He has ‘extremely important roles and powers’

Dear Mr Shanmugam,

I refer to these 8 Aug 2011 Straits Times reports of your statements about the elected president:

– He has ‘extremely important roles and powers’
– President is constitutional head of state

You said elections do not give the elected president the right to speak independently. Neither do they deny the president that right. You said elections do not alter the powers of the president. Neither do they reduce them.

You said a head of state that challenges the government is acting unconstitutionally. Why must public disagreement be viewed as a challenge? There is nothing in the constitution that says that the head of state cannot express his or her opinions freely in public or otherwise.

Ex-British Prime Minister Stanley Balwin may have declared King Edward VIII’s wish to speak to his people unconstitutional. But who should be the one who interprets the constitution and decides what is constitutional and what is not? Can the prime minister, whose powers are derived from the constitution, interpret the constitution in accordance to his own wishes? If that is the case, then the prime minister would become almighty. He can say and do anything he likes because it is up to him to interpret what the constitution means. That cannot be right. That is why, there is a separate and independent judiciary that decides what the constitution means. But ultimately, the constitution serves the people and the people’s wishes. So ultimately, the constitution can only be right in accordance to the people’s wishes. If instead of taking matters into his own hands, Prime Minister Balwin had conducted a referendum to seek the British people’s opinions about whether it is right or wrong for the king to speak his own mind freely in public, how many would have said that it is wrong?

You ask if the best approach to influence the government is to speak privately rather than publicly. It depends. A government fond of turning a deaf ear to the people’s voice will benefit more from public discussions as it will be harder to sweep things under the carpet. Therefore, going public doesn’t necessarily imply a populist agenda. MM Lee often says that politics is about everyday bread and butter issues. Asking the president to be disengaged from politics is like asking the president to be disengaged from everyday bread and butter issues. Would Singaporeans want a president who is disengaged from our everyday bread and butter issues?

You said making statements on issues without being partisan is like saying one can only be a little pregnant. You got the analogy wrong. You should say: making statements without being partisan is like having sex without becoming pregnant. Similarly, making statements and being partisan is like having sex and becoming pregnant. It is a full analogy that makes sense either way.

You ask if the government should implement that which is advocated by the president. There is no definite answer because it depends on what the issue is and what the president is advocating. The government should implement that which is advocated by the president provided it concurs and agrees with it. So ultimately, the government is responsible because it can choose not to listen to the president’s advice. While the government can choose not to listen to the president, it cannot ask the president to shut up.

To say that the president shall act in accordance with the cabinet or the minister doesn’t say anything about what those acts are exactly. The cabinet can’t possibly have the power to ask the president to wake up at 3am to pee can it? The cabinet can’t possibly ask the president to jog at East Coast every morning can it? Therefore, while it makes sense that the president should act in accordance with the cabinet on official matters, it does not make sense when it comes to non-official matters. Making personal statements about personal convictions publicly or otherwise falls into the non-official category, not the official category.

Saying that the president must be above the political fray doesn’t mean he can’t speak from above the political fray. As an example, when your sons argue with each other, being above their fray doesn’t prevent you from giving advice from a level above them does it?

It is not true that a president who only speaks on advice from the cabinet would not have to take responsibility for the outcome of policies. Because if the president had remained silent knowing it is the wrong policy, he knows in his heart that he has to bear responsibility for not speaking up and preventing the wrong policy from being implemented.

While the president is not a glorified feedback channel, it is a feedback channel nonetheless.

It is interesting that you should quote Vernon Bogdanor. He is an advocate of proportional representation in parliament. Would you follow his advice on that too and ensure that 40% of our parliamentary seats go to the opposition? The silent communication prescribed by Bogdanor between president and prime minister may not be what the people wants. Again, we must always go back to the same question. Who does the constitution serve? It serves the people obviously. Whether communication between president and prime minister should be silent or not really depends on the people, not you, not Vernon Bogdanor.


5 Responses to “He has ‘extremely important roles and powers’”

  1. useless president Says:

    Indeed the President Of Sin is extremely important.
    He must ensure that whatever business and investment
    Sin makes must be a secret so that others will not know
    our strategy and secret for success.
    And the best way the Sin President can show his/her
    powder is not to say anything at all. The Rulers will speak
    on his(President) behalf; job’s done!

  2. KM Tang Says:

    He wants to please his new “masters” okay that’s it period.

  3. KM Tang Says:

    I wonder whether he takes the trouble to read your comments. He fashion himself as a TOP NOTCH lawyer. You know the mentality of a TOP NOTCH lawyer.

  4. georgelambnon Says:

    The PAP govt is in disarray.
    A potent sign of weak and rudderless leadership.
    The govt itself is seen to be breaking many laws which itself has implemented to control the people.

    A good commentry is the blog on how the Tan Federation by openly declaring its support for Tony Tan against the other two Tans who are also aspirant for the EP post -Tan Kin Lian and Tan Cheng Bock – is breaking the very law made by LKY to prohibits clans and associations from taking part in politics!

    MAS -Mana Ada System?

  5. JEFF GOH Says:

    “Some men in the world rule their people by tricks and not by righteous principles. Aren’t they just like the monkey master? They are not aware of their muddle headedness.
    As soon as their people become enlightened, their tricks no longer work.” Yu-li-zi(source: http://www.aeinstein.org/organizations98ce.html) extract from: From Dictatorship to Democracy.

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