Tan Cheng Bock finally breaks his silence
by Suhaile Md
MONTHS after constitutional amendments were made to the Elected Presidency (EP), we finally hear from former presidential candidate Dr Tan Cheng Bock. He called a press conference on Friday (Mar 31) and questioned the timing of the reserved election.
Unlike the G, he thinks that the presidential election later this year should be an open one, not reserved, as was announced on Feb 6. This is important to address, otherwise “the Elected Presidency will always be tainted with the suspicion that the reserve elections of 2017 was introduced to prevent my candidacy,” said Dr Tan.
At the heart of the matter is the definition of who the first EP is. If there has been five consecutive presidential terms where a Chinese, Malay, and Indian or Other minority race member does not become President, the next Presidential Election would be reserved for a qualified member of that race. Singapore has not had a Malay President since Mr Yusof Ishak, who died in office in 1970.
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So who’s the first Elected President?
The G said the late Dr Wee Kim Wee is the first EP. Yes, he was not elected, but the EP came into effect in 1991 during his term, making Dr Wee the “first President who exercised the powers of the Elected President,” said Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong last year in Parliament (Nov 8). Following Dr Wee, was Mr Ong Teng Cheong, Mr S R Nathan, and Dr Tony Tan. Mr Nathan served two terms. PM Lee also mentioned this was in line with the Attorney-General’s Chamber’s (AGC) advice.
Dr Tan disagreed on Friday, and questioned if the “AGC’s method of counting was in line with the spirit of the Constitutional Commission’s Report”. The report, said Dr Tan, talked about a reserve election being triggered only “if open elections” do not produce presidents from a particular community for five consecutive terms. That is, an election that is open to candidates of all races. He emphasised the word “elections”. Simply put, Dr Wee was nominated, not elected, but Mr Ong Teng Cheong was, therefore Mr Ong is the first President from an “open election”.
I question whether AGC’s method of counting is actually in line with the spirit and purpose put forward by the Constitutional Commission for having a reserved election.
A familiar argument
It’s an argument that was raised in parliament by the opposition earlier this year (Feb 6). The AGC’s advice to count Dr Wee as the first EP “was surprising and illogical to many Singaporeans, given that President Wee Kim Wee was never elected to office,” said Workers’ Party Chairman Ms Sylvia Lim. Minister in Prime Minister’s Office and Government Whip, Chan Chung Sing replied that the G was “confident of the advice” from the AGC, and not going to rehash the arguments made by PM Lee in Parliament on Nov 8.
On Nov 9, Ms Lim had also asked if the G was “prepared to publish that advice” from the AGC. To which, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean responded that “it was not normal… to publish a lawyer’s advice because that is something which is provided to the Prime Minister.” If Ms Lim felt that the AGC had not advised correctly, she could “challenge judicially”.
Although Dr Tan Cheng Bock did not mention these exchanges specifically on Friday, he did say this: “Unfortunately, there was no debate on whether AGC advised the Government correctly. The Government also declined the opportunity to explain this in Parliament.” Furthermore, he said that “a recent high profile” Court of Appeal case showed that the AGC can be wrong in their legal opinion. He did not specify the case he was referring to.
Unfortunately, there was no debate on whether AGC advised the Government correctly.
He added: “If the Government double-checks the AGC’s advice with the Court, then Parliament and the people of Singapore can be satisfied beyond doubt that the constitutional changes they are making stand on strong legal foundations.”
Otherwise, he concluded, the 2017 reserved elections will be “tainted with the suspicion” it was introduced to prevent him from running.
When asked if he would go to the courts himself if the G declines his invitation. He replied: “The courts should be the last resort. Good politics… not everything should go to the courts.”
When TMG asked if he thought the G made the changes to affect his candidacy, he said, “I hope they didn’t plan it that way, but it seems to be that way because” of feedback from “the ground”.
Why speak up now?
