Parliament: Entrenchment framework must be a balance between rigidity and adaptability

DPM Teo Chee Hean said that the Constitution must continue to evolve over time, and "we must seek a suitable balance in entrenchment, between rigidity and flexibility".
DPM Teo Chee Hean said that the Constitution must continue to evolve over time, and "we must seek a suitable balance in entrenchment, between rigidity and flexibility".PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The elected presidency serves as a check on the Government, and it is critical for the office and powers of the president to be protected against easy removal, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean on Monday (Nov 7).

At the same time, he added, it must not be too onerous to amend the laws when changes are needed as the elected presidency evolves over time.

This need to strike a balance between "rigidity and flexibility" is behind the proposed amendments to a set of provisions in the Constitution that entrenches, or safeguards, the office and powers of the president, said Mr Teo.

Under the changes, the provisions will be categorised into two tiers: The first tier contains those provisions fundamental to the existence of the elected presidency, and will be harder to change, while the second tier comprises provisions relating to more operational aspects of the elected presidency and its custodial powers.

Speaking in Parliament, Mr Teo said: "The revised entrenchment framework seeks to achieve a more workable balance between preserving the adaptability of the entrenched provisions, and preventing easy removal or amendments to the Elected Presidency."

He added that finding a balance was ultimately a matter of judgement.

Citing the example of the United States, he said that only 27 out of nearly 12,000 proposals to amend the US Constitution have been successful so far.

For constitutional amendments in the US to be passed into law, they must be supported by two-thirds of both Houses of Congress and be ratified by 38 of the 50 states, he said adding that this means even if more than 95 per cent of Americans support an amendment, it can still fail.

In Singapore's context, he added, this means that the Constitution must continue to evolve over time, and "we must seek a suitable balance in entrenchment, between rigidity and flexibility".

The current framework states that the president can veto any attempt by Parliament to amend the Constitution to curtail his powers, and to override this veto, Parliament must get the support of two-thirds of the population in a national referendum.

But under the two-tier system proposed, said Mr Teo, a national referendum is only needed on changes to the first tier of provisions, if the president and Council of Presidential Advisers disagrees with the the government. The referendum threshold will also be revised from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority.

Mr Teo said while referendums serve a purpose in "clear cut strategic decisions" best decided by people in a direct national vote, they have inherent limitations and can reduce complex issues into binary choices.

He added that it is not easy to communicate these complexities to voters, raising the example of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, where a significant percentage of people who voted to "leave" the European Union later regretted their vote.

In Colombia, he added, the president signed a peace deal with the country's largest rebel group to end a 52-year-old war, but the deal was ultimately voted down at a national referendum.

Another constitutional change proposed will give the recommendations of the Council of Presidential Advisers legal weight under the entrenchment framework, to serve as a counterbalance.

On the need for the framework, Mr Teo said there was a risk that a government "bent on raiding the reserves or compromising the public services" would try to get rid of the elected presidency, which acts as a check on the government in these two key areas.

"By contrast, it would be much more difficult to remove well-established institutions such as this Parliament or the Judiciary," he said.

But the recrafted provisions will not brought into force for now while the Government observes how the other amendments to the Constitution operate in practice, he added.

This was also the case when the current provisions were passed into law, he said, because the Government felt time and experience was needed to refine the institution.

"Over the years, several revisions have had to be made to improve the working mechanisms for the new powers of the Presidency. Had the provisions been entrenched, it would have been very difficult to improve the system," he said.