TL;DR – PM Lee’s answers to important questions about the Elected Presidency
First things first, we would like to urge everyone to read Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s full speech on Elected Presidency (EP) in Parliament this afternoon.
Yes, all 6,784 words and 40,313 characters of it.
To quote a friend, the speech has “clear, well thought out points written in simple language.”
We agree, and we like that PM Lee had walked us through how he was motivated to want to refine the EP system even though it has been working well for us, and there was no pressure to change things. We particularly enjoyed the beginning part where he shared the history.
Before we ask ourselves if we agree or disagree with the proposed changes, we should first seek to understand. Not just the changes, but the reasons for the current government wanting the change, and the possible future scenario if without the changes.
You can also listen to his speech here.
1. Why do we need an Elected President?
2. What are the alternatives considered, but not taken?
3. Why is race an issue?
4. Why now?
These were the four questions that PM Lee addressed in his speech at the parliamentary debate on the Constitution (Amendment) Bill. The answers that PM Lee gave to these four questions provided a clearer insight on the thought processes that went into the entire review.
1. Why do we need to have an Elected President?
This is perhaps the most important question. To answer this question, PM Lee engaged us in a history lesson. Singapore inherited a state constitution from when we were a state of Malaysia. Then we grafted pieces of Federal Constitution of Malaysia onto our State Constitution. It was patch-work, not elegant. But it worked. As time passed, we amended it repeatedly, adapting it as our needs changed.
PM Lee then went on to explain that the journey of our Constitution reflected how our political system developed:
“As a newly independent country, with the State Constitution as a basis, we started off with… a single House of Parliament. At that time, the PAP occupied every seat in Parliament and had the full support of the people. The opposition was virtually non-existent. Mr Lee (Kuan Yew) and his team could have done anything they wanted if they had wished. But we were fortunate that our founding fathers were capable, responsible, and trustworthy stewards, and they used the freedom of action which they had, to steer Singapore safely through many dangers. They operated the system in the long-term interest of Singapore. “
And that’s why we still have a government that is “lean, subject to competition, and which would serve the long-term interests of the country”. But such a system is not inherently robust. Inasmuch as needing good people in politics, we also needed sound institutions to ensure stability.
The need was especially strong in the 1980s. By then, we had accumulated a nest egg of reserves. Sizeable as the reserves were, it could be easily wiped out in a single term of profligate government. Also, the public service of Singapore had established a reputation for impartiality, integrity and quality. We could not, and still cannot, risk the public service, especially key appointments, being corrupted. Otherwise, it would be impossible to clean up.
That’s why Mr Lee Kuan Yew proposed the idea of an elected president in 1984. The idea was debated, refined and finally legislated in 1990. PM Lee acknowledged that Elected Presidency presented its own set of problems:
“In a fiercely contested campaign, emotions and sentiments can build up, and issues that have nothing to do with the role of the President can become hot. Candidates may then make claims, promises and declarations which go beyond the President’s powers and competence under the Constitution.”
PM Lee was, of course, referring to the 2011 Presidential Election where a number of candidates campaigned on promises that they had no power to deliver. Promises like a $60 billion economic plan, better recognition for NSmen, and help for the poor and unemployed. That campaign made the President sound like it’s a second centre of power that performs similar roles to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. It isn’t.
Yet, with all these issues, PM Lee is still convinced that the Elected Presidency option is a net plus compared to the alternatives that we could have implemented.
2. What are the alternatives that have been considered, but not taken?
These alternatives that were considered included:
- Non-elected president with custodial powers
- Non-elected president, powers vested in a council of presidential advisers (CPA)
- Non-elected president, no second key
The first alternative’s biggest shortcoming is this: what right does a non-elected individual have in vetoing decisions taken by the Government (i.e. the political party that holds the majority of seats in Parliament and thus forms the government of the day)? The Government is elected by the people. They can justifiably say that they represent the will of the people. The public will find it hard to accept a veto by a non-elected individual against an elected institution. Or as PM Lee put it, the “No” will not stick.
The second alternative would face the same issue if the CPA isn’t elected. If the CPA is elected, then instead of one presidential election, we would effectively risk having six, eight, or ten CPA races being politicised.
What about not having a second key altogether?
PM Lee thought that would be unwise. The Elected Presidency has been implemented for 25 years already. In all these years, the Elected Presidents have not had to veto any spending proposals by the Government. But the prospect of a veto alone has lessened the temptation for political parties to promise the world to voters in General Elections.
PM Lee suggested that this was why we have not had too many populist promises during the last few General Elections. PM Lee said:
“Without the second key, I am quite sure some opposition parties would have gone to town many elections ago and the PAP Government would have come under pressure to match their generosity, and might well have found it difficult to hold the line.”
Without the Elected President acting as a second key that is independent of Parliament prevents our system from having just a single point of failure. That’s also why the Elected President’s term is slightly staggered from that of the parliament. Then when we decide the future of the country at the ballot box, we are never risking everything in one throw of the electoral dice.
That’s why PM Lee is convinced that we need “to design our political system to have the right balance between a decisive Executive and having adequate stabilisers”. The stabiliser cannot be too strong that results in a gridlock. But it should be strong enough to protect reserves and appointments, and address specific vulnerabilities which we have in Singapore. The stabiliser we have chosen to go with is the Elected President.
3. Why is race an issue?
The Elected President doesn’t just play a stabilising role. The Elected President, as the Head of State, is the symbol of our nation. PM Lee emphasised that the Elected President represents all Singaporeans:
“Therefore, the office must be multi-racial. At the same time, whichever ethnic group the President belongs to, he has to be multi-racial in his approach. He has to reach out to all races, connect with every Singaporean.”
That is why the Elected President, who is the symbol of a multi-racial nation, cannot always come from the same race. If the Elected President is always from the same race, then he will cease to be a credible symbol of our nation. Worse, the very multi-racial character of the nation will come under question. That’s why it’s important that the Elected President should, from time to time, come from different races.
But, as much as we aspire to be race blind, various surveys and examples from here and around the world suggest that minorities do find it harder to win in a national election. That’s why PM Lee was convinced of the need for elections reserved for members of the minority races from time to time. But PM Lee emphasised that even for reserved elections, the candidates must still meet the same qualifying criteria.
4. Why now?
PM Lee felt strongly that it’s his responsibility to put in the changes to the system of the Elected Presidency. Why? PM Lee explained:
“I am doing it now, because it would be irresponsible of me to kick this can down the road and leave the problem to my successors. They have not had this long experience with the system, and will find it much harder to deal with.”
PM Lee was, of course, referring to his extensive experience with the system of the Elected Presidency. He was involved in the process of the Elected Presidency from the start. He was involved in developing the system when it first started, helping to draft the white paper. He has helped to refine and amend the system as it went along. He has had experience working with two elected presidents, including asking Mr Nathan for permission to draw on past reserves during the Global Financial Crisis.
Changes for better or worse?
There are various reactions to the proposed changes. In particular, there are many reactions to PM Lee’s announcement that the next Presidential Election will be reserved for Malays. We will write another piece to discuss the various reactions, including expressing our own, soon.
This piece is purely a TL;DR version unscrambled for those of you who really cannot squeeze time to read the full speech.
Let us know what you think of these changes and what PM Lee said.