WP calls for Elected Presidency to be abolished in submission to Constitutional Commission

Dr Tony Tan (centre) swearing in as Singapore’s seventh president and third elected president on 1 September 2011.
Dr Tony Tan (centre) swearing in as Singapore’s seventh president and third elected president on 1 September 2011. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The Workers' Party (WP) has reiterated its call for the office of the Elected President (EP) to be abolished.

It cited four reasons for its stance, in a submission made on Monday (March 21) to a Constitutional Commission formed to study the Elected Presidency and recommend how it can be updated. This was published on the party's website on Wednesday (March 23).

The Commission is currently reviewing submissions and will hold public hearings next month and in May.

The WP, in its submission, argued that the EP undermines parliamentary democracy; could potentially "cripple" a non-People's Action Party (PAP) government in its first term; and could be an unnecessary alternative power centre, thereby causing gridlock. It also added that Parliament is a sufficient safeguard when it comes to protecting the country's reserves.

In the submission, which was signed off by party chairman Sylvia Lim, the WP said that the current concerns about the EP "were, largely, the making of the government itself".

It added: "It is also ironic that the government has regularly eschewed political systems embroiled in gridlock, yet it is entrenching and exacerbating the potential for real gridlock through the office of the EP and the proposed Constitutional changes to the functioning of the office of the EP."

The Constitutional Commission, led by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, was appointed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in February to review aspects of the EP system that was instituted in 1991.

PM Lee said during the debate on the Presidential Address at the opening of Parliament that the President had to remain elected, but that certain aspects of the process had to be reviewed.

The growth in Singapore's reserves, of which the President is custodian, meant that individuals with character as well as competence are needed, he said. Yet another consideration was the need for candidates from minority races to get a chance to be elected from time to time.

The WP said its "strong objections" on the EP have remained unchanged since the 1980s, and that its main concerns over the system still remain relevant today.

Explaining how the EP undermined the parliamentary system, the WP said the government's power to govern comes from the popular mandate it receives at the general elections.

But the EP, with powers under the Constitution, "fetters the government in matters which may be critical to the government's effectiveness". These include making key civil service appointments and drawing on past reserves should the need arise.

It also said those who qualify to run for President come from an elite group, many of whom are "senior officials appointed under the PAP government". As such, if an opposition government is in power, the WP said the EP could block the appointments of personnel to key positions.

This would "cripple the new administration", it argued. "The EP derogates from and is a blot on Singapore's commitment to democracy".

It added that the Government's suggestion of expanding the powers of the Council of Presidential Advisors - comprising eminent Singaporeans - "may add another layer of gridlock".

The WP also said that the EP's significant veto powers could lead to the EP becoming an alternative power centre - especially when the EP and incumbent government do not "see eye to eye" with each other.

"The Prime Minister may end up becoming a lame duck, needing to cower to the EP to obtain 'co-operation' and prevent political impasse," the WP said.

And while the party said it agrees with the need to safeguard large reserves that have been built up in the past, it said that the EP is "not the right mechanism" to do so.

"Instead, WP is open to the idea of enacting additional Parliamentary mechanisms to safeguard the reserves", it said. This could include requiring a supermajority vote in Parliament before past reserves can be unlocked.

It also said that the Government's concerns over a lack of a minority President would be nullified "if Singapore were to revert to its former system of appointed, ceremonial Presidents".