I: Our President, the subaltern
A ridiculous amount of resources is being wasted by the Presidential Election because the eligibility criteria are flawed. By simply adding selective mutism to the list of conditions that a potential candidate must fulfill before being awarded the COE, lots of problems can be solved. Or so I think after reading a stealthily satirical CNA report, which starts with a marvelous sentence:
Singapore’s Law Minister K Shanmugam said Singapore would need to change the Constitution to allow the President to speak whenever he likes and on whatever topic he likes.
So the President cannot speak on whatever topic he likes. I wonder if that means he cannot say “I love Singapore” on National Day unless he has the permission to. He cannot even speak whenever he wants, so I suppose he would have to ask for permission before speaking. But since asking for permission is another kind of speech, I would suppose that he cannot ask for permission either, so he cannot speak unless he is instructed to. Head of state, bottom of pecking order: Singapore’s most ingenious innovation to date. No doubt, it may more interesting. When the President is allowed to speak, he may not always be told what to say. This potentially leads to awkward situations that require labored clarifications in places like the Ministry of Finance website years down the road.
Of course, we may also have the Law Minister, Shanmugam, clarifying his clarifications about the very clearly stated role of the president for the xth time (x because Molly is unable to count beyond the number of perfectly manicured claws she has in one paw). His imperative:
You speak as a voice of the government, whichever government is in power and you represent the State. If you get engaged in politics as a combatant, the institution is demeaned.
I am not sure if the Constitution allows the President to demean the Presidency, but based on my limited feline cognition, what this means is that Singapore might as well not have a President, or at least there seems to be no purpose in having a Presidential Election. Letting the government in power, i.e. the Eternal Ruling Party (ERP) of Singapore, choose one of its members—or ex-members—as President will more than suffice. It will eliminate any possibility of the institution being demeaned in the eyes of Shanmugam and his colleagues. Furthermore, we will be able to avoid the embarrassing situation of a President being unable to get used to a new government if the President changes with the party in power (which, admittedly, never ever changes in the context of Singapore). In the case of a coalition government, we simply need to tap into the schizo-talents from the IMH. (See, Molly offers very constructive and pragmatic suggestions to solve problems. Don’t say that she belongs to some cowgirl town that spreads ridiculous untruths.)
While you may argue that the creation of a political position consigned to muteness is in itself demeaning, or that the way the ruling party seems to be allowed to endorse a candidate (or even persuade someone to become a candidate) demeans the institution by generating doubts regarding the President’s independence. You may even say that a democratic political system is already demeaned with the GRC system and perfectly legitimate defamation suits, you . . . shouldn’t. Just don’t. 60.1% of Singaporeans have voted for the PAP in 2011, so Singapore has democratically opted for non-democracy that nevertheless has the audacity to describe itself as democratic as and when it feels like it—and condemn democracy as and when it feels like it.
But, well, in this day and age, you can say whatever you want. And you can assume you are right if no professional corrects you. I learn this valuable fact from Shanmugam who tells us:
Rather than being a politician in the matter, if you look at it as a lawyer there can be no doubt [about the role of the President]. And I haven’t seen any lawyer come and say what I am saying is incorrect.
Maybe I should now declare that the Constitution requires all ministers guilty of logical fallacies to volunteer themselves for euthanasia. If no lawyer corrects me, I must be right. I hope no lawyer cruelly steps in to smash my wonderful reverie.
And I hope no one finds anything grisly outside the Istana. Or inside. Singaporeans have been finding grisly stuff everywhere these days.
II: Shanmugam helping the anti-Tony cause
What Shanmugam is essentially telling us, after making so much noise, is: I’m just saying what the constitution is saying and since I’m saying what the constitution is saying, I am right.
Only he forgets that every paraphrase involves an interpretation.
