Singapore able to carry out presidential safeguards effectively, thanks to close ties between President's office and Government: PM Lee

(From left) PM Lee Hsien Loong (back to camera), Mrs Mary Tan and President Tony Tan at the farewell ceremony at the Istana, on Aug 31, 2017.
(From left) PM Lee Hsien Loong (back to camera), Mrs Mary Tan and President Tony Tan at the farewell ceremony at the Istana, on Aug 31, 2017.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - In his six years as President, Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam was a "prudent and conscientious custodian" who made sure that Singapore's past reserves were well guarded and its key public offices held only by suitable and qualified people.

This was made possible by the warm ties between the country's head of state and its Government, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday (Aug 31) night.

"We were able to operate these presidential safeguards effectively and smoothly, because your office and the Government have had a close and constructive working relationship, based on mutual trust and respect," he said at a farewell reception at the Istana for Singapore's seventh President.

PM Lee gave a glimpse of his working relationship with Dr Tan, recounting fondly their regular meetings, often over lunch.

He would update Dr Tan on significant developments and plans, and discuss with him a range of issues, from impending appointments and financial outlook to matters beyond the custodial responsibilities of the President.

"These informal interactions helped us to understand each other's thinking, and enabled the formal mechanisms of the elected Presidency to function properly," said Mr Lee.

He recalled that when the Government sought the President's consent last year on the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high speed rail project, Dr Tan studied the issue carefully, and gave his thoughts from the perspective of safeguarding the country's reserves.

 
 
 

"Happily, we were able to take your views fully into account in the final agreement, which we signed with your concurrence," said Mr Lee.

The Government had also discussed with Dr Tan and his Council of Presidential Advisers how the Government could fund in the next two decades major infrastructure projects, such as the Changi Airport Terminal 5 and the Cross Island MRT line.

"No funding decisions need to be made yet. But these are huge long-term investments," said Mr Lee. "They will take many years to complete, and their benefits will be felt over many decades. It is therefore necessary to begin thinking about possible funding approaches early."

Dr Tan, who was a Deputy Prime Minister and a deputy chairman of sovereign wealth fund GIC, gave the Government his input. PM Lee said: "Your views will be valuable as we continue to study this issue with your successor."

Dr Tan, who spoke in response, said he was committed to the understanding that our Singapore's president is not a centre of political power.

"But the President can be a resource. And our President must be a symbol," he said, adding he was glad his experience had been a resource to the Government.

PM Lee also noted that during Dr Tan's term, significant changes were made to the elected presidency to strengthen the 26-year-old scheme and keep it up to date. The amendments were the prerogative of Government and Parliament, said Mr Lee, but Dr Tan's views were sought as well.

With the new arrangements, the presidential election next month will be reserved for Malay candidates. " If all goes well, Singapore will have a Malay President, whom all Singaporeans, regardless of race or religion, will look up to with pride, as representing them and the nation," said Mr Lee.

"A President who will bring as much honour and distinction to the Office as you and your predecessors have."