minister that I should send this message to Parliament to share my views on the proposals that are being debated.”