Timely to take stock, after 25 years

Former senior minister S. Jayakumar.
Former senior minister S. Jayakumar.

Former senior minister S. Jayakumar was instrumental in drafting the legislation on the Elected President (EP) in the late 1990s when he was law minister. He tells The Sunday Times why he agrees with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that a review is timely.

Q Why the need to review the EP scheme now?

A I agree with the proposal to review the EP scheme, which has been around for 25 years.

I believe that all key institutions and systems need reviewing periodically. Otherwise, they atrophy when not attuned to today's situation.

A quarter of a century is a long time. The country's economy is now much bigger. The international political and economic system today is also much more complex, turbulent and volatile.

Let us not forget: The President has enormous responsibility in exercising his custodial powers. How, and when, can he say "no" to a serious proposal of the elected government?

He needs to be a person of considerable qualifications, skills and experience in order to discharge his role in a credible and responsible way.

We need to take stock and assess if the qualifications and criteria, and other aspects, need adjustment and refinement.

It is also important that candidates for the Elected President fully understand what they can and cannot do, if elected.

They must understand that the President is not a centre of power unto himself or that he has executive powers.

If an Elected President goes beyond his proper constitutional role, there can be an impasse, and a risk of a constitutional crisis. That will be bad for Singapore.

Q What do you think is important when reviewing the President's role?

A To the extent that we can, we should refine and calibrate the provisions, so that a right balance is struck between two aspects:

(a) The need for the elected government to be allowed to get on with its job of governing. The electorate has given it the mandate, and the President must not prevent it from doing so.

(b) The need for the government to respect the Presi-dent's exercise of his custodial role, as long as he acts within the Constitution.

Q What do you think of the call to strengthen the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA)?

A I support the idea of reviewing the role of the CPA.

The CPA can be a very useful source of experience and counsel for the President when he exercises his special powers.

We must remember this: The PM has all his Cabinet ministers, as well as others, to consult before he takes any decision on reserves or appointments. On the other hand, the President is alone. So I see the CPA as making the second key role more robust and institutionalised, ensuring the President has the best possible advice before he decides.

Q Should the President continue to be elected by the people?

A I am glad that it is intended to keep the requirement that the President must be elected. It cannot be otherwise, if he is to be credible in exercising his custodial powers.

I have said that "notwithstanding its imperfections and limitations, the EP is a desirable institutional check and balance in our system of government". (This was in Prof Jayakumar's book, Be At The Table Or Be On The Menu, published last year.)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline 'Timely to take stock, after 25 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe