Deputy A-G, lawyer tussle over true intention of Parliament

Mr Hri Kumar Nair (left) yesterday rebutted the argument of Mr Chelva Retnam Rajah, who contended that Parliament's true intention was to fix the issue of minority candidates not winning open elections.
Mr Hri Kumar Nair (above) yesterday rebutted the argument of Mr Chelva Retnam Rajah, who contended that Parliament's true intention was to fix the issue of minority candidates not winning open elections.
Mr Hri Kumar Nair (left) yesterday rebutted the argument of Mr Chelva Retnam Rajah, who contended that Parliament's true intention was to fix the issue of minority candidates not winning open elections.
Mr Hri Kumar Nair yesterday rebutted the argument of Mr Chelva Retnam Rajah (above), who contended that Parliament's true intention was to fix the issue of minority candidates not winning open elections.

Parliament had made a policy decision in choosing the term of President Wee Kim Wee to begin the count of five consecutive presidential terms needed to trigger a reserved election, Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair said yesterday as he set out his arguments in the Court of Appeal.

And it had done so to end the long hiatus of Singapore not having a Malay president, he added. In fact, he said, this was Parliament's intention when it passed changes to the law to ensure minority representation in the highest office in the land.

Mr Hri Kumar was rebutting the argument of Senior Counsel Chelva Retnam Rajah, who contended that Parliament's true intention was to fix the problem of minority candidates not winning open elections.

Given this, said Mr Rajah, only the terms of presidents who were popularly elected could be considered in the count. He is representing former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock, who challenged the timing of the upcoming presidential election reserved for Malay candidates.

Mr Wee was in office when the elected presidency took effect in 1991. After him, there were four other presidential terms, including the term of current President Tony Tan Keng Yam.

Pointing to Article 164 in the Constitution, Mr Hri Kumar said the law gave Parliament unfettered and "full discretion" to decide from which president's term to start the count needed in triggering a reserved election. He referred to the speech made by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during a parliamentary debate last November, in which PM Lee explained why the Government was starting the count from Mr Wee.

"If he was selected, the next election will be reserved for Malays and the reason for that was to break the hiatus... That was what Parliament was endorsing when it passed the Act," said Mr Nair.

Singapore has not had a Malay president since Mr Yusof Ishak died in office in 1970.

But Mr Rajah argued that the Government had made that decision because it was acting on the bad advice of the Attorney-General.

As as result, he said, it was not the true intention of Parliament to start the count from Mr Wee's term when it passed the amendments into law.

But Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, who was among five Court of Appeal judges hearing the case, said it would be "invidious" for the court to be put in the position of deciding whether the A-G's advice was right or wrong when the court had not seen the advice.

He said if the court agreed with Dr Tan's reading of the Constitution, it would not matter what the A-G had said, as this would not change the legality of the Government's decision. Similarly, if the court agreed with the Government's reading, it would matter even less what the A-G had said, said the Chief Justice.

Danson Cheong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2017, with the headline 'Deputy A-G, lawyer tussle over true intention of Parliament'. Print Edition | Subscribe