President Tony Tan: Elected president is symbol of national unity, must be able to work with Government

The elected president plays the key roles of being a symbol of national unity as well as a custodian of Singapore's treasured assets, said President Tony Tan Keng Yam on Monday (Nov 7). PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The elected president plays the key roles of being a symbol of national unity as well as a custodian of Singapore's treasured assets, said President Tony Tan Keng Yam on Monday (Nov 7) in his first public comments on the proposed changes to the office.

In doing so, the president must also able to work with the government of the day so that Singapore can function effectively,said Dr Tan.

The President's comments were read out in Parliament by Speaker Halimah Yacob at the beginning of a three-day debate on amendments to the Constitution following a landmark review of the 25-year-old elected presidency.

"The objectives of the review are clear - to ensure that the institution of the elected presidency stays relevant with time and our local context, and that the Singapore Constitution as a living document is aptly refreshed," he said.

"My five years as president have given me a personal perspective on the role of the elected presidency and how the elected president serves the nation and all Singaporeans. I have therefore agreed with the Prime Minister that I should send this message to Parliament to share my views on the proposals that are being debated," he added.

Drawing from his personal experience since being elected to the office in 2011, Dr Tan said that an important dimension of his role has been working with the different ethnic groups that make up Singapore's multiracial composition.

He noted that it was not a coincidence that Singapore's first four appointed presidents - Mr Yusof Ishak, Dr Benjamin Sheares, Mr Devan Nair and Dr Wee Kim Wee - represented, in turn, the Malay, Eurasian, Indian, and Chinese communities respectively.

"As the president remains a symbol of the nation's unity, it is important that the Office of the Presidency upholds multi-racialism, a core value of Singapore that underpins the social cohesion and harmony we have enjoyed thus far," he said.

While Singapore should aspire in the long run for minorities to be elected as president without the need for any intervention, "we also need to recognise the current realities", said Dr Tan, noting that all but one of the elected presidents since the scheme was introduced have been Chinese.

These realities are why he thought the proposed change to reserve a presidential election for a specific ethnic group if a member of that group has not been the president for five terms was a balanced approach.

He also highlighted the president's role as a custodian of Singapore's national reserves and of the integrity of its public service.

Because the president can disagree with the Government on these matters, he must be qualified to do so. This is why Dr Tan agreed with the move to update the criteria individuals need to meet to be able to run for the office.

"From my own experience, the scope and complexity of the presidential oversight on Singapore's key assets have increased significantly, even in the span of five years of my term," said Dr Tan.

He said that his finance background was useful in helping me understand the technicalities of the Government's proposals, but the decisions often also require good policy acumen and a sound judgment on what is right for Singapore," he added.

Dr Tan added he was of the view that the Government's acceptance of the commission's recommendations is in the right direction.

He also noted that there is a difference between the president acting as a custodian and the president acting in opposition to the Government.

He cautioned that the elected presidency cannot be a second centre of power, but must act in accordance with the roles prescribed in the Constitution, and not hold back the elected government of the day from performing its executive role.

Dr Tan also said: "We must rely upon the wisdom of our electorate to elect a president who is able to work with the Government of the day for the proper and effective governance of Singapore."

He added that as president, his working relationship with the Government had been harmonious.

"The Government keeps me informed of all its major decisions. On a regular basis, the Prime Minister and I meet over lunch and on other occasions, for him to brief me on his preoccupations and intentions, and to exchange views on the strategic direction in which Singapore is heading," said the President.

"Our relationship is built on mutual trust and respect. This, to me, is key to the effective functioning of our system," he added.

Dr Tan also noted that the president had previously been described in the House as a goalkeeper.

"Indeed, if he fails to do the job well, no matter how good our strikers are, more goals will be scored against us and Team Singapore will be set back," he added.

"We need a capable goalkeeper who works with the other players. Only then will Team Singapore continue to do well in the global league, against competitors who may be bigger, stronger and more intimidating."

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