So we have an Elected Presidency where there have only been two actual public elections across 5 presidential cycles and 25 years? It seems that the new President will not be popularly elected after all, as the other hopefuls did not meet the criteria. The many changes made to the elected Presidency last year has led to this outcome. In Parliament in Nov 2016, WP MPs had argued against a racially reserved Presidential election, against the more stringent criteria for deciding on eligibility, an elected Senate to exercise the custodial powers of the President and the Presidency reverting to an appointed office to serve as a unifying symbol for the nation, which the Constitutional Commission also recommended. I had the following exchange with SMS Janil Puthucheary on 8 Nov 2016 about the arguments for the two different approaches towards the Presidency. You can read this and judge for yourself.
Mr Leon Perera (Non-Constituency Member): I would like to thank the hon Member Dr Puthucheary for what was genuinely a very eloquent and very interesting speech. I would like to engage with some of his ideas.
Firstly, and most importantly, we have argued that subjecting the office of the Presidency to an election runs the risk that that election will inevitably become a proxy General Election, will become politicised. As a result of that process, the Elected President that emerges from there with a mandate that is less than 50% will be seen in a political light and will, therefore, have his or her ability to unify the entire country severely curtailed.
We have suggested returning to an appointed President that can rise above politics and to take the custodial power currently vested in the Elected President and to place it into an elected Senate. That would be the advantage of having a President like President Yusof Ishak who is seen as above politics.
So, my first clarification to you is what would be your strategy for ensuring that the Elected President, if we continue to elect presidents, is seen to be above politics. That is the first clarification.
The second one is that Dr Puthucheary pointed out that we are rushing to a new conclusion about the elected Senate. I would like to clarify that we were actually not arguing that Parliament should vote for an elected Senate during this debate. We are arguing that the country should go through a referendum on this issue. Why do you disagree that the country should go through a referendum on this issue? Your colleague Mr Edwin Tong said that it is because it is time-consuming, it is resource intensive, it is energy-sapping. Do you agree with that point of view? That is my second question.
My third question is a very simple one. You made a rather extraordinary statement that a President appointed by Parliament is an autocrat and that amounts to an autocracy. Do you believe President Yusof Ishak was an autocrat? Thank you, Sir.
Dr Janil Puthucheary: If I may begin with your last one, I did not imply that our President would be an autocrat. I suggested that the use of an appointed body in the process of the Senatorial Electoral Commission, a non-elected body, to then prevent people arbitrarily from standing for election on a moving target year-on-year ‒ because you have a different pool of candidates ‒ amounted to an autocracy, that you would not then expose the 17th and downstream candidates to the scrutiny of a vote and for the public to make their choice. So, that was your last question.
The first question was about politicisation and the second was the misuse of?
Mr Leon Perera: Can the President be a unifying figure, after being subject to an election that is vulnerable to the tinge of partisanship.
Dr Janil Puthucheary: Yes. And your second question is about the previous President as well?
Mr Leon Perera: The second question is why you oppose having a referendum.
Dr Janil Puthucheary: Yes. On the issue of a unifying figure, the Member is absolutely right that it is not easy to be a national unifying figure. But were not all our past Presidents national unifying figures, including those that had gone through an election? The issue be a unifying figure is not automatic to the process. It is something that you have to discharge in your duties. And that judgement as to whether someone can fulfil the role, is that not something that the public of Singapore are in a position to make a judgement about?
Secondly, if you have a concern about one election being politicised, how is your Senatorial election any less politicised? And in actual fact, because you have to put up a slate of 16 candidates, surely that opens up a can of works in terms of the opportunity for politicisation amongst those 16 candidates. Any one of the elected candidates, by definition, is going to have lesser of the vote share than any Elected Presidency who ‒ well, depending on how many Elected Presidents are under our current system ‒ but you will have one-eighth, right? Because your vote is divided across eight people. So, the issue now is, in your Option B, whether you see the Senatorial process as equivalent to what we have currently as the Elected Presidential process, and I am putting it to you that those eight people are equivalent to our single President now, for two major reasons.
