June 25, 2017

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Presidential elections

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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skillsfuture_300x250

by Bertha Henson

MAVERICK politician Dr Tan Cheng Bock has gone to the High Court to contest the G’s calculation of when a reserved election should be held.

He has consulted a Queen’s Counsel (QC) in Britain who shares his opinion that the G did wrong by specifying that the calculation should start from the term of the late Mr Wee Kim Wee, who exercised the powers of an elected president when the Constitution was first changed to allow for this.

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According to the G, this means that Singapore is currently in the fifth presidential term without a Malay in the top job. The coming election due in September should therefore be reserved for candidates from the community.

Dr Tan held a press conference on Mar 31 contesting this calculation, which was the advice that was given to the G by the Attorney-General (AG). By his reckoning, the start date should be from the first open election held for the presidency, which would make the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong the first elected president. If so, this would mean that only four terms have passed without a Malay president and the coming election should therefore be open to candidates of all races.

The G has maintained that it was abiding by the AG’s advice and that Dr Tan raised nothing new in his press conference. Opposition politicians who had asked the same question in Parliament were also told that the AG, the G’s top lawyer, had looked at all legal issues surrounding the timing.

In his Facebook post announcing the legal challenge today, Dr Tan did not say what the QC had advised in terms of calculation except to give his view that “section 22 Presidential Elections (Amendment) Act 6 of 2017 as it stands is unconstitutional’’.

The relevant clause in the legislation which was approved by Parliament on Feb 6 this year, reads:

Dr Tan wants the court to decide if the clause is consistent with Articles 19 B (1) and 164 (1) of the Constitution which introduced the mechanism of a Reserved Election. You may read the clauses here.

“After receiving Lord Pannick’s reply, I felt I could not keep his legal opinion to myself. It would be in public interest to have the Court decide which legal view is correct – Lord Pannick or the AG,’’ he wrote.

Through law firm Tan Rajah and Cheah, he filed his application to the High Court on May 5. The application was accepted and the first pre-trial hearing will be on May 22.

Said Dr Tan: “I believe this question can be answered without confrontation or hostility. Both the Government and I have the nation’s best interest at heart. It is in nobody’s interest to have a Reserved Election that is unconstitutional.’’

 

Featured image from TMG file.  

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by Bertha Henson

IT’S tough being sandwiched between two giants. There’s Malaysia to the north and Indonesia to the south and the talk in both nations is all about race and religion.

So Malaysian premier Najib Razak has raised the bogey of a “Chinese” country should the opposition Democratic Action Party come into power. He told his UMNO party faithful that agencies that deal with bumiputera rights and so forth would be folded if so.

If that’s not calculated to inflame, what else is? Of course, he doesn’t say that it’s really quite difficult to make G agencies disappear in a flash. There are laws and Parliament to contend with, unless he thinks that his Barisan Nasional will lose so many seats in the next election that it will no longer have any teeth.

At the same time, he’s supportive of a Private Member’s Bill by Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) to introduce Syariah law.

“Non-Muslims must understand that this is not about hudud but about empowering the Syariah courts,” he told Malaysian media recently.

The Bill will allow Syariah courts to impose maximum penalties of 30 years’ jail, RM100,000 (S$32,000) fine or 100 strokes of the cane for offences under Islamic law. The fear that this is a backdoor to introduce the law wholesale for the rest of the country.

To soothe non-Muslim fears, he said in a speech that the Bill will be studied to ensure “no elements of dual punishment”. You wonder how dual punishment can even occur given that the laws are separate for Muslims and non-Muslims.

Then you have the demonstrations in Indonesia.

Half a million people (depending on whether you believe the Jakarta Post) turned up on Friday at Medan Grand Mosque to rail against the Chinese-Christian governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. Much is being made about how the protest was incident-free with President Joko Widodo even turning up to join in the Friday prayers.

Ahok is facing blasphemy charges because he purportedly said in a video clip that people should not be misled by his opponents who cited a verse in the Quran to urge Muslims not to vote for a non-Muslim like himself. The protesters aren’t happy with just charges being levelled against him; they want him arrested. It’s not clear if this would rule him out of the gubernatorial elections in February.

Ahok, who spoke to media on Friday, said: “I ask you to pray for me so that the legal process is fair and transparent, and I hope I can get past this trouble as soon as possible.” In the Jakarta Post report was this line: Ahok’s statement struck a religious tone when he said he had surrendered to God and that he believed the fate of humans had been predetermined by the Almighty.

