Category: Constitutional principles

Past Imperfect, Future Tense: The Elected Presidency and the Constitutional Development of an ‘Ever Evolving Hybrid’

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Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, drawn by his cousin Niels Christian Kierkegaard (via the Wikimedia Commons)

Thio Li-ann
Professor and Provost’s Chair
Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore

SØREN KIERKEGAARD once said: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” This sentiment reflects the evolution of the elected presidency (EP) as a facet of the development of the Singapore Constitution, not by judicial interpretation, but executive determination, within the context of a dominant party state. The development of the Constitution of Singapore in this manner is facilitated by the reality that constitutional amendment is a political and practical possibility.

The elected presidency was and is a unique constitutional experiment whose authors were determined to see it succeed, yet uncertain of how it would operate in practice. Its introduction was thought crucial to good governance, to check an untrammeled government, through pre-emptively instituting presidential ‘veto’ powers in relation to a limited range of primarily fiscal government decisions, providing a ‘second key’ to the national kitty. This was reflected in the strong entrenchment provisions that accompanied the institution, signifying its importance before it was tested. However flexibility was retained by not bringing into operation this special entrenchment regime. Instead, the institution could be modified following the general Article 5(2) procedure, which requires the support of a 2/3 parliamentary majority. The need to preserve the ability to refine the system reflects its experimental quality. Alarm has regularly been expressed where understandings contrary to the institutional design of its authors have been expressed (for example, by presidential candidates campaigning during elections), such as the opinion that the EP could operate as a second centre of political power, or that the EP could act in a proactive manner or in a publicly adversarial fashion vis-à-vis the government. Continue reading

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Mandates, Majorities and the Legitimacy of the Elected President (Part I of II)

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A poster of Tony Tan Keng Yam, who was eventually elected as President at the 2011 presidential election. (By Jack Lee [CC-BY-SA-3.0] via the Wikimedia Commons.)

Kevin YL Tan
Adjunct Professor of Law
National University of Singapore

An Elected President to Check an Elected Government

The Elected Presidency was created as a knee-jerk reaction to the People’s Action Party’s (PAP’s) worst nightmare: that in a ‘freak election’, ‘irrational’ voters might cause a seismic shift in voting patterns to bring into office an irresponsible and profligate government. The Westminster parliamentary system of government, with its fusion of executive and legislative powers, would provide no check on such a government if it had a parliamentary majority. It was thus necessary to create a countervailing force to put the brakes on the excesses of such a government.

Back in 1984, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s solution was to transform the office of the President into an elected one. The logic behind the need to elect the President has been enunciated and emphasized many times: If you want someone to check on an elected government, you need to cloak him or her with the requisite moral authority to do so and this can only come from being elected.

Why Elections Matter

Elections are the bedrock of democratic representation and participation. Those elected are presumed to have the mandate of those who elected them, and thus a corresponding legitimacy to undertake whatever their office requires of them. The bigger the majority, the greater the legitimacy and the more secure the mandate. At the same time, elections are desirable because they throw up the ‘best’ candidates available for the job or mission. However, when we look at how Singapore’s ‘Elected’ President gains office, these precepts quickly fall by the wayside.

Prior to 1991, all presidents were nominated and ‘elected’ by Parliament. There was no real electoral contest in this closed system. Parliament’s ‘electing’ of the President was really a reaffirmation of the Government’s choice; nothing more. The constitutional provisions that followed transformed the office into an elected one, albeit with serious limitations. The idea was that elections gave holders of the office a majoritarian mandate upon which sat its moral authority to control an elected government. The logic of this idea surely lay in (a) giving the electorate a real choice in terms of the candidates; and (b) ensuring that the chosen candidate had indeed been put through the rigours of elections and emerged with an undisputed majority.

However, provisions in the Constitution and the Presidential Election Act subvert this logic in two ways. First, by severely limiting voters’ choice in stipulating the type of candidate who can stand for election based on a mixed criterion of executive experience and financial savvy; and second, by allowing sole candidates to be declared ‘elected’. In the first of this two-part post, I will examine how recent amendments to the Constitution have narrowed the field further by tightening the criteria for ‘private sector’ candidates and the institution of a race-based rotation system of elections.

