The hottest topic of the season on the local blogosphere is the ‘National Conversation’.   Everyboy’s talking about why we need to have the Nat-Con, what is the government’s agenda, how we can contribute to it, etc, etc.  If it was intended to be the National Distraction, I think it is succeeding.  Nat-con is the political equivalent of a viral YouTube video.  (I am having images in my mind of PM doing a dance a la Gangnam Style.)

I also suspect that just like a viral video, in this fast-paced, low-memory-capacity age, this Nat-Con phase will die out soon enough. 

In the meantime, what are we missing out? 

Well, the Auditor General has dropped a bombshell and almost nobody has noticed the explosion with the lone exception of Kenneth Jeyaretnam.  Kudos to Kenneth for having had the patience to run through the AGO’s report which is available here:  Most of us, including myself, would tend to give boring financial stuff a miss.  (I guess it is good to have a finance guy in the opposition.)

Kenneth has done an excellent job on his blog in highlighting a Constitutional breach by the Ministry of Finance.

The relevant part of the AGO’s report that highlights the Constitutional breach goes as follows:

“President’s Concurrence Not Obtained for Promissory Note Issued

33.   The Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (1999 Revsed Edition) includes safeguards to protect the past reserves of the Government.  One such safeguard, set out in Article 144 of the Constitution, requires the President’s concurrence for the granting of certain loans and guarantees. 

34.   AGO found that the Ministry of Finance did not comply with Art 144 of the Constitution when it issued a promissory note without obtaining the required President’s concurrence.  The promissory note for US $16.34 million was issued on 4 January 2012 to the International Development Association.  In March 2012, the Association encashed US$2.94 million from the note.

35.  The Ministry explained that the President’s concurrence was not sought because of an administrative oversight stemming from an officer’s lack of familiarity with the relevant processess needed for such a transaction, which occurred infrequently.  Following AGO’s observation, the Ministry took immediate steps to rectify the matter. 

36.   The Ministry subsequently obtained the President’s concurrence and issued a fresh promissory note in place of the one issued on 4 January 2012 which is invalid.  There was no draaw on past reserves as the Ministry had made the cash payment of US$2.94 from its own operating expenditure budget for the financial year 2011/12.  The Ministry has reviewed its internal processes and tightened its standard operating procedures to prevent similar occurrences in the future.”

Art 144 is of particular interest to me as it involves one of the powers of the Elected President that is clearly acknowledged by everyone along the entire political spectrum in Singapore to be the discretionary power of the President.  Whilst there might be argument about other powers (whether stipulated or not in the Constitution), it is clear that the President is not in any way constrained by the Cabinet in relation to Art 144. 

When the decision of the Singapore government to grant a loan to IMF was announced on 20th April 2012, I blogged about the possibility that Art 144 may have been infringed:

I followed that up with another post where I speculated about the possible government defence.  There is an Alice-in-wonderland argument (passable as a matter of legal logic even if it may defy common sense) that was used by the government in 1997 when confronted by questions from JB Jeyaretnam about a loan to Indonesia.  I have addressed this here:  The gist of the government’s argument (as presented by the then Attorney General) was that the Constitution prohibits the raising of a loan and the giving of a guarantee without the President’s consent and that it does not prohibit the giving of a loan or the raising of a guarantee.  Art 144 is as follows:

Article 144.
—(1) No guarantee or loan shall be given or raised by the Government —
(a)except under the authority of any resolution of Parliament with which the President concurs;
(b)under the authority of any law to which this paragraph applies unless the President concurs with the giving or raising of such guarantee or loan; or
(c)except under the authority of any other written law

I am not sure if the AG’s chambers will resurrect this old argument in the IMF loan case (Kenneth Andrew Jeyaretnam v Attorney General).  The way that their Affidavit is drafted, there is little indication of whether they would assert that the giving of a loan is not prohibited by th Constitution. 

Given the fact that the Auditor General considers any loan advanced without Presidential approval to be unconstitutional and void, (and given the fact that even the Ministry of Finance appears not to have disputed that in the case of the Promissory Note to the International Development Association) any argument by the Attorney General in the IMF case that the giving of a loan does not require Presidential approval will be highly inconsistent.  It is clear that the MOF thought that the lack of Presidential approval for the promissory note was an oversight.  It is also clear that the Attorney General in 1997 argued that no Presidential approval was needed for the loan to Indonesia. 

It will be interesting to see how the arguments play out in Court. 

As for words and the meaning of words and the causing of words to mean a thing other than the meaning of words, here is something from Alice in Wonderland:

‘And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!’
‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’