Counting presidents before they are elected

May 09, 2017 12.00PM |
 

by Bertha Henson

I AM glad that Dr Tan Cheng Bock applied to the courts for a decision on whether the G’s calculations on when to call a reserved presidential election is constitutional. After a quick burst through Parliament albeit after six months of deliberation by a constitutional commission, the judiciary will now have a look at the trigger mechanism.

This is a contentious portion, couched by the G as a way to preserve minority representation but seen by Dr Tan’s fans as a way to keep him out of the coming contest. This is due in September, so it’s likely that the courts will move fast and make a speedy decision.

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Opposition MPs who have raised questions about the timing of reserved elections during the debate on the changes to the presidency have been given short shrift. The G’s tactic was to turn the guns on the MPs, suggesting that they were impugning the office of its top lawyer by asking for more details on how he came to the conclusion that Singapore was now in its fifth presidential term without a Malay president.

The Attorney-General (AG) had dated the start with the late Dr Wee Kim Wee’s exercise of an elected president’s powers. Detractors like Dr Tan argued that Mr Wee was an appointed president who took on the expanded powers because the changes to Constitution were made during his term of office in 1991. Dr Tan, himself a former presidential candidate, argued that the count should begin with the term of the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong, who won the first presidential election.

Clearly, this is not a topic that the G wishes to engage anyone on. The Ministry of Communications and Information gave a terse reply to Dr Tan’s press conference which he had called on March 31 to contest this point. He did not raise any new points, it said.

Truth to tell, people raise old points all the time and it is probably good politics to respond to them because politics is about persuading people to your point of view, even if you have to do it for the umpteenth time. Dr Tan’s misgivings are shared, at least by this writer. To have race thrown into the political mix after such a long silence is puzzling enough. To activate the mechanism immediately looks like too much haste.

It isn’t apparent that the Malay community welcomes its coming shot at the office. In my view, it wouldn’t hurt to have an open election for the next president to test the assumption that minority candidates wouldn’t be elected, that is, if the Malay community is able to forward an able and willing person to try for the job. But that is only my view, and not a legal view. The AG doubtless would have legal arguments on his side which we have yet to hear.

Dr Tan’s application allows the issue to be raised, albeit in a different forum, so that laymen like me will have the satisfaction of seeing all points of views canvassed.

I find it intriguing that the application is about how the new clause in the Presidential Elections Act might not be consistent with new amendments to the Constitution which allow for reserved elections. So is this a drafting problem rather than a fundamental one?

It’s not too far of a stretch to say that there is plenty of cynicism over parliamentary proceedings, especially the speedy passage of legislation. The People’s Action Party’s stranglehold over Parliament is one reason for the “efficiency’’. But even in the days of still fewer opposition MPs, parliamentary select committees were formed to scrutinise important legislation. No such committee has been set up for years.

Are backbenchers up to the job of debating the G which would have its battery of civil servants, including the AG, giving advice? I have always wondered about the work of Government Parliamentary Committees that are supposed to specialise in fields of government and hence be better informed for debates. The media gives GPC leaders the privilege of naming them as such when they speak up but what do these GPCs actually do? Do they convene meetings or meet their resource panels (if any) to discuss forthcoming legislation?

The opposition MPs are supposed to check the G – or that’s what they say about the role. To give them credit, they do ask some pointed questions, but they seem incapable of coming up with coherent alternatives; witness the Workers’ Party’s (WP) lame proposal to replace the elected presidency. Nor did they advance any further on the queries they raised regarding a reserved election. End of debate. Bill passed. Business ended.

Save the WP MPs, nobody seems too bothered by the decision that the first elected president is different from the first president to exercise the power of an elected president. This must be because they agree with the G, even though this is only based on the AG’s say-so.

So someone outside Parliament decided to turn to the third arm of the State: the judiciary. Obviously, Dr Tan did not raise a frivolous piece of litigation since the court has accepted the application and even set a date for a meeting. His argument makes sense to the layman: those long in the tooth will remember voting for the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong and I daresay no one will ever refer to Mr Wee as “the first president to exercise the powers of an elected president”. To most, Mr Ong was the first elected President. Period.

You might say that Dr Tan has a vested interest in getting the timings changed so that he can throw his hat into the ring. He had said, after all, that he would be contesting, but that was before the changes to the legislation. (Read more about it here) But even if he succeeds in his court application, it is no longer a walk through the presidential park for aspiring candidates of any race. Dr Tan, for example, might not be able to meet expanded criteria on corporate experience.

His legal challenge, whether motivated by self or public interest, is a welcomed one. Let the AG speak. Let Dr Tan’s lawyers speak. Let learned eyes look over the legislation. The judiciary is after all another avenue of check and balances. We deserve more explanation and elucidation, whatever the final outcome of the application.

 

Featured image by Wikimedia user Kok Leng Yeo. CC-BY-2.0.

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