Oh dear!

Looking at the politics in the two countries, what are the chances that this would happen here? The G has always taken a strong position over chauvinism and religious overtones when it comes to appealing to the popular vote.

Some would say that it was far too hasty and heavy-handed in hounding the likes of Mr Tang Liang Hong, who was accused of appealing to Chinese chauvinist sentiments in 1997 GE or admonishing Jufrie Mahmood for references to Allah in the 1991 GE.

Singapore has a whole matrix of laws, such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, to hold the peace among the races and religions. Any fire will be doused as soon as it starts.

But there’s one aspect which the G would do well to guard against: the coming Presidential Election (PE) which is reserved for the Malay community.

After years of being more or less colour-blind about who will be president, race will necessarily be a factor next year when the PE rolls around. The G must be absolutely sure that the majority Chinese community is fully accepting of the need to have a Malay president.

All it takes is a canny politician to fan the flames in the name of equal representation; masking the real issue of race. Some groundwork must be laid so that people are more sensitised to this change. It is not enough to say that the issue has been debated in and out of Parliament. People don’t really care about political issues until it comes to the point when they have to do something. In this case, when they vote.

Let’s hope the changes to the elected presidency will be a bulwark to safeguard multiracialism, rather than a spark to fire up tensions.

 

Featured image Oi Oi Oi! by Flickr user Vito Adriono. (CC BY 2.0)

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THE world sucked in its collective breath on Tuesday – and choked.

But what splutterings there might have been in capitals round the world was papered over in smooth and conciliatory messages to President-elect Donald Trump. Except for Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was among the first to congratulate Mr Trump, and a Kremlin spokesman yesterday pointed out how “phenomenally close” both countries are in their conceptual approach to foreign policy. Other countries were more cautious, holding out tentative feelers to the man who had vowed to turn protectionist and renege on trade deals.

As politicians and pundits ponder a Trump presidency, Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh has penned a column published in ST today in which he proffered advice to Mr Trump as an “old friend” of the United States. He neatly captured Singapore’s concerns over how the direction the United States will take towards international and regional institutions such as Asean and towards big powers such as China and Japan. You can read it here.

Here’s what world leaders said to him:

 

 

 

 

Compiled by Iffah Nadhirah Osman and Li Shan Teo. 

Featured image Earth by Flickr user Kevin GillCC BY-SA 2.0

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Morning Call, 0830, clock

MORE than 40,000 protestors took to the streets in Seoul, South Korea, calling for the resignation of President Park Geun-hye, who allowed a personal friend with no government experience and who held no official position to interfere with state affairs. This close, personal friend – Choi Soon-Sil – has been described as a Rasputin-esque who had an unhealthy influence over the president, and has also been arrested for fraud. Ms Park apologised and accepted full responsibility for the scandal, but protestors were not appeased. Her approval rating, as a result, stands at just five per cent.

In Jakarta, Indonesia, more than 100,000 Muslim protestors took to the streets against Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama – or Governor Ahok – accusing him of breaking blasphemy laws for insulting Islam and the Quran. The governor is the first Christian to lead the city in 50 years, in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country. These protests come a few months before elections in the capital city in February next year, in which Governor Ahok is seeking re-election. Despite these protests, he has been praised for investing in infrastructure projects and for his anti-corruption efforts, and opinion polls show him to be ahead of his two other opponents.

Millions in the United States will vote on November 8 for either Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or Republican nominee Donald Trump to be the next president of the country. National polls have Mrs Clinton ahead, yet state polls show a competitive race in the swing states, where both candidates will campaign this weekend.

Closer to home, about 10,000 Singaporeans gathered at Suntec City for the annual Purple Parade, which shows support for people with special needs. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam – the guest-of-honour said: “The ‘we’ [in the National Pledge] is very important. Every year and every decade, we make the ‘we’ more meaningful… It is a ‘we’ of every ability, of all our people.” Beyond awareness of those with special needs, these calls for greater inclusiveness and more job opportunities to be made available.

And finally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has once again urged Singaporeans to reduce the amount of water they use, even though some progress has been made within households in the past decade. The target now is to reduce the per-person amount from 151 litres a day in 2015 (compared to about 158 litres a day in 2006), to 140 litres a day by 2030. “Droughts and water shortages are becoming more common,” the prime minister said. “Linggiu Reservoir in Johor, which supplies water to Singapore is very dry. Right now, (it is) less than one-quarter full, only 22 per cent. And that slightly improved because it rained last week.”

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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