24 August 2011

How Important are Tony Tan's Background, Experience and Knowledge?

There is no need for Singaporeans to fear the future with the right leadership, said presidential candidate Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam.

Is Dr Tan saying that the People's Action Party government formed after the May general election does not constitute the right leadership for Singapore unless and until he is elected as president to complement the government?

In his presidential campaign, Dr Tan repeatedly stressed that his background, experience and intimate knowledge of the financial markets and the global economy will be invaluable.  The possibility (according to him) of a perfect storm of problems affecting the global economy makes it highly likely (according to him) that the next president will be involved in decisions about Singapore's economic future and in this regard, he will be able to contribute and help the government and the ministers to understand the situation better.  Moreover, he knows all the cabinet ministers very well.

Our government — any government, for that matter — would be foolish to dismiss any views and suggestions from anyone, especially if he has the relevant background, experience and knowledge.  Whether or not such person is the president or is known to the cabinet ministers or the government is irrelevant and unimportant.

Apart from dispensing advice — and a person does not have to be the president to dispense advice — the president is involved, in his official capacity, in policies and decisions affecting the economy only by way of exercising his discretion in respect of spending of past reserves and key public sector appointments which have been approved by parliament and the government, respectively; and if he exercises his discretion contrary to the advice of the Council of Presidential Advisers, parliament may overrule him with a two-thirds majority vote.  Since People's Action Party has 81 out of 87 parliamentary seats, the government has more than enough votes to overrule the president should it be necessary.  Furthermore, inasmuch as neither the president nor the Council can initiate any policy, the president's concurrence with the Council really matters only when he vetoes any proposal by the government.

In light of the limited executive powers of the president, Dr Tan's background, experience and knowledge of the financial markets and the global economy will be wasted in that position.  It's a pity.   Dr Tan Cheng Bock, another presidential candidate, believes that Dr Tony Tan would be more suited to be back in Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, where he was deputy chairman and executive director before announcing his candidacy.  Alternatively, he could have considered asking to return to the cabinet where he could have played a more active role in government or joining some other organisation.

With his background and experience, Dr Tony Tan believes that he has the responsibility to warn the leaders of other countries — the US, China, India and Indonesia, for example — that any potential economic crisis would affect all the countries.  When asked what they (as president) would say to such leaders when they visit Singapore, the other three presidential candidates rightly replied that they would consult the prime minister or the minister for foreign affairs.

Relations between Singapore and other countries, and between the president and the leaders of other countries, are a matter of government policy.  The president has no right, power or privilege in this area — he must act strictly in accordance with the advice of the cabinet in the exercise of his functions under the Constitution or any other written law.

The president must work within the perimeters of the Constitution.  Candidates must run for the presidential post that exists today, not the post they might like to have, regardless of their background, experience and knowledge.

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