Clear that it's a policy decision: Shanmugam

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made clear that Parliament intended to give itself the discretion to begin the count of presidential terms from President Wee Kim Wee.
Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made clear that Parliament intended to give itself the discretion to begin the count of presidential terms from President Wee Kim Wee.PHOTO: GOV.SG/SCREENGRAB

Govt was clear it is for Parliament to decide on counting of presidential terms, he says

The Government has always been clear that it is for Parliament to decide when to start counting the terms of office to trigger a reserved presidential election, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

He was responding to Workers' Party MP Sylvia Lim's charge that the Government had given the impression that the decision was a legal one, and not a policy matter.

In a speech in Parliament on the issue, Ms Lim said political leaders suggested that the Government decided to count from President Wee Kim Wee because of advice it received from the Attorney-General.

Mr Shanmugam replied that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said "the next election will be reserved for a Malay president and we have taken advice from the AGC (Attorney-General's Chambers)".

But Ms Lim wrongly thought that the decision was a consequence of the advice, he argued.

"What Ms Lim is saying is that we are starting to count from here because of the AGC's advice. I think that was never suggested," he said.

PM Lee had made it clear that Parliament intended to give itself the discretion to begin the count from President Wee's last term, Mr Shanmugam said.

  • Government had been clear all along

    Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam countered that the Government had been clear all along: 

    "The Prime Minister was entirely right to say we will start counting from here. The next election will be reserved for a Malay president and we have taken advice from the AGC.

    What Ms Lim is saying is that we are starting to count from here because of AGC's advice. I think that was never suggested."

    He added later: "PM took the same position, he explained in Parliament. We decide but we took AGC's advice.

    And the next day, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and subsequently, Mr Chan (Chun Sing, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office), took the same position.

    Did anyone say we are going to decide this way because this is the way that AGC has told us that we have to decide? That would make no sense because Parliament is sovereign."

The Court of Appeal also said PM Lee was very clear in its judgment on the legal challenge mounted by former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock on the timing of the reserved election, he added.

He also recounted how, in a dialogue session, he had said on the record that "the Government can decide... It is a policy decision".

He added: "Why would I go and say it's a policy matter if I thought it was a pure legal issue?"

Mr Shanmugam also explained why the Government asked for legal advice. "We start counting, we are a careful Government. We make a policy decision but we take advice to see whether there are any impediments," he said.

Also, the Government as a rule generally does not publish the legal opinions it gets, he added.

In any case, the legal advice given by the Attorney-General is irrelevant as the question before the court was whether the decision to count from President Wee's term was constitutional, he said.

The Court of Appeal also said the AGC's advice is irrelevant, in ruling that the decision to count from President Wee's term was constitutional as it was a decision that Parliament was free to make.

Mr Shanmugam also took a swipe at Ms Lim, when he said: "There is only one person in this House whom the courts have held to be misleading Parliament. And he is not from the PAP."

He was referring to a 2015 statement she made to Parliament on how the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) had made the necessary transfers to its sinking fund.

Justice Quentin Loh subsequently noted that Ms Lim failed to mention or acknowledge that AHPETC had been making late transfers to its sinking fund.

Concluding his speech, the minister reiterated that the Government had always been clear that the decision was a policy matter, and that it was on the record.

"PM took the same position, he explained in Parliament. We decide but we took AGC's advice."

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean took the same position the next day, as did Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing later, he added.

"Did anyone say we are going to decide this way because this is the way that AGC has told us that we have to decide?" Mr Shanmugam said. "That would make no sense because Parliament is sovereign."

Charissa Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2017, with the headline 'Clear that it's a policy decision: Shanmugam'. Print Edition | Subscribe