Senate, not elected presidency, the way to go: Workers’ Party
by Suhaile Md
CAN the gatekeeper guard the national reserves and still be able to unite the nation? Not if he’s elected, said Workers’ Party (WP) Chairman Sylvia Lim in Parliament yesterday (Nov 8). Because subjecting the gatekeeper to elections would “necessarily” make him a “partisan figure” due to the political nature of elections.
This is why, according to Ms Lim, the current custodial function of the elected president should be dispensed with. And no more elections for the presidency too, she said. The president should instead be appointed, and hence be above politics, so that he can focus on his ceremonial role as head of state and the national unifier. Furthermore, the problem of having too many successive Chinese presidents in a multiracial society would be alleviated.
Ms Lim was speaking on the second day of the debate on changes to the Elected Presidency (EP), where she also called for a national referendum so that the public can decide on the nature of the presidency. She spoke right after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the next elections, due by August next year, would be reserved for the Malay community should the bill pass.
What about the duty to gate keep Singapore’s reserves? Ms Lim acknowledged “the fundamental truth” that the country’s reserves must be “strongly safeguarded”. So an eight-member senate – elected by the people – can take over the role of gatekeeper. The president can lead the senate.
The powers of the eight senators would be similar to the custodial role currently held by the president, said WP Member of Parliament Mr Pritam Singh. The most significant of these roles that a Senate can take on are the protection of reserves and approving the appointment of key civil service positions.
Senators would have the ability to veto bills pertaining to these matters. Such bills would then require a 75 per cent parliamentary majority to pass. But, “as part of the legislative arm of the state and not the executive arm, and mandated to fulfil a limited custodial role, senators would be under no illusion of having any executive or policymaking function”, added Mr Pritam.
Currently, the president is advised by the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA). But he alone has decision-making powers – the CPA does not. Members of the CPA are appointed, not elected.
Opposition leader Low Thia Khiang also took issue with the timing of the proposed changes to the EP. He asked why the issue of race came up only recently, a year before the presidential elections are due in 2017, and not in the 26 years since the EP was first implemented in 1991.
Mr Low said the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) had “ulterior motives”. The changes to the EP are being made so that the president’s office can be used to “contain” an opposition-led G in the event that the PAP loses an election. He also reiterated Ms Lim’s call for a referendum as the PAP proposal was a “major reform”.
Minister for Education Mr Ong Ye Kung disagreed. If the WP wants a referendum, it should propose the Senate idea as part of its manifesto in the next General Elections, he said. As for Mr Low’s charge of ulterior motives, Mr Ong said: “It’s not fair.” The G just wants to “enhance the system”.
Earlier yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that as the guardian of the reserves, the EP acts as an important stabiliser in the system.
He ran through three alternatives to the current model.
First, a non-elected president with custodial powers. This is untenable because an unelected president will find it “very hard to stand his ground” against an elected G which has the popular mandate.
Second, a non-elected president with custodial powers vested in an elected CPA. This poses its own challenges. During the 2011 elections, some candidates made “claims, promises and declarations which go beyond the president’s powers and competence under the Constitution”. The presidency becomes politicised. Having CPA elections would mean that “instead of having one presidential race risking being politicised, we would have six, eight, or 10 CPA races, at similar risk”, said PM Lee.
Third, make the president ceremonial, remove the CPA and let Parliament decide on the reserves. This would be “very unwise”, he said. In parliament, the “pressure is to do more rather than to spend less”. Therefore, an office not subject to such pressures should guard the reserves.
On the timing of the changes, PM Lee said there was “no pressure to change the system” but it’s the G’s duty to “review” and make “adjustments well ahead of time” because the EP is a “long term stabiliser” for the system.
Another “fundamental reason” for the changes: the president is “the most important unifying symbol” of a multiracial nation. The Chinese may be the ethnic majority here, but Singapore is not a Chinese country. The presidency should reflect that.
Said PM Lee: “Every citizen, Chinese, Malay, Indian, or some other race, should know that someone of his community can become President.”
You can read PM Lee’s speech in full here.
You can read our reports on the EP changes here:
- Next Presidential Election for Malay candidates
- Elected President: Debate on changes starts today and we hope it won’t end soon…
- Proposed changes to the EP: All you need to know
- EP changes: Can we not have reserve elections next year?
- EP changes: Is shareholder equity the best way to judge a potential President?
- EP changes: When to stop clipping the President’s wings
- White Paper on EP changes: Council of (powerful and private) Presidential Advisers
- White Paper on EP changes: Not cast in stone
- White Paper on EP changes: A bigger presidential pool
- White Paper on EP changes: The short version