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.