Parliament has spelled out the procedures it should follow to override the President’s veto powers in a report released yesterday (April 25). What these procedures represent is Parliament’s continuing control over the Elected Presidency, which cripples its ability to act as a check on Parliament, at least under present circumstances. This is bad for democracy, and this is bad for Singapore.
Currently, if the President exercises his/her veto power against the advice of the majority of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA), Parliament can to override the President’s veto with a two-thirds majority.
Two sets of facts are of significant importance. First, the CPA consists of six persons, two appointed at the personal discretion of the President, two by the Prime Minister, one by the Chief Justice, and one by the Chairman of the Public Service Commission. The Chief Justice is chosen by the President, but only if the President’s choice coincides with the Prime Minister’s ‘advice’. This means the Prime Minister may choose to propose only one candidate, which the President is then forced to accept – (TLDR: it is the PM who really chooses the Chief Justice). The Chief Justice in turn gets to choose whoever he wants to sit on the CPA. Finally, the Chairman of the PSC is, similarly, selected by the President in consultation with the Prime Minister, and can similarly appoint anyone he/she wants to sit on the CPA. Therefore, the Prime Minister has direct control over 2 members of the CPA, and at least indirect control over 2 others.
Second, the People’s Action Party currently holds 93% of the elected seats in Parliament, far more than the two-thirds majority needed to amend the Constitution, or override the President’s powers.
When you combine these two set of facts with the power to override the veto, it is not difficult to see the problem: as long as the CPA disapproves of the President’s use of his/her veto, Parliament can sidestep the President’s powers.
Let’s take an example to demonstrate how serious this is. Currently, according to Article 22H(1) of the Singapore Constitution, the President can veto any government bill seeking to circumvent or curtail his discretionary powers. With the ‘overriding’ power in place, if Parliament finds an existing President too “disobedient”, and therefore proposes a bill to strip the President’s powers, and if the CPA (over which the Prime Minister has significant influence) does not want the President to veto the bill (because the President obviously will), the CPA can simply ‘advise’ him not to use his veto. If this happens, all Parliament needs to do then to override the veto is obtain a two-thirds majority vote, which is a foregone conclusion, given that the PAP controls more than two-thirds of Parliament, and because the PAP government would have been the one to propose the bill in the first place.
One might respond by saying that the CPA must act first to advise the President not to use his/her veto before Parliament can override the President’s veto, and that this power, wielded by the CPA, is unlikely to be abused. I am very hesitant in arriving at this conclusion. I have explained earlier that the Prime Minister has substantial influence over the CPA. Furthermore, the CPA is unelected and therefore not publicly accountable; and neither is it transparent, since according to Art 37 of the Constitution, its meetings are held in private, and its members must take an oath of secrecy. Hence, it is an institution that cannot be trusted to act in the public interest; and we should be wary about how much power we allow it to wield.
One might also argue that, if we do not allow Parliament to override the President’s veto, then the President can “paralyze” Parliament, including for the wrong reasons. Indeed, the tyranny of an elected Parliament no worse than the tyranny of an elected President. However, my point is that if Parliament should have the ability to override the Presidential veto, it should be difficult, and at the moment, it appears a little too easy.
The Elected Presidency plays a limited, but nonetheless important role in a system of government dominated by a legislature that is itself dominated by the PAP since the birth of our nation. According to Professor Kevin Tan from the National University of Singapore ,
“In Singapore, the innovative elected presidency with veto powers over aspects of cabinet policy was designed as a countervailing force against the untrammeled power of the parliamentary executive. Lest an elective dictatorship arise, the (Singapore) government in introducing this amendment (concerning the creation of the Elected Presidency) declared that it was “in fact clipping its wings.””
Hence, the ability of the President to veto legislation that is not in the Singaporean public’s best interest is an important check on Parliament that, let us remember, is subject to elections only once every five years. I argue that a second democratic institution in the form of the Elected Presidency is sorely needed in order to balance the immense power wielded by our legislature. This second democratic institution, has not only been dented by a controversial racial policy, but continues to be limited by Parliament’s overriding powers.
Perhaps, with the knowledge that destroying the Elected Presidency outright would be unpopular, Parliament has decided that quietly stripping the President of his/her powers would be a better, smarter move instead. Indeed, we should be proud of how intelligent our politicians are, although I may be hesitant in feeling the same way about some of their other attributes.
Parliament will vote on this matter on May 8th. This gives us some time to speak up on this issue, since it has been brought to light, and I believe that we should. I understand that it all sounds quite technical, and perhaps a little alien to everyday affairs. But I believe that in a “push come to shove” moment (for example, the introduction of a very unpopular or oppressive law), this will have a real impact on our lives. We need to ensure that our government governs well, and this involves making sure that there are enough checks in the system to prevent them from becoming too complacent, and/or abusing their power. If we don’t speak up today, we may find ourselves silenced tomorrow.
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Photo credit: Straits Times
 Tan, Kevin, The Singapore Legal System, NUS Press (1998), p.86
Editor’s note: in an earlier version of this article, it was stated that Parliament expanded its powers to override the Presidential veto last year. This claim, which was based on a Straits Times report, was inaccurate. Parliament has always wielded the power to override the veto; the recent changes merely made more explicit the procedures that need to be followed when it does so. The correction of this fact was made 1 hour after publication time, at 8:30 am, 26th April 2017. The Straits Times has been contacted to clarify the accuracy of its report. In any case, the arguments made in the remainder of this article concerning why Parliament’s power is problematic still stands.