TL;DR – If President needs to be elected, then logically CPA must also be elected
The government has released a White Paper on the recommendations by a commission tasked to review specific aspects of the Elected Presidency. The government broadly accepted the recommendations of the commission, but disagreed on some details. Parliament will soon debate the White Paper before voting on whether the proposed changes will be written into law.
One of the ideas that was floated by the commission was that we revert to a system where the president was appointed rather than elected. That’s one of the first idea that the government (politely) rejected.
Explaining why the government rejected that idea, Law Minister Shanmugam told reporters on the sidelines of a dialogue on proposed changes to the elected presidency with 600 grassroots leaders from the North West District:
“You have to ask yourself, do you want to give real power to an individual or a group. If you want to give real power then they have to be elected,”
Which makes complete sense. Parliament is the body that Singaporeans elected to represent our will. In order for the President to have the power to veto any decision Parliament makes, the President also must have the mandate of people.
But if we were to apply this logic consistently, then it begs the question why the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) aren’t elected.
What’s the CPA?
They are, currently, a council of six wise men. Six very powerful men, two are appointed by PM, two are appointed by the President, the Chief Justice appoints one, and the Chairman of the Public Service Commission appoints another.
What is the role of the CPA?
The President is obliged to the CPA when exercising his discretionary veto powers in matters such as the Government’s budgets and key appointments. Well, at least for now, there are just six wise men, and for now, the President only needs to consult the CPA on some matters. The commission has recommended to expand the CPA by two more to a total of eight advisers, in view of the expanded scope.
It has also recommended that the President consults the CPA for all fiscal matters and public service appointments. If the CPA agrees with the President’s veto, then the veto is final. If the CPA disagrees, then Parliament can override the veto with a two-thirds majority. Here, the recommendations relating to the CPA at a glance.
Chew on that for a while.
The CPA impacts the strength of the President’s veto. It can shift the balance of power from the President to Parliament. This makes the CPA immensely powerful. What moral authority or mandate does the CPA have to wield such power?
When asked why the CPA isn’t elected at another dialogue session, Minister Shanmugam tried to explain as such:
“If you start electing the CPA, you start politicising the CPA. They will then have to go around canvassing for votes. And different groups will come about. Are they then going to sit there and advise the President carefully, some of them might be thinking that next time they want to run for Presidency too.”
This explanation doesn’t make sense at all.
You mean if the CPA isn’t elected now, the members of the CPA definitely won’t think about running for the Presidency themselves? Even if they weren’t elected, some could still think about running for the Presidency for themselves, right?
Also, isn’t it too presumptuous of Minister Shanmugam to say that the CPA won’t advise the President if they were elected because they would have their own political ambitions? That’s like saying that some of the Cabinet Ministers won’t carefully advise the Prime Minister because they might be thinking of being Prime Minister themselves? Surely that’s not the case.
The point about politicising the CPA also doesn’t make sense. If the CPA will be politicised the moment we start electing it, then haven’t we politicised the Presidency by electing the President? If we are alright with the Presidency being politicised, then why are we not alright with the CPA being politicised?
Personally, I am not really against or for the CPA being elected. It is pragmatic to recognize that no perfect system exists in this world, and there is also no one system that everyone will be happy with. That said, I think the government needs to come up with a better explanation why the CPA shouldn’t be elected. The explanation needs to be consistent with the logic that lays the basis for the argument that the President needs to be elected.
Let’s see what Minister Shanmugam says next.
Everything you need to know about Elected Presidency
Read the Government’s Response to the Committee’s recommendations
What’s next after the Elected Presidency review?
Who are on the current Council of Presidential Advisers?
Committee recommendeds a stronger role for the Council of Presidential Advisers
More on strengthening the Council of Presidential Advisers