Last March, Dr Tan had announced his intention to run for President. The report was out last August. The G’s response was out the following month. And on Nov 9, the amendment bill was passed.
Dr Tan Cheng Bock said he was initially “resigned” to the fact that he would not qualify for the Presidency due to the changes proposed in the report, and later accepted by the G (read more here). However, the lack of clarity in parliament spurred him to look into the issues deeper. He added that when he’s “silent, always remember that I’m thinking”, not doing nothing.
A Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) spokesman, in response to media queries later in the day, said that the issue “has been considered and debated extensively for more than a year”, and that “Dr Tan has not raised any new points that require response.”
Dr Tan has not raised any new points that require response.
The press conference
The press conference on Friday was a humdrum affair – no rallying cry or rousing speech. Instead Dr Tan stuck to script throughout his presentation, driving home his point about who the first EP should be. He came prepared, with multiple references to the Hansard to back up his assertion that in all his “26 years in Parliament we had always referred to Mr Ong Teng Cheong as the first elected President”.
Former presidential candidate Mr Tan Kin Lian, who was in the audience, thought Dr Tan “made a convincing case”. He had run for the 2011 elections against Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Dr Tony Tan, and Mr Tan Jee Say.
Added Mr Tan Kin Lian: “He (Dr Tan) and his team did a lot of work to research… and found many instances where the MPs referred to Ong Teng Cheong as the first elected president. I agree with his interpretation of the intent of the Commission. I am surprised at the incompetence of the government.”
There was a smattering, albeit enthusiastic, applause later during the question and answer session when Dr Tan talked about what he thought should define a President: “You must define (the) presidency by people who believe in multi-racialism, people who have the… character, who have served this country for a long time, who believe in the people… but if you want to define the Presidency by money…it’s very sad for this country.”
if you want to define the Presidency by money… It’s very sad for this country.
Dr Tan did not specify, but he was likely referring to the qualifying criteria, where potential candidates from the private sector must have experience at the senior-most executives levels in companies with shareholder equity of at least $500m.
The Constitutional Commisson
The qualifying criteria was one of three issues related to the Elected Presidency scheme that the Constitutional Commission was set up to review, early last year. The other two areas had to do with the framework governing the President’s custodial powers, and ensuring that there was minority representation time to time. Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon led the nine member commission.
Public feedback was sought but notably, Dr Tan Cheng Bock had not submitted any suggestions or proposals. This fact was not missed by the MCI spokesman who said, Dr Tan “did not… give his views to the commission”.
When TMG asked Dr Tan on Friday why he did not, he smiled and said: “I’m an interested party… let them (commission) decide.”
I’m an interested party… let them (commission) decide.
Can Dr Tan run for election again?
In 2011, he had lost the race to Dr Tony Tan by just 7,382 votes. Dr Tony Tan won with 35.20 per cent of the votes while Dr Tan Cheng Bock secured 34.85 per cent of votes.
This time round though, even if there is no reserved election, Dr Tan would find it hard to qualify. He was a non-executive chairman of Chuan Hup Holdings – not a company with $500 million in shareholder equity.
For Dr Tan to successfully qualify to run for the President this coming September, a few things must happen. First, race must no longer be a factor. So either the G reverses its stand that the election this year is reserved, or if there is no qualified Malay candidate. But that’s unlikely (read more here).
Second, Dr Tan must convince the Presidential Elections Committee that he is qualified, through the deliberative track. That is, his past roles in the public or private sector were of sufficient complexity to prove that he can handle the responsibilities of the President.
When asked if he was speaking up too late in the game, he replied: “I think it’s never too late for anything.”
He later added: “Anytime you call an election, my men is ready. I have a team now… I am prepared to assume that role, to look after your reserves, to make sure the appointments of people in the government are in the right order… If I can’t, well, I suppose there’s other ways for me to contribute.”
Featured image (taken during press conference in 2016) from TMG file.
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