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.
Dr. Jaclyn L. Neo
National University of Singapore
Faculty of Law
Singapore’s elected Presidency is a sui generis institution. It is a modification of the convention in the parliamentary system where the Head of State plays a ceremonial role and is not elected. The modification however does not go far enough to transform the political system to a presidential one whereby the Head of State is also the Head of Government. When the Singapore Constitution was amended in 1991 to institute elections as the mode of selecting the President, thus jettisoning the previous mode of selection, the President was bestowed with certain custodial powers such that he can veto budgets and transactions that draw down on past governmental reserves as well as veto key public service appointment. Indeed, it was the granting of these additional discretionary powers that served to justify changing the office into an elected one. The thinking was that this would imbue the President with a mandate to exercise his discretionary powers, especially when he disagrees with the government of the day to draw down on past reserves or on key public service appointments.
The changes to the presidency served to institute a unique system in which the President checks and balances governmental power on matters concerning the governmental reserves and public service appointments. In order to support the President in discharging his functions, a Council of Presidential Advisors (“CPA”) was established. Designed as an independent body to counsel and advise the President on the exercise of his powers, CPA members are not elected but are nominated by the President, the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice, and the Chairman of the Public Service Commission. While the CPA’s central role is to advise, this should not obscure its importance as legal consequences could arise depending on whether they recommend that the President exercise his veto powers. Under certain provisions in the constitution, where the President vetoes a drawdown of reserves contrary to the recommendation of the CPA, this triggers a mechanism whereby Parliament can override the veto by a two thirds majority vote. The CPA thus plays a critical role within this system of checks and balances involving the President and the government. However, the complexity in which this system works and the independent expert nature of the CPA has meant that the CPA is not a very well understood institution within the constitutional framework. This is unfortunate especially since proposed changes to the constitution strengthens and expands the CPA’s role within the system. The CPA will become more important and needs to be better studied and understood.
The changes to the CPA come after a Constitutional Commission was asked to “review the framework governing the exercise of the President’s custodial powers, particularly the role and composition of the Council of Presidential Advisers.” It is to do so taking into account the custodial powers of the President over Singapore’s financial reserves and the integrity of its public service, and to “ensure that decisions in these areas are made with the support of careful consideration given by a group of persons with substantial suitable experience in the public and private sectors.” The Constitutional Commission made its recommendations in September 2016. The government responded in a White Paper to the recommendations shortly after and introduced a Constitutional Amendment Bill in October 2016. The amendments expand the size of the CPA, strengthens its role within the system of checks and balance, expands its functions, and imposes clearer rules concerning its workings. As the Parliament starts to debate the Constitutional Amendment Bill this week, this post aims to give an overview of the changes that affect the role and functions of the CPA and make some observations as to some of the implications of these changes.
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”).
REPORTING the death of former President S R Nathan at the age of 92 on 22 August 2016, The Straits Times of 23 August stated in the first paragraph on its front page that he was “Singapore’s first elected and longest-serving president”.
It was soon pointed out that the first presidential election was held in 1993 and led to Ong Teng Cheong being elected to the highest office in the land. (ST couldn’t change its print edition, of course, but did update its website by removing the words first elected and, and publish a correction in the next day’s newspaper.)
However, some have questioned whether Nathan can be regarded as having been ‘elected’ at all, since the 1999 and 2005 elections he had participated in had been walkovers – he had been the only candidate declared eligible by the Presidential Elections Committee.
This raises an interesting question: who can be considered an elected President?
Eugene K B Tan
Associate Professor of Law
WHAT’S THE SIGNIFICANCE and relevance of Magna Carta, an 800-year old handwritten sheepskin parchment that is currently on a world tour having been to New York City, Luxembourg, China (Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai), Hong Kong, and now Singapore?
Magna Carta was never intended as a “great charter” of people’s rights and liberties. In fact, when it was first created on June 15, 1215, it was essentially a peace treaty warding off a civil war. Continue reading
In a recent blogpost, Dr. Jack Lee argued that if an opposition candidate declines to take up an NCMP seat, the PAP-dominated government may not be obliged to offer that seat to the next eligible opposition candidate. This has thrown up a very interesting debate as to the legal obligations of Parliament to fill the NCMP seats. Besides Dr Jack Lee, Professor Thio Li-ann has also been reported as taking the position that there is no legal obligation on Parliament to offer the seat to the next eligible candidate. In contrast, Professor Kevin Tan argues that article 39 of the Constitution, read with section 52 of the Parliamentary Elections Act obliges Parliament to offer the seat. He is quoted as saying that “The seat cannot be left vacant. A combined reading of both provisions makes it clear that Parliament must have nine members who do not form the government.”
There are clearly good legal and policy arguments for and against imposing a legal obligation on Parliament to offer the seat to the next eligible opposition candidate where it had been previously declined. The disagreement stems from differing approaches to statutory and constitutional interpretation. Continue reading
The issue remains relevant as the possibility that the Opposition would capture at least nine parliamentary seats, raised by Jaclyn Neo in a recent post, did not happen. Citizens returned the People’s Action Party (PAP) to power with an increased vote share of 69.9% based on the votes cast in Singapore.