Parliament: Shanmugam, Sylvia Lim debate reason for Govt's decision on counting of presidential terms

MP Sylvia Lim said that the Government misled people about its reasons for counting the presidential terms needed for a reserved election, while Minister K. Shanmugam said it has always been clear that Parliament decides how to count those terms. PHOTOS: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - Workers' Party MP Sylvia Lim on Tuesday (Oct 3) argued that the Government had misled people about its reasons for counting the five presidential terms of office needed to trigger a reserve election the way it did.

The Government should have made clear that this was a policy decision and not a legal one, said Ms Lim (Aljunied GRC).

Instead, the Government gave the impression that its decision was based on advice given by the Attorney-General, she added.

But Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam replied that the Government had always been clear that it is for Parliament to decide how to count the terms of office needed to trigger a reserved presidential election.

It was Ms Lim who wrongly thought the decision was a consequence of the advice it received, he argued.

The Government chose to count from President Wee Kim Wee, who was appointed but became the first President to exercise the powers of the elected president.

As a result, the presidential election last month was reserved for Malay candidates.

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Sylvia Lim: Government was misleading

Ms Lim questioned the basis for the decision and how it was communicated to MPs and the public, in a 20-minute speech at the close of the day's Parliament sitting.

She quoted statements made by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and others in previous parliamentary debates which she said gave this misleading impression.

PM Lee had said on Nov 8: "We have taken the Attorney-General's advice. We will start counting from the first President who exercised the powers of the Elected President, in other words, Dr Wee Kim Wee."

Ms Lim said that the "clear impression given was that the Government's decision was based on the AGC's advice".

That must have been why PM Lee sequenced his sentences in that order, she added.

A day later on Nov 9, DPM Teo told her in Parliament: "On the reserved elections and how to count, I would like to confirm that this is indeed the AGC's advice and if not and you do not think that it's correct, I think it's possible if you wish to challenge judicially."

Ms Lim said that "any reasonable person hearing those words would assume" that the AGC had advised the Government, and that the AGC's advice involved a question of law.

"Why else would I be asked to challenge it judicially?" she asked.

But it later became clear the decision had been made independently of the legal advice, said Ms Lim.

She highlighted the legal arguments made by Deputy-Attorney General Hri Kumar Nair in court after former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock challenged the Government's decision to count the five terms from Dr Wee.

Mr Nair had said during the hearing on June 29: "The PM never said that the Attorney-General advised PM to start the count from President Wee. What PM said is that the Attorney-General advised that what the Government was proposing to do was legitimate."

Ms Lim saw this as a contradiction.

"The ministers kept consistently referring to the AGC's advice as the basis for the legislative changes. Yet the Deputy Attorney-General says in court that the advice is irrelevant," she said.

She said the Government had engaged in "ambiguous language and red herrings".

"We in this House should have been told in no uncertain terms that it was the Government that wanted to count from Dr Wee Kim Wee," she said." The Government should have defended its own decision on why counting from President Wee was appropriate.

"It should not have evaded the debate by using the AGC's advice as a distraction, and then gone to court to say that the AGC's advice was irrelevant," Ms Lim added.

Shanmugam: Government has always been clear

Mr Shanmugam replied that PM Lee said "the next elections will be reserved for a Malay President and we have taken advice from the AGC".

PM Lee had been clear about that, which the Court of Appeal also acknowledged, said Mr Shanmugam.

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 AGC's advice. I think that was never suggested."

"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 added.

Moreover, the Government as a rule generally does not publish the legal opinions which it gets, he said.

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?"

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