Singapore

President symbol of unity

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean (above) spoke in detail about the changes in the elected presidency in Parliament yesterday.

Here are some excerpts:

COUNCIL OF PRESIDENTIAL ADVISERS (CPA)

As an independent expert body, CPA provides a stabilising effect so that the president's custodial function does not depend solely on the judgment of a single person acting alone, Mr Teo said.

The CPA, to be increased by two members, also plays a role in resolving disagreements between the president and the Government, and is an important part of the framework of the president's custodial powers, he added.

"Overall, we want the framework to facilitate wise and prompt decisions, with suitable mechanisms to resolve impasses," he said in a speech setting out the proposed changes to the elected presidency.

As part of the constitutional amendments, the president will need to consult the CPA before exercising most of his discretionary powers, including over all fiscal matters and appointments.

Currently, some of these matters are excluded from this requirement.

MULTIRACIALISM AND MERITOCRATIC IDEALS

The president's office must continue having direct elections, and the need for multiracialism must be balanced with the country's meritocratic ideals, Mr Teo said.

In this regard, the Government found the five-term hiatus model, which the Constitutional Commission recommended, to be an ideal model as it balances the above factors.

Some critics have argued that the minority safeguards detract from meritocracy, saying that a president must be elected on the basis of merit, and that race should be irrelevant to this determination, he noted.

But Mr Teo said meritocracy will not be compromised if the eligibility criteria apply equally to candidates of all ethnic groups, which is the case with the changes.

RESERVES

Mr Teo noted that some have argued that Parliament provides the best safeguard for our reserves, but countered that there is little or no incentive for lawmakers to resist appeals from a government should it decide to indulge in populist spending.

He cited the examples of Greece and Australia as "cautionary tales of elections descending into auctions, with political parties competing with each other to promise greater largesse from the nation's coffers".

"The elected presidency plays an important custodial role in safeguarding our key assets, in a way a purely parliamentary process cannot," he said.

"It also deters political parties from making wild promises at parliamentary elections."

What the President says

The president is a symbol of unity and he must be able to work with the government of the day so that Singapore can function effectively, said President Tony Tan Keng Yam yesterday in his first public comments on the proposed changes to the office.

His comments were read out in Parliament by Speaker Halimah Yacob at the beginning of a three-day debate on amendments to the Constitution following a landmark review of the 25-year-old elected presidency.

"The objectives of the review are clear - to ensure that the institution of the elected presidency stays relevant with time and our local context, and that the Singapore Constitution as a living document is aptly refreshed," he said.

He noted that there is a difference between the president acting as a custodian and the president acting in opposition to the Government.

He cautioned that the elected presidency cannot be a second centre of power, but must act in accordance with the roles prescribed in the Constitution, and not hold back the elected government of the day from performing its executive role.

Dr Tan also said: "We must rely upon the wisdom of our electorate to elect a president who is able to work with the government of the day for the proper and effective governance of Singapore."

SingaporeTony TanTeo Chee Hean