Political Sophistry: PE2017

It’s a stitch-up, all right.

Most Singaporeans aren’t angry at the PAP for subverting democratic principles. Ours has always been a nation concerned more with issues of the bread basket than the ballot box; a country which venerates a man who locked up his political opponents so his people could have prosperity. Very simply, we have never been a liberal democracy.

No, people are angry because we can sense the naked condescension emanating from the PAP establishment. Sudhir Vadaketh puts it bluntly:

Singaporeans have always known that our politicians live in an elite bubble, and consider themselves superior beings. This is not about individual failings; they are all products of a system that has told them from Day One that they are better. Now, with this reserved presidency, we have irrefutable proof about just how stupid they think we are.

In February this year, Chan Chun Sing, potential next prime minister, stood up in parliament and called Halimah Yacob ‘Madam President’. Was it a slip? Maybe. But he did it not once but twice, laughing along with his fellow PAP politicians, having a ball of a time, delighting themselves in their own megalomaniac conceit.

The dubious politics of “representation”

What else can explain the flimsy arguments deployed by our political leaders in defence of the reserved election? At an Institute of Public Studies (IPS) forum, Minister Shanmugam was careful to toe the party line: “If the President, term after term, comes from a single race, would everyone feel that he or she symbolises the entire state, entire nation?”

But that can’t possibly be correct. If the PAP wanted the President to serve a symbolic function, acting primarily to “unify the nation”, then why bother with an elected president? Just let Parliament appoint someone, as we did with former President Yusof Ishak.

The election, as I expressed in my last post, exists to grant the President custodial powers over the nation’s reserves and civil service. It does not exist to select a President who best “represents” the nation. Maybe the argument is this: We don’t want a Malay President; we want a President capable of executing her custodial powers who just happens to be Malay.

But that can’t be right either. If multiculturalism can only be properly respected when minority leaders are given substantive power, then why are all the Prime Ministerial candidates Chinese? In fact, if our leaders are supposed to genuinely “represent” Singaporeans, why are all the Prime Ministerial candidates drawn from the public sector? Why are most of them government scholars? Why do they all come from elite schools?

Why is ensuring a minority race President the only kind of “representation in top leadership” that the PAP cares about?

Who is our first elected President?

Eyebrows were raised when PM Lee Hsien Loong announced that, for administrative purposes, Mr Wee Kim Wee would be counted as Singapore’s “first elected President”. While it is true that Mr Wee was indeed the first President to exercise the “elected President’s custodial powers”, he wasn’t actually elected  Mr Ong Teng Cheong was the first President to be elected. All a matter of legal minutiae, perhaps, except it just so happened that by counting Mr Wee as our “first elected President”, the hiatus-triggered reserved Presidential Election would take place in 2017. What a coincidence!

Dr Tan Cheng Bock – who nearly won the 2011 Presidential Election – launched a constitutional challenge. The case was presided over by Justice Quentin Loh, who ruled:

The “President” in Art 19(B)1 can refer to Presidents elected by Parliament (before 1993), as well as those elected by Singapore Citizens (1993 and beyond). Taking a textualist interpretation, [Justice Loh] noted that the plain language did not distinguish between either election method.

Furthermore, [Justice Loh] adopted a purposive interpretation, citing Article 2(9) of the Constitution and Dorsey James Michael v World Sport Group Pte Ltd. He found that, abstractly,  Parliament’s purpose in legislating the amendments was to “ensure that our present system, where the President is popularly elected, produces Presidents from minority racial communities from time to time”, and that it is Parliament’s prerogative to legislate when to start the count for the Reserved Election.

In other words, Parliament has the legislative right to define what constitutes an “elected President”. Which is very reasonable so, on Aug 28, Workers’ Party MP Sylvia Lim then filed a motion to have this very issue debated in Parliament. One day later, it so transpired that PAP MPs Murali Pillai and Vikram Nair filed motions on other issues of grave national import Mr Pillai wanted to talk about “Community Sentencing and Other Rehabilitative Options”, while Mr Nair sought a debate on “The Future of National Service”.

Since there were now three motions proposed for debate on Sep 11, the Speaker of Parliament had to decide, by random ballot, which motion was to be debated.

Ms Lim’s motion was not picked.

Spending political capital

At the same IPS forum mentioned earlier, Minister Chan Chun Sing tried a different approach. He revealed that the PAP had expected to “pay the political price (for these changes), at least in the short term.” In other words, reforming the Elected Presidency is bad politics, but good policy.

Not only does this assume that having a reserved Presidential Election and raising the bar for Presidential candidates is objectively good policy (many, including TMG’s Md Suhaile, are sceptical), it also ignores another glaring possibility: Maybe this is not a spending of political capital, but an investment of it.

In times of “political plenty” when the PAP has a strong electoral mandate, it can use its surfeit of popular support to prepare for times of “political lean” when the Opposition is resurgent. Such reforms may be unpopular now, but it also ensures that in the future, when PM Lee steps down and the fourth generation of PAP leadership has to contend with a greater public desire for political pluralism, the President does not become an annoyance.

We know from Mr Ong Teng Cheong’s example that the President can impede the normal functioning of the Government by exercising her custodial powers. By changing the rules of the election, the PAP has made it even harder for “independent troublemakers” to run for office. Note, that even though Mr Tan Cheng Bock and Mr Tan Jee Say could run for President in 2011, they are now forever disqualified from standing for election – the PAP did not just implement a hiatus-triggered reserve election; it also raised the threshold for private sector candidates from senior executives of companies with $100 million in paid-up capital to $500 million in shareholders’ equity.

The PAP is willing to pay the political price now because it can afford it. Crucially, it will reap electoral dividends in the years to come not only can future PAP governments carry out their work unmolested, a future non-PAP government is also now more likely to face an obstructionist, establishment-affiliated, President.

With an investment so good, who don’t want? Kee chiu.

Why this matters

We are furious, and rightfully so. Bertha Henson writes:

The [Government] cannot take people’s acquiescence for granted, not even with a 70 per cent mandate. It should not pronounce that since Parliament has said so, so it must be so. Not with a House packed with its own MPs. And now that a walkover is likely, please let us not hear about the system being successful in producing a multi-racial presidency.

What chafes is not the PAP’s anti-democratic tendencies. It is the PAP’s sheer arrogance in assuming that it can pull a fast one on the people it claims to represent, to use the hollow justification of “multicultural representation” to justify a badly thought-out power grab.

People get angry when what they plainly see does not match up to official rhetoric. What we saw was the PAP’s “preferred candidate” beating Dr Tan Cheng Bock by a razor-thin in 2011 and, in the very next Presidential Election, the PAP deciding to rewrite the Constitution so Dr Tan can no longer stand for election.

It is important to remember that the PAP governs at our pleasure. We grant our leaders the privilege to serve us. We are not privileged to be served by our leaders. Sometimes, however, it feels as if the PAP believes the latter.

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