Debate on changes to Elected Presidency: WP calls for return to appointed presidency

Mr Low (left) said that the president's main role is to be a unifying figure "beyond politics". Mr Singh (below left) took issue with upcoming changes to the CPA.
Mr Low (above) said that the president's main role is to be a unifying figure "beyond politics". Mr Singh took issue with upcoming changes to the CPA.PHOTOS: SCREEN SHOTS FROM TV
Mr Low (left) said that the president's main role is to be a unifying figure "beyond politics". Mr Singh (below left) took issue with upcoming changes to the CPA.
Mr Low said that the president's main role is to be a unifying figure "beyond politics". Mr Singh (above) took issue with upcoming changes to the CPA.PHOTOS: SCREEN SHOTS FROM TV

It proposes a senate, wants a referendum to let the people decide on these issues

The Workers' Party (WP), in rejecting the proposed changes to the elected presidency, wants a return to the old system in which Parliament appoints the president.

An appointed president would "naturally take care of any concerns" of minority representation and would not be regressive, said its chairman Sylvia Lim in Parliament yesterday.

Ms Lim and her WP colleagues also called for a national referendum to be held to let people vote for the change they want made to the presidency.

She suggested two options for the vote.

One, the current system of an elected president playing the dual role of being a unifying head of state and custodian of the nation's reserves; and two, for the president to be appointed and not vested with powers over the national reserves and the public service.

 

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WP'S VIEW: Why president should be appointed

Today, the Workers' Party (WP) and many Singaporeans still believe the president should be an appointed office and above politics. To revert to such a system of appointed presidents is not regressive. In fact, it would naturally take care of any concerns that minority communities would not be represented in the office as this would automatically be resolved by a system of rotational appointments.

MS SYLVIA LIM (ALJUNIED GRC)

The responsibility over the reserves would be vested in an elected senate instead, said Ms Lim (Aljunied GRC) during the debate on the constitutional amendments to the elected presidency.

The WP has opposed the elected presidency since it was introduced about 25 years ago.

One of its arguments is that such a president, elected under a People's Action Party (PAP) government, would be pro-PAP and could potentially cripple a non- PAP government in its first term.

Ms Lim, however, acknowledged that Singapore's accumulated past reserves were "worthy of strong safeguards".

These safeguards, she suggested, could be vested in a second chamber in the legislature.

Called the senate, its members would be elected in a national poll and would initially have eight members.

"We see the election of the senate members as critical to make the membership process open and not susceptible to political interference. This will also give the senate the necessary mandate for the important decisions it makes," she said.

Candidates must possess "certain qualifications" and be selected by a special election committee, said WP chief Low Thia Khiang.

Mr Low (Aljunied GRC) pointed out that, similar to the current elected president, the senate can veto decisions by the Government to draw on the national reserves or make key public service appointments. But this veto can be overruled by a three-quarter parliamentary majority.

Explaining his party's rationale on divesting the president's custodial duties to an elected senate, Mr Low said the main role of the president is that of a unifying figure that goes "beyond politics".

"Making the president protect the reserves, it amounts to wanting him to be confrontational towards the Government at certain times. This is in conflict with the function of the president," said Mr Low, pointing out that the Constitutional Commission that had proposed the changes to the elected presidency had also recognised this issue.

Calling for a referendum is a "democratic way" to determine whether Singaporeans would support this model proposed by the WP, said Mr Low.

Speaking in Mandarin later, Mr Low said the proposed changes have made people "uneasy".

"The ulterior motive behind this exercise is to ensure that even when the PAP has lost the majority seats in Parliament, they could still make use of the elected president to contain the operation of the new government," he said.

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) said he agreed with the Government that the presidency should not be an alternative centre of power, but took issue with the upcoming changes to the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA).

The proposed changes would require the president to consult the CPA on all monetary matters relating to the reserves and key public service appointments.

An elected president could potentially be caught between the Government and his CPA when making decisions, said Mr Singh.

"This makes the council an alternative centre of power... An unelected council should not have the power to create such outcomes," he said.

Non-constituency MP Dennis Tan also took aim at the plans to tighten the eligibility criteria to qualify for election as president, saying this would narrow the pool to a very exclusive group of people.

One of the key changes stipulates that a candidate from the private sector must have helmed a company with at least $500 million in shareholder equity to qualify, up from $100 million in paid-up capital now.

The WP has argued that this would invariably mean potential presidents would be drawn from a pool of senior public officers - and reduce the chances of a candidate outside the system to qualify.

"President (Benjamin) Sheares was a doctor, President Wee Kim Wee was a journalist - under the present rules they would never have qualified," Mr Tan said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2016, with the headline 'WP calls for return to appointed presidency'. Print Edition | Subscribe