Reviewing the elected presidency: Your say

A stronger council of advisers?

If there is one area of the elected presidency that law experts seem hesitant to tinker with, it is the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA).

At the four public hearings last month and this month, proposals on how to ensure minority representation or review the criteria for presidential hopefuls came fast and furious.

But there were far fewer ideas on how to strengthen the CPA, one of the three tasks of the Constitutional Commission set out by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in January.

Those that were floated fell into two broad categories:

First, raise the bar for members of the CPA - an uncontroversial suggestion, seen mostly as a formality.

PRESIDENT MUST RETAIN POWER

It would make our governance system unstable if the CPA is the real power behind the Istana.

SINGAPORE MANAGEMENT UNIVERSITY LAW DON EUGENE TAN, on the suggestion for Parliament to be given the power in more situations to override the president if he goes against the CPA's advice.

Second, increase the number of matters on which the president must consult the CPA.

But here, experts and the commission were uncertain about whether - and how - to beef up the powers of the CPA in situations where they disagree with the president.

KEEPING THE CPA SEPARATE

The commission was keen to keep the CPA as a separate body from the president so that this independent body could continue to advise, and act as a second goalkeeper.

The CPA has six full members.

Of these, 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.

Lawyer Ronald Wong wanted two of the six CPA members to be elected by Singaporeans. The six would then get together and vote for one of them to be the president.

Law firm intern Brian Chang proposed a two-person presidential ticket in which one candidate would have to be of a minority race, adding that the second candidate could be a co-president or vice-president and serve as CPA chairman.

But the commission was concerned that blurring the lines between both institutions would weaken the CPA's ability to act as a check on the president, if needed.

DBS Group Holdings chairman Peter Seah said: "Will it not dilute the independence of the CPA if the head of the CPA runs on the same ticket as the president?"

This concern for independence recalled PM Lee's speech in January, when he said it was important for Singapore's political system to continue to be protected by a team rather than a single person.

Together, the president and the council play the roles of "a goalkeeper together with a team of defenders", he added then.

BALANCE OF POWER

But what happens when the CPA and the president are not on the same page?

PM Lee had also asked if the CPA's advice should count for more than it does now when the president makes decisions.

One possibility he mooted was for Parliament to be given the power in more situations to override the president, if he goes against the council's recommendations.

Now, the president must consult the CPA before exercising some discretionary powers, like before he approves proposed drawdowns on past financial reserves.

If the CPA disagrees with the president's decision in these cases, Parliament has the ability to override it if at least two-thirds of elected MPs vote to do so.

But in other cases, the president can choose whether or not to consult the CPA. In these cases, the president's word is final even if he decides not to accept the CPA's advice.

The Eurasian Association suggested that the scope of matters on which the president must consult the CPA could be widened.

But mandatory consultation is one thing; overriding the president once his mind is made up is another.

Several at the public hearings were very wary of giving more weight to the CPA's recommendations by allowing Parliament to override the president.

They pointed out that the CPA is an unelected body, unlike the president, who has a direct mandate from Singaporeans.

"It would make our governance system unstable if the CPA is the real power behind the Istana," said Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan in his submission.

The Workers' Party, which was not at the hearings, said in its written submission to the commission that the Government's suggestion to expand the powers of the CPA "may add another layer of gridlock" to the political system.

Instead, speakers at the public hearings favoured strengthening the CPA by raising the eligibility criteria for its members.

They pointed out that the minimum eligibility criteria for CPA members, as spelled out in Article 37(D) of the Constitution, are fairly basic and even less strict than that for the president.

They have to be Singapore citizens and reside here, as well as be at least 35 years old.

Others also suggested that the Constitution detail specific skills that these members should possess, such as financial expertise.

Speakers noted that the CPA's members, to date, have been more than qualified to carry out their duties, even as they wanted the stricter criteria written into the law.

This principle of "better safe than sorry" is a good one to keep in mind, as the commission considers how to accommodate the possibility of differences arising between the president and his council.

"We have been fortunate so far," Associate Professor Eugene Tan said, referring to the quality of the CPA. "But we shouldn't leave it to chance."

Charissa Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 29, 2016, with the headline 'A stronger council of advisers?'. Print Edition | Subscribe