The custodial powers that are currently vested in our President will be vested in them. Secondly, the criteria for becoming a Senator is as stringent ‒ but I would argue, even more stringent because of the exclusionary process that you have proposed.
Under the system currently we are proposing, there is no maximum limit on the number of people who can stand. But under your system, it is not that you have come down to 0.2%; you have come down to 16 individuals across the whole of Singapore. You cannot have a 17th person standing. So, the proposal you have would be more politicised than our current system. More politicised than our proposal. It will have an increasing dilution of the vote share and it would be increasingly exclusionary because fewer people would potentially be able to stand for elections.
So, I fail to see how you articulated that it is a better proposal than what we have currently or what we are proposing on the grounds of the concerns that you yourself have raised. That is my position. I hope I have explained everything.
On the issue of a referendum, history and the world around us have demonstrated that referendums need to be crystallised into simple issues. Pressing, urgent, simple issues. Is this pressing? Well, it does not need to happen today, it does not need to happen tomorrow. You could not justify that you have a referendum tomorrow, next week or next month. But the reality is that this is a complex issue. In this House, amongst us, we are debating the intricacies of how that Senatorial Electoral process would occur. How do you convey that on ballot box? How do you convey exactly how you operationalise one complex system versus another complex system? Fundamentally, this is exactly what happened Brexit where two very complex proposals were reduced to a referendum. And, as has been admitted repeatedly, many people who voted had no idea what they were voting for.
There is another proxy for a referendum. It is called the general election. That had been done before where the PAP Government put up its manifesto proposals for the Elected Presidency as part of the electoral process. If you wanted a referendum by proxy, it would be very simple for the Workers’ Party to then stand in the next General Election and articulate every single point of how they would operationalise a non-Elected Presidency and set up a Senatorial body as part of their electoral manifesto. And that would be a referendum if the Workers’ Party became the government and the PAP Government did not.
But I return the question to you. If you feel that a referendum is important and people have exercised their choice, then do you not respect the choice that people made in the previous time when they did so, where they chose the PAP Government that stood on a platform of Elected Presidency? That was the choice of the people.
So, I return to the idea. The idea of an Elected Presidency has been settled. What we need to do is to debate and take it forward. Taking it forward is: how do we operationalise the Elected Presidency?
Mr Leon Perera: Firstly, on the point of a general election as a substitute for a referendum, I would point out to the hon Member that this issue has never been straightforwardly put as a referendum.
There is no simple equation between a general election and a referendum on the issue of the Elected Presidency. There are many other factors that come into consideration in a general election. Voting a particular party in a general election does not equate with consenting to the EP. That has never been put to the electorate, that specific issue on whether the Presidency should be appointed or elected.
The hon Member said that we are not pressed on this issue. If we are not pressed on this issue, why are we passing this Bill now? You talked about general elections. This proposal of making these changes to the EP was not put to the Singapore electorate in GE2015. They cannot be said to have consented in GE2015 to these proposals.
Because you are suggesting that a GE kind of equates to a referendum but the people did not know about these proposals in GE2015. And you said that it is not pressing, why not wait? If it is not pressing, why not go through a process that has a referendum at the end of it. That will be my first point.
The second point, the more important point, I think, is that I do not believe you have fundamentally addressed the issue of the risk to the Presidency of a polarising direct election. I think many figures in the Government have talked about the risk in the context of EP2011, which did become in some ways a proxy general election. It became politicised. Our proposal actually saves the Presidency from the risk of this kind of politicisation.
You mentioned that the previous Elected Presidents were able to unify the country but that does not necessarily prove the case. That may have been the case in the past, perhaps. It may not continue to be the case in the future as Presidential Elections get more and more polarised.
