The debate on the President’s powers is taking a healthy turn. I’m glad that netizens are weighing in with good arguments one way or the other. A truly heartening aspect of this discussion is that most views are expressed within the ambit of the current constitutional framework as set out in our written Constitution. Nobody has illusions about the powers that are provided for.
The Ministry of Law’s press statement is an accurate rendition of the relevant constitutional provisions. For those readers that don’t plan to labour over the Constitution, I would recommend the MinLaw statement for a useful guide.
We can potentially debate about whether the Constitution itself ought to be amended to give the President express powers in additional areas or to remove the constraints placed by the Cabinet’s advice in the exercise of certain powers (e.g. Clemency). But, that would be a different kind of debate.
The present debate, as it is shaping up, is about whether the next President should speak up on policy issues or not. Traditionally, the head of state in a commonwealth country has been fashioned after the British monarch. There is no historical controversy in the assertion that our first President was in many ways a replica of the British monarch. His power was essentially more ceremonial than actual. As with the Queen, our unelected President lacked the constitutional legitimacy to speak up.
Singaporeans had never debated about the extent to which a President should exercise his powers because we never really saw him as having any legitimacy to wield any power.
Two things have changed from the 1990s onwards – today’s President is elected and today’s President earns an obscenely high salary. There is, therefore, a popular perception that the will of the people must be voiced in some way by the President and the President must be worth the money that he is being paid.
The expressly stated powers of the President in our Constitution do not traverse the area of his right to speak and express his views. Yes, he is not in a position to veto most bills and he is not in a position to veto policies. But, the Constitution is silent on his right to express a view. In such instances we have to resort to the political conventions surrounding the office of the President. Being a carbon copy of the British Queen, the original office of the President was governed by conventions that applied to the queen. An unelected person has no legitimacy to chide the elected leaders for their policies. Similarly an unelected person has no legitimate role in criticising the legislation passed by an elected parliament.
The conventions surrounding the British monarchy were easily transplanted into our constitutional arrangements. But, it still remains true that those were conventions and not strict provisions in our constitution.
Those of us advocating an expanded role are relying on the elastic nature of conventions. Once the Head of State is elected the game changes considerably. (In fact, one of the drawbacks of the creation of the elected presidency was the failure to appreciate the potential impact of the electoral mandate on the office itself. The complacent PAP government did not anticipate that an Elected President might one day challenge and question the PAP itself). Constitutional law does not reside in a vacuum. Political currents can be sufficiently strong to push through major shifts in the way certain officeholders may carry out their functions. This can happen without necessarily amending the Constitution and at the same time by avoiding any offence to existing constitutional provisions.
There is room to manoeuvre. We want our next President to use that room.
If ever there is to be a political moment in our nation’s post-independence history where the power of the people’s voice was strong enough to effect change, this is it. The push-back by the people against the PAP was loud and clear in May 2011. The PAP (to its credit) did not react with a heavy hand. It is responding through a reassessment of itself.
This displays that there is an important threshold that the PAP leaders are themselves prepared to cross. Criticism need not be crushed. It can be the basis of constructive analysis instead of building a culture of group-think.
I firmly believe that if there is sufficient public support for a vocal presidency, the winning candidate may carry with him a powerful electoral backing with which he can re-shape the office.
The current Cabinet ministers may possess sufficient wisdom to permit a slightly expanded role for the President. Who knows?
In a country where we are accustomed to the rules of the game being changed by the PAP, it is about time that the people play a part in changing the rules.
Summarising my previous blog post and the current post, my premise for an expanded role is this:
a) There are powers that the President can exercise discretion on
b) There are powers that the President is required to exercise in accordance with the advise of the Cabinet
c) There are no limitations or constraints on the President’s ability to publicly express his opinion
d) Public expression of opinion rendered in a gentlemanly fashion would at most piss off the government of the day but it would not result in a constitutional crisis
e) Dissenting views are a healthy aspect of a mature democracy (and we are on the way to maturing as a democracy)
f) By expressing his views, the President is not going to emerge as another power centre as his functions are still clearly demarcated