The New Constitutional Amendment Bill: Changes to the Role and Functions of the Council of Presidential Advisors

Dr. Jaclyn L. Neo
Assistant Professor
National University of Singapore
Faculty of Law

I.         Introduction

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.
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Singapore’s Constitutional Commission: Altering the Elected Presidency to Ensure Multiracialism

By Dr. Jaclyn L. Neo

Assistant Professor of Law, National University of Singapore

First published on ConstitutionNet on 30 September 2016

In February 2016, and only for the second time since Singapore’s independence, the government convened a Constitutional Commission to consider changes to the constitution. Led by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, the commission was tasked to consider and recommend constitutional changes to safeguard minority representation in the Presidency. This was one of its three tasks, the other two of which were to review the eligibility criteria for presidential candidates and to review the framework governing the exercise of the President’s custodial powers, particularly the role and composition of the Council of Presidential Advisers (see its Terms of Reference).

Safeguarding minority interests as a necessary aspect of peaceful coexistence among the different racial groups is a frequent fixation of the government in multiracial Singapore. Demographic data in 2015 shows that persons of Chinese ethnicity constitute more than three quarters of the total citizen population (at 76.2%) while Malays form the largest minority at 15%, followed by those of Indian descent at 7.4%. Eurasians are classified along others as “Others”, which together constitute 1.4% of the citizen population. Indeed, the safeguarding of minority rights was also a concern for the first constitutional commission convened in 1965 and chaired by Singapore’s first post-independence Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin. That commission was tasked to consider how the rights of minorities can be adequately safeguarded in the Constitution. There, the Commission opted for a strong emphasis on equal individual rights for all. In recent years, however, there has been a shift from individual rights to protective measures aimed at groups. The Group Representation Constituency (GRC) scheme, for instance, is one such measure that the government adopted to ensure minority representation in Parliament. Under the scheme, certain constituencies are contested on a team basis in parliamentary elections with at least one member belonging to a designated minority group.

In its report released on 7 September 2016, the Constitutional Commission recommended a model of reserved elections for the presidency to safeguard minority rights. This means that if there has not been an office holder from a racial group for more than five consecutive terms of six years each, then only candidates from that particular group can contest the next election. While it was not within its Terms of Reference, the Commission also recommended that the presidency be reverted to its previously nominated, as opposed to elected, form as it opined that this was better suited for its symbolic function as a unifying figure for all races in Singapore. The government has, however, emphatically stated that this specific reversal is not an option.

By instituting safeguards for minority representation, the government seeks to reaffirm and strengthen the presidency’s symbolic function as a unifying figure for all racial groups in Singapore. However, this symbolic function sits uneasily with the elected nature of the presidency and changes to ensure that minority candidates would be elected as President would necessarily restrict political choice.

Read further: http://www.constitutionnet.org/news/singapores-constitutional-commission-altering-elected-presidency-ensure-multiracialism

 

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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Who Is an Elected President?

President S. R. Nathan on 31 December 2006

President S R Nathan (1924–2016). (Photographed in December 2006 by Calvin Teo, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via the Wikimedia Commons.)

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

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”.[1]

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.)[2]

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?

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Recent Judicial Comments on the Basic Structure of the Constitution

By Swati Jhaveri (Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore)

The idea of the “basic structure” of the Constitution of Singapore has been the subject of ongoing deliberation in the courts since the case of Teo Soh Lung v Minister for Home Affairs[1].  The Constitution of Singapore can be amended by a two-thirds majority (a national referendum is only required where the issue is one of the relinquishment of sovereignty).  Due to the presence of a strong majority by one political party in the legislature this may not be a significant hurdle especially as voting is done on the basis of a party whip system.  The question of constitutional entrenchment in a system committed to constitutional supremacy as part of its text (Article 4) is therefore an important one.

This question has been addressed directly by the courts in Singapore in the form of a discussion on the ‘basic features doctrine’.  The language of the “basic features doctrine” comes from Indian constitutional law jurisprudence, most notably the case of Kesavannada Bharati v State of Kerala[2] where the Supreme Court of India held that:

every provision of the Constitution can be amended provided in the result the basic foundation and structure of the Constitution remains the same[3]

The Supreme Court of India has gone on in subsequent cases to identify such fundamental features of the Constitution of India that are beyond the reach of constitutional amendment.[4] The application of this doctrine was first tested in Singapore in the case of Teo Soh Lung v Minister for Home Affairs where the High Court held that:

…the Kesavananda doctrine is not applicable to our Constitution. Considering the differences in the making of the Indian and our Constitution, it cannot be said that our Parliament’s power to amend our Constitution is limited in the same way as the Indian Parliament’s power to amend the Indian Constitution[5]

The High Court took an originalist interpretation of the Constitution to reach this conclusion positing that “[i]f the framers of the Singapore Constitution had intended limitations on the power of amendment, they would have expressly provided for such limitations”.[6] The applicant had tried to argue that constitutional amendments which sought to immunise national security decisions from judicial review violated the basic structure of the Constitution as being in contravention of the rule of law and the separation of powers and relied on the Supreme Court of India’s decision in Minerva Mills[7] to do so.

This remained the position until the recent decision of the Singapore Court of Appeal in the case of Yong Vui Kong v Public Prosecutor[8] (Yong Vui Kong).  Continue reading

Magna Carta Then and Now: A Symbol of Freedom and Equal Rights for All

1217 Magna Carta (replica)

A replica of Hereford Cathedral‘s 1217 version of Magna Carta. The original was displayed at the Supreme Court of Singapore between 19 and 23 November 2015. (By Damien Chng.)

Eugene K B Tan
Associate Professor of Law

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

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

Event announcement: The Magna Carta’s Journey to Singapore: History and the Rule of Law

1217 Magna Carta - Heritage - Visit Britain - Poster (Landscape)When: Monday, 9 November 2015, 6:00 to 7:30 pm (registration begins at 5:30 pm)
Where: Moot Court, NUS Faculty of Law, Bukit Timah Campus (directions to the law school may be found here)

More information about the speakers may be found here, and you can register here (please register by 4 November 2015)

To celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the Hereford Cathedral Magna Carta is coming to Singapore where it will be displayed at the Supreme Court. In the lead up to this event, NUS Law is convening a discussion on the history and ongoing significance of the Magna Carta to the rule of law in general and to Singapore in particular. Continue reading