Much was debated during the Presidential Elections in 2011 about the power of the Elected President in Singapore. There were those that argued for a fully intrusive and almost combative role for the President in scrutinising the executive arm of government. There were those that argued that the Elected President’s role was no more than that which is fulfilled by the Queen of England as the Head of State (with the exception of a constitutionally reserved discretion when it came to the use of our reserves). Others (like myself) contended that where the constitution was silent, the President could take a pro-active role and that this may be politically necessitated by the fact that the President could carry the mandate of the electorate (giving rise to the evolution of a constitutional convention).
Whatever the shades of argument, one thing was very clear: There was no dispute as to whether the President had discretionary powers in relation to the matters specifically stipulated in the Constitution. An example of such stipulations could be found in Article 144(1) of our Constitution.
That brings us to the issue surrounding the IMF loan pledged by the Singapore government. Firstly, this is not part of the current subscription payable to IMF. It is clearly an additional loan. Leaving aside the contentious issue of interpretation of whether or not a loan given by the government is required under Article 144(1) to be subject to the President’s approval, it is clear that a circumstance that falls within the ambit of Article 144(1) triggers one of the discretionary powers of the President.
When Kenneth Jeyaretnam recently wrote to the President to seek clarification as to whether his consent was sought, the President has reportedly responded by stating that his permission had not been sought. http://sonofadud.com/2012/06/21/the-truth-about-that-imf-loan/
Kenneth has also stated that the President has referred this matter to MAS. I would have expected something more proactive from the President. Several questions arise in my mind. Was the President fully appraised of his powers under Article 144(1)? What is the interpretation of that provision that the President himself subscribes to? Does the President agree with the view expressed in 1997 by the AG that a loan received by the government has to be approved and that a loan given by the government does not need to be approved? (http://www.article14.blogspot.sg/2012/06/singapores-pledge-of-us-4-billion-to.html) If he agrees with that interpretation, could he not have informed Kenneth Jeyaretnam that the Article 144(1) issue does not arise and that his consent was not necessary? Did the President have any specific reaction to the government’s decision to grant the loan to IMF? Did he ponder about whether he had a role in the process? Or was he only going to exercise the discretion to grant consent when consent was requested?
This is an important point to ponder about when we consider the role of the President. There is no doubt that Article 144(1) deals with an area of the President’s discretionary power. Since we do elect our President and since the bare minimum that we might expect him to do in relation to his responsibilities is the safeguarding of the reserves and since Article 144(1) deals with such express discretionary power, there should be a strong expectation on the part of the electorate that the President carry out his Constitutional duties actively. So, I hope that President Tony Tan had a clear understanding of Article 144(1) and that he was aware of the potential for the IMF loan to fall foul of that Article and that he actively addressed his mind to it and then decided that his consent was not necessary as the issue did not fall within the ambit of the Article. Nothing less than that will do. That is the minimum expectation that we as the electorate should have in relation to the Elected President.