21 August 2011

Who is Most Likely to be an Independent President?

Whom would you vote for in the Presidential Election this Saturday?

If the election is for a President to perform the ceremonial functions of a head-of-state, we may choose Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam.  He was a former Deputy Prime Minister and, following his retirement from politics, deputy chairman and executive director of Government of Singapore Investment Corporation.

But the post of President was changed from one appointed by Parliament to one elected by the people in 1993 for one reason.  The Constitution gives the President veto powers in the following five areas — spending of past reserves; key public sector appointments; detentions without trial; corruption investigations; and restraining orders to maintain religious harmony.

In two areas, the President must consult the Council of Presidential Advisers, and his veto may be overruled by Parliament.  In the remaining three areas, the President may exercise his discretion only by concurring with an official view against the Government.  The scope and limits of the President's veto have been dealt with in an earlier post [link].

Even so, will a President who has been very closely connected with the People's Action Party Government for years, if not decades, be an effective President when it comes to exercising his veto powers?

Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam was a former Deputy Prime Minister, a Cabinet Minister for more than 20 years, and Chairman of People's Action Party Central Executive Committee as recently as December 2006.  After he retired from politics in 2006, he was appointed deputy chairman and executive director of Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, a post he held until June 2011 (former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was its chairman until May 2011).  He resigned from People's Action Party in or around June 2011.

Dr Tan Cheng Bock was a member of People's Action Party Central Executive Committee from 1987 to 1996 and a member of Parliament from 1980 to 2006, following which he retired from politics.  He resigned from People's Action Party in May 2011.

Mr Tan Kin Lian was previously CEO of NTUC Income.  He was a member of People's Action Party and resigned from the party in 2007.  He did not hold any political office as he declined to stand in the 1979 or 1985 general election.

Mr Tan Jee Say was a member of Singapore Democratic Party for a few months this year, and contested the 2011 general election as one of its candidates.  He left the Administrative Service in 1990.

In general, it is difficult to expect anyone who has worked and was identified closely with the People's Action Party to think and act independently of the party.  This is evident in the party lines generally uttered by Dr Tony Tan and Dr Tan Cheng Bock during The Online Citizen’s Face to Face 2, a studio discussion involving the four above-mentioned Presidential candidates.  Most people would be forgiven for thinking that Dr Tony Tan is still Deputy Prime Minister.

That is not to say that an individual, once elected as President, will not recognise that he has to put the interests of the country and the citizens first, and to that end, be independent of the People's Action Party and the Government and exercise his veto powers should the occasion or occasions arise.  President Ong Teng Cheong has been cited as an example, demonstrating his independence of People's Action Party even though he was previously Deputy Prime Minister.  But not everyone is or can be like President Ong.  Few individuals can really break free from something that has been a major part of their lives, and to which they have had strong emotional ties, for decades.

Whoever is elected as President must think and act independently, and show that he thinks and acts independently.

Whom among the four Presidential candidates do you think is most likely to be such a President?  It is a very important decision.

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