Elected presidency report: Panel floats idea of returning to an appointed president

Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew delivering his National Day Rally speech in 1984.
Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew delivering his National Day Rally speech in 1984. ST FILE PHOTO

Specialist body could take on custodial role, it says; PM reiterates need for elected president

To resolve the tension between the symbolic and custodial roles of the president, a panel tasked with reviewing the elected presidency has suggested that the Government consider "unbundling" those functions at some point.

In its report published yesterday, the Constitutional Commission also floated the idea of doing away with elections and having Parliament appoint a head of state who will focus on the historic role of being a symbolic, unifying figure for the nation.

The president's custodial role of safeguarding the reserves and the integrity of the public service could be assumed by a group of appointed experts instead.

As the person holding the second key to past reserves - a role introduced when the office was transformed into an elected one in 1991 - the president could potentially have to confront the Government.

"While the prospect for confrontation necessitates that the president hold the legitimacy and authority that comes from having an elected mandate, it seems out of place for persons seeking a non-partisan unifying office to have to go through a national election, which will likely be politicised and divisive," the commission said.

NEED FOR ELECTED PRESIDENCY

We have thought out some blocking mechanisms so that no government can spend previously built-up reserves... And I think we should have a president with a moral authority to block it. The thing has to be thought out very carefully because... there's bound to be a row when a president says 'no' to a newly elected prime minister. Flush with victory, he wants to fulfil his election promises... How do we do this? I think the president has to be elected.

THEN PRIME MINISTER LEE KUAN YEW, introducing the idea of an elected presidency at the National Day Rally in 1984.

So it has suggested returning to the pre-1991 system of having an appointed president.

A specialist body could then be appointed to take over the president's functional role.

This suggestion was first mooted by Raffles Medical Group executive chairman Loo Choon Yong and his brother Choon Chiaw, a lawyer, during a public hearing held by the commission in May.

While acknowledging that the matter was clearly beyond its terms of reference and a political question, the commission said that in the course of its review, it considered how any weakness in the elected presidency could be overcome by an alternative design.

In laying out its proposals on decoupling the roles and returning to an appointed presidency, the commission said its views provide context for further debate on the issue, "if the Government deems it fit and profitable".

In a letter to commission chair Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he appreciates the commission's reasons for this suggestion, but reiterated the need for an elected president.

He said: "As the Government has pointed out even when the scheme was first conceived, it would be difficult for a president to exercise custodial powers over the reserves and public service appointments, and veto proposals by the Government, without an electoral mandate."

In its report, the commission said the presidency should remain an elected office if it retains its custodial functions. Yet this key role as a "check" on the Government might incentivise presidential candidates to campaign on an anti-government platform, and clash with the authorities over policies after being elected, it said.

The commission also noted that individuals who have the qualifications and expertise to exercise the president's custodial powers may not also possess the traits required for the symbolic role - namely the ability to connect with and represent the general populace.

It proposed separating the president's custodial role by having an appointed council of experts that could delay government measures, force a debate on them and require a super-majority in Parliament to override its objections.

However, such a council would lack the powers to absolutely block or veto government initiatives.

There should be strict eligibility criteria for members, to ensure the council functions independently and has the necessary expertise to carry out its supervisory role, the commission said.

It said it took guidance from the Westminster system, where the House of Lords - the second chamber of the British Parliament where members are mainly appointed - has the power to delay, but not block, the vast majority of Bills passed.

As for whether an appointed president could function as a check on the Government, the commission said it is critical that someone in this role be independent.

It said: "With the appointed body taking over the elected president's custodial role, the president can then focus on his historical role of being a symbolic unifying figure."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2016, with the headline 'Panel floats idea of returning to an appointed president'. Print Edition | Subscribe