Law Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday called the Workers' Party (WP) proposal for an elected senate to safeguard the nation's reserves instead of an elected president "fundamentally flawed - in substance, and in terms of the process".
He rejected the substance of WP MPs' objections to an elected presidency. The WP had said the system was elitist, narrowed the field to a small pool of pro-establishment candidates, and could be politicised.
Instead, he said the WP's proposal to elect eight individuals to a senate would aggravate instead of ameliorate what it deems as problems in the elected presidency scheme.
Mr Shanmugam noted that WP MPs on Tuesday said that senators would need to have the same qualifications as an elected president.
"Instead of one elected president, we will have eight elected presidents. How does this deal with the objection of elitism?" he asked.
On risk of politicisation
Several Workers' Party (WP) MPs questioned Law Minister K. Shanmugam after he spoke about flaws in the WP's proposal for a non-partisan elected senate that would have custodial powers, while the president is appointed by Parliament.
Here are edited excerpts of his exchange with Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera and Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC).
Mr Perera: (On) politicisation, how would we avoid the senate being politicised, and that has been bandied about a great deal... That same risk of politicisation is what the elected presidency is now vulnerable to. How do you manage that? No one from the other side of the House has given a definitive and convincing answer to this point.
Mr Shanmugam: As regards politicisation... we understand and accept that there is a risk. The Prime Minister talked about it, others have talked about it, there is a risk. We have always acknowledged the risk, we don't run away from the problem... Until and unless someone can suggest a better system, our assessment is: This is a risk worth taking and as our experience shows, if you elect good people, good presidents, the risk is well manageable.
Mr Faisal: Does the minister agree that the Constitutional Commission is taking a more prudent approach in dealing with the inherent tension by asking to do away with the elected presidency?
Mr Shanmugam: One doesn't have to characterise the Constitutional Commission's proposals. What I will say is, the Constitutional Commission gave many important recommendations which were directly relevant to the questions that were asked. In addition, it added an observation for the Government to consider if it wished and if it wanted to accept. That's what the commission said and I think we'll keep to the commission's words.
He also described as cynical the WP's view that "the whole exercise is to fix a non-People's Action Party (PAP) government", asking if its proposal would make this "eight times worse" as the senators would be drawn from the same pool.
Such a view also assumes the elected president would act in a dishonourable fashion to stymie a non-PAP government, a suggestion he called "unworthy" given the character of all the presidents who have held the custodial powers so far. He noted Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) and Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) made tributes to the late Mr S R Nathan after his death in August and said he served with distinction.
And having eight senators would build in politicisation throughout their term, as they would want to be re-elected and will have to constantly compete with each other, he said.
He asked: "Would this not considerably increase the risk of politicisation and gridlock, and a possible constitutional crisis?"
Mr Shanmugam also found the WP's process for its suggestion "deeply flawed", saying it was clear the proposal had not been thoroughly considered and did not stand up to scrutiny during the debate.
He cited questions WP MPs could not give clear answers on, such as whether senate candidates would campaign in teams or as individuals, how they would be selected, and how the senate would work.
"They are supposed to be independent. How do you form workable teams to compete against each other? Even worse, if the proposal is for them to run as independent, how can they work together as a team after that?" he asked.
When a scenario of a four-four split in a senate vote was raised, Mr Singh first said a casting vote could be used to break the deadlock, then later said there could be nine senators.
"It would have been comical, had we not been discussing such a serious matter," Mr Shanmugam said.
He also said the WP's proposal to select only 16 candidates for senate elections even if more qualified was an "extraordinary suggestion" that raises the issue of fairness.
On the eligibility criteria for senate candidates, Mr Shanmugam noted WP MPs seemed to suggest varying standards as their proposal was being questioned before settling on the same criteria as that of presidential candidates: "So this is clearly policy made on the fly in Parliament."
The WP was also not forthcoming about when the idea of the senate came about, he said.
"These are new ideas thought about in the last three months. Why not be just upfront and admit it?" he said, adding: "This proposal is like a home built with sand: One touch and it crumbles."
Mr Shanmugam noted the WP had on Tuesday mentioned its track record included running town councils. "If I were the WP, I would run away from talking about track records in town councils," he said.
He also took aim at Ms Lim's having said government leaders had been kept awake by the closely contested 2011 presidential election.
"Let me assure Ms Lim - ministers don't get sleepless nights, except when we are worried about Singapore and its future. The people who should be losing sleep are those who are accused of criminal impropriety," he said.