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Wielding “Real Power” to Disagree: Amendments to the Council of Presidential Advisers Framework

The Istana, Singapore,

The Istana, which is the official residence of the President of Singapore. (By Sengkang [copyrighted free use], via the Wikimedia Commons.)

Benedict Chan Wei Qi
Third-year LLB undergraduate
School of Law, SMU

THE RECOMMENDATIONS of the Constitutional Commission on the Elected Presidency have generated much national debate even before they are tabled before Parliament. While the spotlight has largely been on the recommendations relating to securing minority representation in the nation’s highest office, perhaps we should also pay heed to the wise men and women behind the decisions of the Elected President – the Council of Presidential Advisors (“CPA”).

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Hougang By-election Case: What Court Decision on By-election Reveals

A poll card issued for the 2011 general election

A poll card issued for the 2011 general election. (Photograph by Jacklee [public domain or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via the Wikimedia Commons.)

Dr Jack Tsen-Ta Lee
Assistant Professor of Law
School of Law, SMU

THE COURT OF APPEAL’S judgment of 5 July in Vellama d/o Marie Muthu v Attorney-General[1] – popularly known as the Hougang by-election case – shows that the Court sees its role as policing the margins rather than involving itself in the heart of politics.

The decision came as a surprise to those used to a judicial stance that is fairly deferential towards the Government. It is one of only a handful of cases in which the courts have not accepted the Government’s interpretation of the Constitution.

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A Legal Backgrounder on By-elections

Yaw Shin Leong, 5 May 2011

Yaw Shin Leong at a Workers’ Party rally for the 2011 general election, 5 May 2011. (By Huaiwei. CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), via Wikimedia Commons.)

Jack Tsen-Ta Lee
Assistant Professor of Law
School of Law, SMU

THE EXPULSION of Yaw Shin Leong, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Hougang Single Member Constituency (SMC), from the Workers’ Party has once again thrust the issue of the Government’s policy on by-elections into the limelight. This was last discussed in Parliament in August 2008 following the death of Dr Ong Chit Chung, MP for Jurong Group Representation Constituency (GRC).

Article 46 of the Constitution provides that when MPs are ousted from the political parties they stood for in an election, their seats are vacated. Parliament has final say on the matter. On 22 February, Mr Michael Palmer, the Speaker of Parliament, announced that since Mr Yaw had indicated he does not wish to challenge his expulsion, his seat became vacant on 14 February.

During the Parliamentary debate four years ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the constitutional provision – often known as the “anti-hopping” clause – ensured a stable government. He recalled the tumultuous years in the Legislative Assembly – the predecessor to Singapore’s post-independence Parliament. In 1961, 13 People’s Action Party MPs were able to leave their party and cross the floor, decimating the Government’s majority. Continue reading

High Stakes: GRC and the 2011 Singapore GE

Kevin Tan
Adjunct Professor of Law
National University of Singapore

I noted in my 1992 article, ‘The Constitutional Implications of the 1991 General Elections’ (1992) 13 Sing. L Rev 26 that the GRC system could cut both ways. While a strong personality (such as a respected minister) can waltz into Parliament with 4 or 5 silhouettes, the stakes can be quite high. This is why it would be unwise for the PAP to grow the GRC beyond a certain point. The election saw the revival of the 4-member GRC (albeit only in 2 constituencies – Moulmein-Kallang; and Holland-Bukit Timah), and a reduction of the number of 6-member GRCs. This indicates the PAP’s concern that should the scales tip against them, they could well end up losing 6 seats in one swoop. Continue reading

Short reflections on the 2011 General Elections

Thio Li-ann
Professor of Law
National University of Singapore

1. In the 1990s, then PM Goh Chok Tong said that the GRC scheme was “theoretically neutral,” even if the PAP had in practice won all seats. 2011 GE finally demonstrates this in practice, with the obvious repercussions for future electoral strategies. Not least, that the GRC is not a sure-fire way for PAP self-renewal, witness, Ong Ke Yung.

The late Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (Source: AP)

2. Also in the 1990s, I remember Wong Kan Seng telling NCMP JB Jeyaretnam that he was in by the grace of the government. But now that we are talking about a couple of hundred votes dividing winners and losers in Potong Pasir, Joo Chiat and East Coast, the “mandate” of NCMPs are stronger. Witness, for example, Lina Chiam’s nod to the wishes of the voters for her to take the NCMP seat. Continue reading