Parliament: Elected president is an important stabiliser in Singapore's system, PM Lee says

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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in Parliament that the next presidential election, due in 2017, will be reserved for candidates from the Malay community, under proposed changes to the elected presidency system.
The president's chair, flanked by the state flag and the presidential flag at the Istana. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - Singapore needs a stabiliser in its political system, and the elected presidency is the one that best suits its needs and circumstances, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Parliament on Tuesday (Nov 8).

On the second day of the debate on proposed changes to the elected presidency, he took a step back and reminded the House why the office first came into being, and the crucial role it continues to play today in Singapore's political system.

In a speech, PM Lee sought to convince Singaporeans of the need to review the office now while things are still functioning well.

PM Lee told the House that the office was first created as sound institutions were needed to safeguard Singapore's reserves from being squandered by a profligate government, and to uphold the impartiality of the civil service.

"For all its difficulties, I am convinced that the elected president has been a plus for our system. Having this stabiliser is critical, and has already made a difference," he said.

Over the past 25 years, even though the elected president has never had to veto any spending proposal by the Government, "by the very existence of his powers, he has influenced Singapore politics for the better".

This is because the prospect of a veto alone has lessened the temptation for political parties to promise the world to voters in general elections, said PM Lee.

A separate elected institution other than Parliament is needed to safeguard the reserves, he said, because the pressure on Parliament is to do more, rather than to spend less.

He said: "When has any political party or MP pressed in Parliament for the Government to spend less or to raise more taxes?"

"Furthermore, making everything depend on just one institution, Parliament, creates a single point of failure," he added.

Finding a middle way between instability and gridlock

PM Lee also said that the political system in Singapore strives to find the right balance between a decisive executive and adequate stabilisers.

Drawing on examples of political systems elsewhere, he said that at one extreme, without stabilisers, the system would be unstable.

But at the other extreme, if the stabilisers are too strong, "we risk gridlock, very difficult to get anything done".

Singapore began as a system very close to the first extreme, with a unicameral, single Parliament, but made a careful shift, said PM Lee.

He added: "We introduced this safeguard, the elected president, to protect reserves and appointments, and address specific vulnerabilities which we have in Singapore."

Why now?

PM Lee also set out why he thought the changes to the elected presidency are needed at this point in time, and why they are in Singapore's long-term interest.

Citing the more than 30 years he has spent working on matters related to the elected presidency, he said: "I think I can say that I know the system."

This experience ranged from helping develop the scheme in the 1980s when he was a young minister, which included helping to draft the Government's White Papers for the office in 1988 and 1990.

He also helped to refine and amend the scheme over the years, and after becoming prime minister in 2004, he worked closely with two elected presidents, Mr S R Nathan and Dr Tony Tan, and asked Mr Nathan for permission to draw on the reserves during the global financial crisis.

"These changes are my responsibility," said PM Lee. "I am doing it now because it would be irresponsible of me to kick this can down the road and leave the problem to my successors. They have not had this long experience with the system, and will find it much harder to deal with."

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