So, our solution is actually so elegant and has such a powerful advantage of preserving the President as a symbol of unity, the unity of the country above politics. It is so advantageous in that sense that none less than the Constitutional Commission actually proposed it in its report. I do not think you have fully addressed that merit of our proposal. In the same vein that you invited us to vote for the Bill, I urge you to consider voting against this Bill just on that ground alone. It is a hugely important point.
The third point I will make is, you mentioned the potential for politicisation of the Senate election. I think this is a red herring. The custodial power, what we are proposing, is moved to a Senate; that is true. So, the risk of politicisation of that Senatorial Election is there, just as the risk of politicisation of the PE is there. But the benefit is that the Presidency in our proposal which is appointed no more suffers from the risk of politicisation. It can become more of a unifying figure.
Dr Janil Puthucheary: Mr Deputy Speaker, I would suggest that the possibility of politicisation of the Senatorial race is not a red herring. Actually, that is the key. There is absolutely no reason not to politicise this. You have every reason to politicise this. If you believe that the Presidential race can be politicised, and now you have the opportunity to insert eight candidates into part of your political system, why is this any difference? So, I think to brush aside the concern of possible politicisation of the Senatorial race and yet say it is still valid for the Presidential race, you are not making a logical argument there. If it is possible for the Presidency race to be politicised, it is just as possible, if not more so for that politicisation to apply to the Senatorial race.
The Workers’ Party did not put this proposal on their 2015 General Elections manifesto either. I am not suggesting that it was in 2015 where this was part of the public consciousness. This was settled long before I came on the scene, but the issue before us is not about whether we have the Elected Presidency. It is not of that nature. We have had one referendum: should we merge with Malaysia?
A referendum should be reserved for fundamental issues of sovereignty, of the kind of the nation that we want to be. This is a Bill before the House to strengthen our political, democratic and constitutional processes. It is complex.
You heard Deputy Prime Minister’s speech yesterday. How many Articles and issues and all the various clauses? You hear the confusion in this House today. How is this going to be reduced to a “yes”, “no” referendum? So, the issue of whether referendum exists or do not exist, they exist as part of the system. There is an extraordinarily high bar set for the types of things that you put forward as a referendum to the public. That bar should be high. But it exists and the option is there.
Below that bar, we are elected into this role to serve the public and not return to them the responsibility for making laws for this country, for strengthening our democracy and for strengthening our processes. That is the responsibility that we have been elected into this role for. And so, therefore, a general election becomes a proxy for the voice of the Singapore.
They have appointed us as lawmakers. Now, we do not take that absolute approach and in between a proposal or a discussion, we have an extended period of public scrutiny and public session, which is exactly what we have done – nearly a year of public hearings, a Constitutional Commission, debate in print, debate in person, engagements. We have not rushed this.
And I contrast that again with your proposal which you have come here to the House. The details have not worked out. Fundamental details of whether this will actually in any way address your concerns have not been worked out. What you are asking to do is to immediately go out and put it to a referendum. How can that be seen as responsible politics?
You have not submitted this to the Constitutional Commission where you would have had independent legal experts and all the various minds that applied themselves to this series of problems that you have highlighted examined your proposals. You have not had your proposals out there in the public for debate by a variety of commentators – from the lay public to renowned experts and academicians.
All of which has happened. We have had an extensive public debate and then we have capped that off with a debate in the House. This is meant to be the final lap of an extensive consultative process, an extensive engagement process and at the eleventh hour, you throw this in here and you expect that it is done seriously and taken seriously by the Members of this House and the public which would be fine if you had done the homework.
Frankly speaking, if you understood how the CPA works currently and what the actual proposals that have been in print under the White Paper for a good long period of time and then debated those and what you think those changes are, we can take that forward but you have not done so. You kept silent; you kept quiet; you kept your cards in reserve. You play politics with this issue which I do not blame you for. You are politicians; we are politicians. But that is not how we take an issue like this forward. I hope I have answered your questions.
