National referendums should be reserved for fundamental issues that concern a country's sovereignty, and not be held for people to vote on policy matters, said Minister of State for Communications and Information, and Education Janil Puthucheary yesterday.
Calling a referendum over such matters would amount to parliamentarians pushing to the people the responsibility for making laws for the country, he added. "That is the responsibility that we have been elected into this role for."
Dr Janil was responding to the Workers' Party's (WP) call for a national referendum for Singaporeans to choose what form the presidency should take.
The opposition party had proposed that the president be appointed, and his current custodial powers be vested in an elected senate, essentially a separate legislative chamber.
WP MPs who spoke said this option should be put to a national vote alongside the current elected presidency.
The proposal drew responses from over a dozen People's Action Party (PAP) MPs, with Dr Janil reminding the House that there has been only one referendum in Singapore's history - in 1962, when people voted on whether the country should merge with Malaysia - as there was "an extraordinarily high bar" to cross.
The issues put to such a vote are often "urgent, pressing and simple" ones that can be crystalised into a simple choice for voters, he said, adding that the elected presidency, in contrast, was complex and "doesn't need to happen today".
He also questioned the timing of the WP's proposal, pointing out that the party had not worked out the details of implementing it and also did not submit its ideas for scrutiny or debate by the Constitutional Commission and the public.
"You've kept silent, you've kept quiet, you kept your cards in reserve, you played politics with this issue, which I don't blame you for. You are politicians, we are politicians, but that's not how we take an issue like this forward," he said.
Those who spoke yesterday also grilled the WP on how its proposal would work, asking for details on how the election would be held and what kind of criteria would be imposed on candidates.
The WP proposed an eight-member senate, which would be popularly elected.
Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) said a senate elections committee would put forth a slate of 16 candidates up for elections, and the top eight candidates with the most votes would win.
But Dr Janil said such a system would be more "exclusionary" than the one being proposed by the Government because the committee would have to arbitrarily limit the number of candidates who could run during an election.
"Where is the transparency there? It is going to be arbitrary for a non-elected body to then decide who will be elected in. It is not the public," he said.
Mr Edwin Tong (Marine Parade GRC) said holding separate elections for a senate would be "far more political and politicising than the current model". He also suggested the WP wanted to "have a platform to politicise issues" .
Ultimately, he said, the issue of having an elected president was settled over 25 years ago - it was one of the key platforms that the PAP Government campaigned on in the 1988 General Election and Singaporeans supported it.
Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) said a president's moral authority can be earned only by being elected by the people - and not appointed - as head of state.
The WP's continued objections to it may betray more sinister intentions, Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) suggested, saying: "Who can object to a president who wants to prevent a populist run down of reserves - Who will do this, except for the people who have plans to run this down?
"This may seem to be a hypothetical parlour game but I assure you, for shareholders of any company whose reserves in their company or for residents whose reserves in their town councils have been run down, this is not."
Dr Janil said the reality is that Singaporeans want to vote for the president. "The vast majority of all our constituents, whether they voted for WP or any other opposition candidate, they voted in the presidential election. They may have supported different candidates, but they expressed a democratic voice. They support the idea of an elected presidency and they will not accept having that democratic voice removed," he said.
He urged the WP to demonstrate its support for the people's will and to adapt to "reality" by supporting the Bill. "This debate will become part of our historical record. Imagine how the record might demonstrate that, in this House, we might have had a real engagement of ideas where people are open to what is being said and not just who is saying it... demonstrate in your actions tomorrow by voting for the Bill to strengthen our system and our country," he said.