Some Singaporeans would cynically say that whether or not we get to elect our President won’t make an iota of a difference to our lives. After all, what does our President do? Wave at National Day Parade? Read off a piece of paper at the opening of Parliament? Attend commissioning parades in Officer Cadet School once a year? Have expensive meals with foreign dignitaries when they come to Singapore? Does it really matter if we get to choose someone for that?
It is undeniable that a lot of Singaporeans think that our President is largely a ceremonial role. For the longest time in our history (from 1965 to 1991), that was indeed the case. But every since amendments to our constitution was enacted in 1991, the President’s role was greatly expanded. Amongst other things, the most important role of the Elected President was that he holds the “second key” to (i.e. block attempts by the government of the day to draw on) Singapore’s considerable past reserves (how considerable? I think only a very very small group of people in Singapore actually know. In fact, it took the government three years to inform the first Elected President, Ong Teng Cheong, how much our past reserves were back then). The Elected president could also technically do the following: approve (or not) changes to key appointments, and to exercise oversight over the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau and decisions of the Executive under the Internal Security Act and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.
So far, there had only been one time when our Elected President had been seen to use his power in a way that would have significantly affected Singaporeans. That is during the 2008-2009 financial crisis, when then-President Nathan approved the Government’s request to draw $4.9 billion from past financial reserves to meet current budget expenditure for 2009. And it is fortunate that there was only that one time that the President had to be called on to exercise that power vested in him. It showed two things. Firstly, since 1993 (when we had our first elected president), we have only had one instance when things were so bad that we needed to draw on past reserves. Secondly, our Government (whatever faults they may have) hasn’t been profligate. These are things that we need to be thankful for, but not things that we should take for granted.
Certainly, given the uncertain future, there may be more instances where the Elected President would be call upon to exercise his powers in ways that would significantly affect Singaporeans. How anyone gets to become President and thus come to wield such powers is therefore something that we need to be concerned about. And recently, this issue has come to be more widely discussed because Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of LKY School of Public Policy, wrote something in Straits Times that proposed doing away with the the policy of letting the general populace of Singapore to elect the President and reverting to the practice of letting Parliament elect the President.
Prof Kishore’s justification is that democratic electorates may lack wisdom and thus fall prey to charismatic and populist politicians. This means that there is a risk of Singaporeans electing a “rogue” President. He also makes certain argument about how letting Parliament elect the President would ensure that someone from the minority race can become a president (we’ve not had a president who’s Malay since Yusof Ishak, our first President).
Prof Kishore’s arguments for reverting to letting parliament elect the President is rather baffling. For a start, the President cannot initiate a draw on past reserves. His role is purely reactionary. He can only approve or block a request by the Government of the day to draw on the past reserves. This means that he cannot campaign on a platform of promising to give people huge cash handouts. If he wanted to do this, he must first be able to convince people that he can somehow get the Government of the day to do that. In other words, the damage that a “rogue” President can inflict on Singapore would only be realised if there is already a “rogue” Parliament in the first place.
Now if we were to let Parliament elect the President, and we already have a “rogue” Parliament, then what’s stopping that Parliament from electing a more compliant President who would accede to their request of drawing on past reserves? Isn’t that more likely? Imagine if we did revert to letting Parliament elect the President, wouldn’t it be tantamount to making it more likely for populist politicians to get elected? Because reverting to letting Parliament elect the President would make something like this very possible: “Vote me into Parliament, and I will give you huge cash handouts! How will I fund it? I’ll draw on past reserves! President?! Never mind! With enough of people like me in Parliament, we will make sure we get a President that will accede to our request to draw on past reserves!”
In other words, if we revert to letting Parliament elect the President, there is only a single point of failure. If the democratic electorate lacks wisdom (more on this later), then it only needs to be stupid once and elect the “wrong” people into Parliament and there goes our past reserves. But if we continue to let the democratic electorate elect the President, then the people would have to literally think twice before we have a bunch of profligate national leaders who will bankrupt us completely.
One of the things that could have prompted Prof Kishore to propose that we revert to having Parliament elect the President could be because of the 2011 Presidential Elections. Some candidates then campaigned on a platform of doing things such as holding the government to account, having greater oversight on the Government, be an alternative voice to the PAP-dominated Parliament, etc. But these are clearly not within the powers that are vested upon the Elected President. That anyone would feel swayed by such promises during an election campaign doesn’t mean that the system of elected presidency is inherently flawed. It just says that more needs to be done to educate the public about the elected presidency.
As Bertha Henson’s article in The Middle Ground rightly pointed out:
“It is not politically correct to say that people are dumb. But this is the sentiment that underlies suggestions to tweak the system. People are so dumb that they will vote for MPs who promise them goodies, so there must be an EP to safeguard their long-term interests. Now, people are too dumb to know that the EP they pick might be bad for them, so there must be a way to ensure that the “right” people are elected. Better still, not have an election at all.
What it goes to show is that the people never quite understood the concept of having an elected president with limited executive powers. So the G could do a few things: do a better job of explaining it, reap what it has sowed or tweak it after convincing the electorate that is for their long-term good. It is imperative that the people be consulted widely on any changes. Because people are actually not that dumb.”
There can never be a perfect system that completely eliminates the possibility that terrible people come to lead the country. But we can do whatever we can to minimise that possibility. And I still believe that democratic elections, rather than having a council of “wise men” chosen by a council of “wise men”, is the best possible system that most minimises the possibility that evil and terrible people come to lead Singapore. What we need to do to enhance the system, is not to throw the whole system out, but to educate our people better on the whole democratic process. Involve our people in various forms of governance so that in our own ways, we better understand what’s at stake. Create the space where people can be actively engaged at different levels in the process of making decisions. Vigorously promote an active citizenry who take a keen interest in the different issues that Singapore faces. If we do all these, then, I believe we would have a much better chance of a wiser democratic electorate who would elect the best people to lead Singapore.
[Featured image: poll card of Presidential Elections 2011. Photo from raviphilemon.net]