Mr Leon Perera: I think the Member talks about the Constitutional Commission. Why did we not present this view to the Constitutional Commission, why we are presenting it now? Precisely, because we read the Constitutional Commission report and we took that seriously and we allowed that to change our mind and evolve our thinking. We took that report seriously. We did not defend our past position and dig in our heels for the sake of defending. We did not defend for the sake of defending, for the sake of losing face. No, we allowed the Constitutional Commission report. We took that seriously and that led to an evolution of our position.
The Member talks of a rush to a referendum. The kind of scrutiny of the Workers’ Party’s proposal by experts, laypeople, by the general public. That is precisely what will take place in the run-up to a referendum campaign and during a referendum campaign. As I said again, we are not asking the House to vote on our proposal now. We want a more thorough and more inclusive process, leading up to an actual referendum on this particular issue which has never happened. Elected versus appointed President. It has never happened.
Two last points. The point being made about the issue having been settled. This is your argument – that we should accept the Elected Presidency as a fait accompli, as a reality of Singapore’s political landscape. It is a done deal. That is not an argument. That is closing down an argument. That is not an argument. That is my third point.
And the last point, and really the most important one, I have to come back to these false equations between the pollicisation of a Senatorial election and the politicisation of Presidential Election. You are saying our Senate proposal is just as bad because the senatorial election could be politicised, just like the Presidential Election. But you have not addressed the elephant in the room which is that our proposal saves the Presidency from politicisation. It allows the Presidency to rise above politics and be a unifying force, that one symbol that is non-political, unlike Dr Janil Puthucheary, unlike myself, that one symbol that is not political. That is a huge merit of this proposal. It is so huge that the Constitutional Commission argued for the same thing. Thank you, Sir.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Dr Janil, very briefly. I think both sides are keeping their positions very tightly.
Dr Janil Puthucheary: I will try, Mr Deputy Speaker, to rise above my human nature. The issue of saving the Presidency is a false argument because the Presidency that you are proposing is a fundamentally different Presidency from what we have today and what we are proposing in the future. It retains only its symbolic nature. So, you are saving the Presidency by removing the opportunity for an electoral mandate because he or she will no longer have a custodial role. So, substantively, where the electoral process is concerned, it is mapped to the custodial role. Substantively, this role now is played by the Senators. So, the possibility for the Senatorial role to be politicised, given that is where the electoral process will now sit, stands. That has not changed.
The issue of the consultative process and rushing to referendum. To have a referendum, you would need to debate in the House a motion and a whole bunch of Government processes. To go forward, you have to have that agreement, it is not just something that you put out.
But if I could take the process a little bit further, if I could address the issue of why we did not ask the Constitutional Commission, again it is a false argument. The problem was set before the Constitutional Commission as laid out by the Prime Minister in his original speech and in his direction to the Commission. It is the Government that constituted the Constitutional Commission and said, “How do we address these series of issues?” It is not that we have bypassed them or ignored them. They took in information from a wide variety of sources, a wide variety of people, a wide variety of ideas. They synthesised down a series of possible recommendations. They are not the final arbiter on which of those recommendations should go forward. This House is the final arbiter of which of those recommendations should go forward and it is the Government’s duty to take those recommendations and put them together in a motion that should stand before the House. We have followed that process through over the course of this year. There is no abrogation of responsibility, there is no short-cut, nothing has been hidden. And, in contrast, that is what I am saying the Workers’ Party has been doing.
I think we have batted the points back and forth. I am not sure we will come to a complete meeting of minds but I hope my position is clear. If I can understand your position, you are supporting very much a symbolic Presidency with a devolution of all the custodial powers and, hence, the electoral process to a Senate, the eligibility criteria of which would be an approximate to the eligibility criteria of our current President and there will be an exclusionary process at 16, where you feel that somehow this is better than our current system. I, fundamentally, disagree and that is the separation between us.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Thank you, Dr Janil. I think the Hansard will show that both Members stated their positions very clearly and forcefully.