Presidenti​al Election 2011 television debate

Dear Mr Janadas Devan,

I refer to the 23 Aug 2011 Channel News Asia broadcast of the Presidential Election television debate.

You quoted article 211 of the constitution: “Except as provided by this constitution, the president shall, not may, act in accordance with advice from the cabinet”. You then asked the candidates whether or not they agree with you that this means that the president should always act on the advice of the government except where the constitution explicitly provides otherwise.

I quote you a typical clause from an employment contract: “The employee shall not make any statements to the media without company authorisation.” Would you also agree that this means that the employee must always refrain from making any statements to the media except when authorised by the company? But what if Stomp approaches this employee while he is waiting for the bus and asks him what he thinks of bus waiting time? Should the employee say “oh no, my employment contract says I cannot say anything at all to the media and therefore my lips are sealed?” That would be the most preposterous interpretation of the employment contract indeed.

Any reasonable person with reasonable common sense would know that the employment contract binds the employee on work related matters only. As far as personal things are concerned, the employee is not beholden to the employment contract. The employment contract is not a slave contract. It doesn’t bind the employee on all aspects of his life.

Similarly, the constitution binds the president on presidential matters only. It doesn’t bind the president on non-presidential issues. Issues like public transportation, high cost of living, these are not presidential matters. The president is therefore not bound by the constitution on such matters. Just as any citizen is entitled to champion worthy causes even though he does not hold a job that specifically entitles him to do so, similarly, the president is entitled to champion worthy causes even though he may not be specifically tasked to do so. So a president can, on a personal and voluntary basis, take on issues that go beyond the duties of his office. At most, you can say that the president is busybody. But you can’t say that he is disobeying the constitution for the constitution that governs presidential duties must surely apply to presidential matters only.

You took issue with Mr Tan Jee Say saying that the president can act as a check on the government when it crosses the line on any issue. You listed three distinguished presidents in the past 20 years – Mr Wee Kim Wee, Mr Ong Teng Cheong and Mr Nathan and asked who amongst them set a precedence validating what Mr Tan said. President Ong tried but failed to get the government to disclose more about our reserves. That is one predecent of a president trying his best to check on the government. President Wee presided over a period when Singaporeans were generally happy. As for President Nathan, not speaking up when people’s lives are being messed up by the government doesn’t mean it is the right precedent to follow.

I give you an extreme example to illustrate the ridiculousness of your belief that the president must under all circumstances obey the government unless otherwise provided by the constitution. Suppose our nation is taken over by a Nazi-type government and it decides to exterminate all minorities. Let’s say you become the president. Would you say “By the constitution, I shall not disagree with the government, let the government exterminate all minorities?” You see, taken to the extreme, your position results in the president agreeing to genocide if the government ever decides on genocide.

Therefore, the only position that can be fundamentally sound and correct is the one taken by Mr Tan Jee Say and Mr Tan Kin Lian. The president, as well as everyone else, must always be guided first and foremost, by our conscience. The constitution itself is a writing of conscience. As a writing of conscience, the constitution cannot possibly force anyone, not least the president, to go against his conscience. In the same token, no one, not least the government can use the constitution to force the president to go against his conscience. Any president worth his salt will not compromise his conscience even if it means going against the government.

You then rudely interjected Mr Tan not once but twice with these questions:
– “Where in the constitution do you find the authority to do this?”
– “Where does the president have the authority to act?”

Mr Tan explained several times but you were impatient and unwilling to open up your mind to listen to him. You were hostile to Mr Tan Jee Say and didn’t show the fairness which moderators should show. To answer your question, I give you another simple situation. Suppose you witness an unreasonable customer shouting at a service staff and someone steps forward to calm the situation down. Do you ask the person who stepped forward what authority does he have to do that? Let’s not be ridiculous. You don’t need authority to speak up for justice. You just need conscience and courage.

Finally you quoted Mr Lee Kuan Yew as saying in 1999 that “under the constitution, the president has to act on the advice of the government. He can’t make speeches against the government. The president cannot act against the wishes of the government except when the government wants him to do things which he is entitled to vote.” Mr Lee said many things. He said Singaporeans are daft. He said the people of Aljunied have five years to repent. He said the Leftists were communists and later Catholics were Marxists and imprisoned them using the Internal Security Act. He is just a politician saying things to the benefit of his own party. But the constitution of Singapore should not be dictated by one political party. The constitution cannot be anything other than a reflection of the wishes of the people, not the wishes of one party let alone one man.


3 Responses to “Presidenti​al Election 2011 television debate”

  1. OldSingaporean Says:

    Like! Like! Like!

  2. Liz Says:

    Great rebuttal–I love it.

  3. Rt Says:

    I support TKL.
    1. $4 million x 6 yrs donation to help the needy.
    2. More recognition for our young man who bled and sweat for our nation thro national service.
    3. Better welfare for the elderly to live with dignity.

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