I refer to the 16 Nov 2015 Straits Times letter “Dangers of a politicised elected presidency” by Calvin Cheng.
The problem with the elected presidency goes beyond the quality of the candidates – the problem is that the process has been politicised.
It is clear from the previous presidential election that candidates are no longer content to just be a figurehead with a second key to our reserves – several candidates campaigned on a platform of a more politically active elected president who can draw from his popular mandate to act as a check on the Government.
Calvin should realise that the president is empowered by law to check on the government on certain important matters concerning our reserves. Therefore, checking the government is not entirely at odds with the president’s role. The checking role is very common in all walks of life:
• There are checkers for every examination paper sat by our students including our Cambridge GCE papers.
• The board of directors effectively act as checkers on the CEO
• The quality control of every manufacturing firm is a checker
• The manager who approves and signs his subordinates’ work is also a checker
Checkers are not antagonistic but essential to the well functioning of society at all levels. Because checking is so important, it should be welcomed, not brushed aside. Only irresponsible people refuse checking.
First, such a politically active elected president could ignite a constitutional crisis because, in our political system, the President is not meant to be an alternate source of political power, much less a check on the Government.
Even if his powers are curtailed constitutionally, an elected president intent on making his political views heard will be hard to stop.
A politically active president could thus reach beyond his constitutional role, by appealing to his electoral support.
The president’s checking can simply mean an extra pair of eyes to help the government spot mistakes for the betterment of the country and the people. Whether or not the government disagrees with the president, there can be no constitutional crisis because the constitution clearly doesn’t require the government to follow the president’s advice on matters outside his jurisdiction. To say otherwise is to doubt the constitution and to question its legal authority.
The government should not fear the president’s political views if its own views are robust, unshakeable and impeccable. To say otherwise is to say that the government’s views are shaky and cannot stand the test of arguments. Wouldn’t that all the more suggest the need for more checks beyond ‘own self check own self’?
Furthermore, the government can easily out speak the president through the press and the television which it firmly controls and which have been deemed more trustworthy according to the Institute of Policy Studies.
Second, after every general election, a time of healing and national unity is necessary for the country to move forward.
How can there be healing if the injurers are not taken to task and not given their due justice? How can the injured heal when there is nothing to stop the injurer from continuing to rub salt into wounds? How does Calvin expect the injured to show unity with the injurer when the injurer never apologises and does not even think he is wrong?
The presidential election, if it continues to be politicised, will quickly become a proxy for a mid-term referendum on the Government, with each party backing its own candidate.
Mid-term feedbacks are common in many levels of society. Students sit for mid-year exams, employees undergo mid-year reviews, companies submit mid-year financial reports, even quarterly reports. Given its importance, wouldn’t it be all the more necessary for the government to be subjected to mid-term reviews?
This means that instead of focusing on technocratic competence, governments will end up having to deal with politicking every two years, effectively shortening the electoral cycle.
This is unhealthy both for governance, as well as for national unity.
Calvin is presupposing that politicking happens in a vacuum independent of technocratic issues. That is not the case. All political issues are ultimately technocratic issues. If the technocratic competence of the government is not regularly challenged, we will end up with technocratic incompetence every now and then like we did back in 2007 to 2011. Thus, contrary to Calvin’s assertions, politicking based on technocratic issues is both healthy and essential for good governance.
Calvin should not fool himself into thinking that silencing Singaporeans, including the president, is the hallmark of national unity. It is not; it is the hallmark of dictatorship.
A permanently politicised country is a road that other countries have travelled, and one we would do well to avoid.
Calvin should quit kidding himself. All nations are pollicised for better or for worse, by authoritarian or democratic rule. Even China is politicised albeit by the Chinese Communist Party.
In the light of this, it may well be prudent to scrap the elected presidency, and revert to the old system of an appointed one, which produced respected and loved presidents such as Mr Yusof Ishak, Dr Benjamin Sheares and Dr Wee Kim Wee.
It’s quite obvious that appointed president Devan Nair isn’t someone Calvin would think first as a loved and respected president. By PAP standards, Devan Nair isn’t one of the respected and loved presidents. Thus, contrary to Calvin’s assertions, the old system of appointing presidents doesn’t automatically yield respected and loved presidents (according to PAP standards).
The president should be a figure for national unity, and elections, by nature, divide rather than unite.
Does Calvin think there can be national unity under President Tony Tan who is himself a through and through PAP man for decades? If the politicising of the president is something Calvin frowns on, surely Calvin should frown on Tony Tan becoming the president? Or Calvin prefers to fool himself thinking that Tony Tan, after decades as a key PAP man, suddenly shed his PAP colours overnight when he became the president?
Does Calvin seriously believe Tony Tan would have been a uniting figure rather than a divisive figure if he had been appointed rather than elected?
The second key to the reserves can then be held not by one man with a political agenda, but by a Council of Grandees, which can include the appointed apolitical president, the Chief Justice, the head of the civil service, as well as well-respected people from the unions, professions and businesses.
Calvin should not kid himself thinking that the law profession, civil service, unions, professions, businesses are not political in and of themselves. Singapore’s biggest union, the NTUC, stands side by side PAP in every national day parade. DBS, under ex-chairman Wee Cho Yaw, donates to PAP foundation. The law society stood firmly with the PAP government on many issues including the lawsuit involving Dr Susan Lim. Our ambassadors to Australia and Hong Kong have written to the press to defend their political masters. My ex statutory board director writes weekly essays to the whole department, some reeking heavily of political (PAP) agenda.
What is the point, may we ask Calvin, of transferring our reserves key from the politicisable elected president to the equally politicisable council of grandees? I can think of one reason. In the case of the elected president, the politicising can go either way while in the case of the council of grandees, being appointed by the PAP government, the politicising will more likely go only one way. Herein lays Calvin’s hypocrisy: while waxing lyrical about the need to depoliticise the president’s role, Calvin’s solution is one that tilts the already unfair politics even more in favour to his PAP political masters.