Not many will disagree with the claims that the President’s powers are limited and that he only has specific powers in five areas (detentions without trial, national reserves, key appointments like Chief Justice, Judges and Attorney General). But I would like a lawyer, other than Shanmugam, to tell me that the President has no right to speak on other issues despite not having the power to influence these issues. Speaking is not a power. It is a right and since the President does not belong to any political party, no party whip applies. If a journalist asks the President for his stand on an issue such as the death penalty, is he allowed to answer? More specifically, is he allowed to answer the journalist if his answer happens to challenge the status quo though he clearly does not have any power to abolish the death penalty?
But that is a purely hypothetical scenario. Perhaps what people may be more concerned about are what they perceive to be the stakes for the ruling party if we have a President who is not favoured by the ruling party. What people may be interesting in could be precisely the areas where the President has certain powers, no matter how limited they are and regardless of any clauses that may allow his power to be bypassed. We understand from Shanmugam’s clarifications that the President may speak on areas where he has certain powers, so even when he fails to assert these powers, he is able to speak and push issues to the realm of public awareness. We know that the President has to consult the Council of Presidential Advisors (whoever these people are) before exercising the power to refuse to appoint someone as a key office holder. If the President merely questions in public the appointment of judges, for instance, without changing the appointment, could he be opening a can of worms at the expense of the government, but to the delight of the very hungry birds in cowboy towns.
With Shanmugam’s constant clarifications, we start to remember that the President has powers theoretically—or at least he is able to speak on certain issues, if not on any issue he likes. And since we can be sure that the Constitution clearly limits the President’s power, we need not worry that a President who is naturally not inclined to check the PAP will be able to do anything to disrupt its governance of Singapore. In other words, people may begin to feel that they can rest assured that even if the PAP’s least preferred candidate becomes the President, the negative consequences are very much contained (if there are any at all). On the other hand, that the PAP has a preferred candidate may cause suspicions (justified or not) that the candidate is not entirely independent even though theoretically the President is not supposed to be affiliated to any party. There is a strong impetus, as such, to vote for someone who is not seen as a PAP-selected candidate.
The fact that we have to make a choice and that the ruling party seems very concerned about the choice we make suggests the identity of the President does make a difference. The PAP tries to downplay this by explaining the difference as a matter of how far the President supplements the wisdom of the ruling party in policymaking. Lee Hsien Loong tells us that not every candidate is equally qualified, echoing Shanmugam’s claim that one President may have more influence over the Prime Minister than another. But if this is not where the difference lies, or if people believe that this is not where the difference lies, things become more interesting. Perhaps this explains why so many people do not like Tony Tan. 60.1% of the people may support the PAP in the General Election, but many of them may also believe that the President should ideally be as distanced from the PAP as possible.
Perhaps when the government came up with the idea of the Elected Presidency, they did not expect in their wildest dreams that there could actually be someone who meets all the eligibility criteria and yet is strongly critical of the system that has allowed them to succeed. Even the late Ong Teng Cheong, now best remembered for speaking up about the reserves, has never been too insensitive when criticizing the party to which he once belonged even though he had the moral courage to voice his concerns. On the other hand, in 2011, we have people who may pull no punches. And this could be the reason behind the endorsement of Tony Tan, which has been anything but subtle or discreet.
It is often assumed that PAP supporters will vote for Tony Tan. If we could just tap into their rationality and reconfigure the issue, people will see that the belief that the PAP is the best (or least bad) party to form the government should not change the principle that the President needs to be someone who is truly distanced from the ruling party. It is perfectly rational for even the most devout PAP supporter to not vote for Tony Tan. On the other hand, it is blind allegiance to support the PAP and thus support Tony Tan. Hopefully this is not a condition that afflicts many Singaporeans. After all, the PAP likes to tell us to be rational and pragmatic. So its most ardent supporters ought to be rational and pragmatic to be deserving fans.
A President who willingly refrains from speaking actually is speaking for the status quo and is as good as non-existent. A President who is gagged, on the other hand, may seem equally silent, but exists as a symbol of the people’s will, a constant reminder for the ruling party that Singaporeans are not always willing to go along with whatever it does.
Given how easily the Constitution can be changed, I actually wonder if 2011 could be the last time Singaporeans get to vote for a President. Or perhaps the Constitution can be changed such that only someone who has been a minister is eligible.