What's missing in the debate on elected presidency

Mr Chua Kim Yeow speaks to the media after his defeat to Mr Ong Teng Cheong in Singapore's first presidential election on Aug 28, 1993. PHOTO: ST FILE

When the first presidential election was held in 1993, I received an unexpected request to interview one of the candidates.

The invitation came out of the blue as, until then, former accountant-general Chua Kim Yeow had not met a single journalist nor campaigned in any form.

He was a reluctant candidate, thrust by others into the public limelight he neither sought nor was comfortable in.

The word was that his powerful friends believed Singapore's first elected president (EP) election, held after the Government changed the highest office of the land from an appointed to an elected position, shouldn't go uncontested.

It wouldn't do, in their view, to have the other candidate, former deputy prime minister Ong Teng Cheong, enter the Istana through a walkover.

How can the president be called elected if there wasn't an election?

So, the interview was arranged, much to Mr Chua's discomfort, and at the appointed time, I called on him at his home.

Mr Chua Kim Yeow speaks to the media after his defeat to Mr Ong Teng Cheong in Singapore's first presidential election on Aug 28, 1993. PHOTO: ST FILE

I was the only journalist invited.

I can still remember much of what he said then - 23 years later - because he didn't say much.

You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink - that was how it felt as I tried to make him say more. Mr Chua kept largely to his script, repeating the line that he had offered himself because he had been persuaded that a contest was good for Singapore.

In the event, he obtained 41 per cent of the votes - not a bad showing for an almost no-show.

But Singaporeans got to vote and a precedent was set.

It was part of the learning process the country was going through to get to grips with the new constitutional arrangement of having an elected president with custodial powers over the country's financial reserves and key appointments in the public service.

It was recognised then that it would take time for the President and the Government to work the new relationship, and that as they did so, they would deepen understanding of the office and the way it functions.

Indeed the country owes much to the first EP, Mr Ong, who raised many issues in his first term, some of which resulted in his clashing with the Government.

But the outcome was greater clarity over his role and especially his working relationship with the Government.

Mr Ong even took the unprecedented step of challenging the Government in court over its powers to introduce laws that circumvented or curtailed the President's discretionary powers.

The special tribunal of three judges ruled in the Government's favour, that the President could not veto such laws.

Another precedent was set.

Mr Ong's greatest contribution was to demonstrate what it took to play the role and what qualities mattered most.

To its credit, the Government recognised this, despite the differences it had with him.

This was what then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said in Parliament of Mr Ong, during the debate over those disagreements in 1999: "When President Ong stood for election to be president, some doubted whether a former senior Cabinet minister and PAP leader could exercise independent judgment or make decisions against the Government in his new role. But friendships and past associations have not affected President Ong's independence of judgment in the two areas where he has custodial powers.

"President Ong has shown what the Government expected all along: that when an honourable man assumes this constitutional position, he has to exercise the powers of that institution without fear or favour."

I am relating all this to make the point that the EP office isn't shaped by just a set of constitutional laws governing his role. The legal framework is obviously important but it is not the whole story.

Equally critical is how succeeding presidents work the office and how, in their day-to-day dealings with the Government, they establish a convention undergirding the relationship.

As they shape the office through the work they do as President - always keeping to their Constitutional role - they breathe life and meaning into it.

This is especially important when the issue is about developing a working relationship with the executive - a key matter in the ongoing debate about the powers of the EP. The relationship cannot be guided only by law but has to be established through precedent and convention.

The experiences of past presidents doing so, what issues matter most, how they deal with them, what qualities are called for - these would add greatly to the debate on the proposed changes to the EP. That's what has been missing in the discussion so far, which has been mainly over theoretical arguments, and which seems to have hit an impasse.

At times it appears as if everyone is debating the issues from first principles, forgetting the 23 years of experience, with three EPs including the current one.

Critics and supporters of the changes proposed by the Constitutional Commission, which have been largely accepted by the Government save for a few modifications, have had their say.

But I doubt there has been much movement in position on either side. Those with misgivings question whether an election reserved for a minority race will produce a president accepted and respected by all.

Others oppose the stricter eligibility requirements, arguing that they restrict the field too narrowly and that technical competence shouldn't take precedence over other qualities such as courage and strength of character.

A proportion of Singaporeans do not fall into either camp, and remain either not interested or not understanding the issues fully.

Where are the voices of those, apart from those in Government, who have had to deal with these very issues? Alas, none of the past presidents are alive.

But there is a group which is very much around and whose members have been actively involved in helping the EP fulfil his role - the six men who make up the Council of Presidential Advisers and several others who served in the past.

Among them, only Mr S. Dhanabalan has spoken, when he appeared before the commission.

I hope they will speak up at some point in the debate and share their experiences. It would be a precedent worth setting.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 09, 2016, with the headline What's missing in the debate on elected presidency. Subscribe