Updating the Elected Presidency scheme

Changes to Elected Presidency: How to give more weight to Council of Presidential Advisers

Former Shell chairman Lee Tzu Yang (third from left) being sworn in as a member of CPA by President Tony Tan Keng Yam (left) in 2013. Looking on is Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon (right).
Former Shell chairman Lee Tzu Yang (third from left) being sworn in as a member of CPA by President Tony Tan Keng Yam (left) in 2013. Looking on is Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon (right). PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

The Council of Presidential Advisers may see veto powers beefed up to boost its influence but without undermining the President

Who watches the watchman?

If Singapore's Elected President is the watchman guarding the national reserves and the integrity of the public service, then his watchmen are those that advise him.

These wise men are known as the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA), whom the President consults with before making certain key decisions within his power. This is by deliberate design.

"The system does not solely rely on the judgment of a single person acting alone but rather, on the President well advised by a team of wise and experienced men and women," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last Wednesday in Parliament.

He added that the Elected Presidency has two parts to it: the President, and the CPA.

He called for more weight to be given to the CPA, as he outlined the areas of the Elected Presidency and the political system to be reviewed.

It may be time for them to be given more powers. But how?

Experts say there are two ways this could be done. First, by making the council more inclusive so that its members have a wider range of experience to draw on, and second, by giving it more or wider powers under the Constitution.

On the first point, lawyer and Marine Parade GRC MP Edwin Tong said the council could be drawn from a wider range of backgrounds.

Formed in 1992, the council has six full members. They currently are: former Singapore Exchange chairman J. Y. Pillay, who chairs the council, former Cabinet minister S. Dhanabalan; retired senior partner of accounting firm Deloitte & Touche Po'ad Mattar; retired Supreme Court judge Goh Joon Seng; FairPrice chairman Bobby Chin; and Esplanade chairman Lee Tzu Yang.

There are two alternate members: former Keppel Corp chairman Lim Chee Onn, and Singapore Airlines chairman Stephen Lee.

Of the six full members, two are appointed by the President at his discretion, two are nominated by the Prime Minister, one by the Chief Justice, and the last by the chairman of the Public Service Commission.

Mr Tong, in Parliament last Thursday, said the CPA should be made up of not only competent experts from across a diverse range of fields, but also representatives from civil society. He said: "The CPA should be strengthened with society and industry experts who are non-partisan and who collectively represent a broad cross-section of stakeholders in society."

These experts could be drawn from an institution akin to Britain's House of Lords - "an expert body of men and women who could make a significant contribution to the conduct of public affairs", he added.

WIDER VETO POWERS?

As for the second broad suggestion, analysts said Parliament could be given the power - in more situations - to override the President if he goes against the council's recommendations. This would make the CPA's recommendations count for more.

Now, the President is required to seek the recommendation of the CPA when exercising some discretionary powers. For example, he must consult it before he approves proposed drawdowns on past financial reserves, and the appointments and dismissals of key office holders.

In these cases, where the CPA disagrees with his decision to veto, Parliament has the ability to override this veto if at least two-thirds of elected MPs vote to do so.

But in other cases, such as whether to order the release of a person detained without trial under the Internal Security Act, he can choose whether or not to consult the CPA.

In these cases, when the President decides not to heed the CPA's recommendation, the President's veto is final.

Singapore Management University law lecturer Jack Lee said: "The override mechanism may be extended to other discretionary powers of the President. From the Prime Minister's remarks, it seems that the President may be obliged to consult the CPA in more areas."

But, as PM Lee said: "We have to strike a delicate balance because the President must have the right to exercise his veto powers, even against the advice of the CPA. He's thought about it, he believes that he should say 'No', he should have the right to say 'No'.

"But a veto which is supported by the CPA should carry more weight than a veto which the CPA disagrees with."

In short: The CPA should be strengthened, but not to an extent that undermines the President.

At least two legal experts said they have reservations about strengthening the CPA, however.

Constitutional law expert Kevin Tan said he is "personally very uncomfortable with the role of the CPA and its heightened importance in the protection of reserves scheme". He added that CPA members are appointed, not elected, and do not have the people's mandate.

Former Attorney-General Walter Woon said he is in favour of allowing the President to pick all the members of the CPA, in contrast to the system today where the President has unfettered discretion to pick only two of the six members.

Charissa Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline '2. All the President's wise men and women'. Print Edition | Subscribe