15 August 2011

Scope and Limits of Powers of the Elected President

What are the scope and the limits of the powers of Singapore's elected President?

Public acts and speeches of the President

Except as provided by the Constitution, the President must act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or of a Minister acting under the general authority of the Cabinet in the exercise of his functions under the Constitution or any other written law.

Stated another way: in the discharge of his Constitutional functions, the President can only act and speak as advised by the Cabinet.

But, what about other public acts and public speech of the President that are not related to the exercise of his Constitutional functions — does the President need the advice of the Cabinet?

Does the President have less freedom of action and speech than an ordinary citizen?


It may be a moot point, however.  It is difficult to imagine the President going on stage at an event e.g., the President's Star Charity, and saying that the Government is not doing enough for the disadvantaged.  It is difficult to imagine any organisation inviting the President to speak on any subject.

The President's veto powers

The Constitution gives the President veto powers in the following areas — spending of past reserves; key public sector appointments; detentions without trial; corruption investigations; and restraining orders to maintain religious harmony.

The President may exercise his discretion in the above-mentioned five areas.  However, he must consult the Council of Presidential Advisers before performing his functions in two of these areas — spending of past reserves and key public sector appointments.

(The Council of Presidential Advisers comprises six members appointed by the President — two are appointed at his discretion; two are on the advice of the Prime Minister; and one each is on the advice of the Chief Justice and the Chairman of the Public Service Commission.  The President may appoint two alternate members — one at his discretion and the other on the advice of the Prime Minister after consulting the Chief Justice and the Chairman of the Public Service Commission.  The chairman is appointed by the President at his discretion.)

If contrary to the recommendation of the Council of Presidential Advisers, the President does not give his assent to any supply bill, or any supplementary or final supply bill that, in his opinion, is likely to lead to a drawing on past reserves, Parliament may overrule him with a two-thirds majority vote.

If contrary to the recommendation of the Council of Presidential Advisers, the President refuses to make or revoke any key public sector appointments, Parliament may overrule him with a two-thirds majority vote.

The President may, at his discretion, withhold his assent to any Bill which provides for varying, changing or increasing the powers of Central Provident Fund Board to invest Central Provident Fund moneys.

No person may be detained or further detained without the concurrence of the President if the recommendations of the advisory board are not accepted by the authority on whose advice or order the person is detained.

The President may, at his discretion, concur with the Director of Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau to make any inquiries or to carry out any investigations, notwithstanding any refusal by the Prime Minister.

The President may, at his discretion, cancel, vary, confirm or refuse to confirm a restraining order made under the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act if the advice of the Cabinet is contrary to the recommendation of the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony.

The President may, acting in his discretion, withhold his assent to any Bill (other than a Bill seeking to amend the Constitution), if it provides for the circumvention or curtailment of the discretionary powers conferred upon the President by the Constitution.  The President, acting in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet, may refer the matter to a tribunal for its opinion and if the tribunal is of the opinion that the Bill does not provide for any such circumvention or curtailment, the President will be deemed to have assented to the Bill.

The veto powers of the President seem rather limited.

Influence of the President

In the exercise of his functions under the Constitution, the President is entitled to request any information concerning the Government which is available to the Cabinet and any statutory board or Government company, which is available to the members of the statutory board or the directors of the Government company.

The President meets the Prime Minister regularly, when he is entitled to discuss a wide range of issues.  Details of such discussions may not be publicly disclosed.

Whilst the President should not be an idiot — and Singaporeans must be greater idiots to elect an idiot to hold the office as the President — his experience, expertise and wisdom are not critical because he is only one individual.  There are many other people who are equally if not more knowledgeable and experienced in their respective fields.  If any person believes that his experience, expertise and wisdom are invaluable to the country especially in uncertain economic times, it may be better if he serves the country in other capacities e.g., in the Cabinet, the board of Monetary Authority of Singapore etc.  In any case, it is unrealistic to believe that the country or any other country is never in uncertain economic times.

The Prime Minister has the sole discretion and prerogative whether or not to take any advice or recommendation of the President, or anyone else.

Removal of the President

Parliament seek an inquiry into whether the President has been guilty of intentional violation of the Constitution, treason, misconduct or corruption involving the abuse of the powers of his office, or any offence involving fraud, dishonesty or moral turpitude.  If a tribunal comprising at least five Supreme Court Judges finds the President guilty, Parliament may remove him from office with a three-quarters majority vote.

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