The reserved president: how it was always meant to be

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Tomorrow will mark exactly one year since Halimah Yacob became Singapore’s 8th President. At the time, I published an article titled “Power and Dignity: the cost of the PAP’s EP bargain“, where I argued that the PAP, having engineered an unpopular walkover to avoid the political repercussions of a non PAP-friendly presidency, made a calculated bargain which robbed Singaporeans of the dignity of electing our first Malay, and first female President in the history of our country.

Upon further reflection, I wonder if I gave the decision-makers involved a little too much credit. This is because, the history behind the Elected Presidency and the reasons for its creation suggest that last year’s debacle was not in fact a calculated maneuver, but a natural progression of affairs.

Let’s go back to where it all began – the Anson by-election of 31 October 1981. Having expected a smooth victory, the PAP was caught by surprise when J.B. Jeyaretnam, the leader of the Workers’ Party at the time, won the election with 52% of the vote. This was the first time in Singapore’s history, since its independence, that a PAP candidate was defeated in a parliamentary election.

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The Anson victory meant that there was now one opposition MP in parliament, in contrast to 74 PAP MPs. Yet, that was enough to rattle Lee Kuan Yew, who saw the election as a sign that Singaporeans are starting to desire a larger opposition presence in Parliament, and that a freak election could occur where as a result, the PAP will cease to be the government. To him, this would be a disaster.

The connection between the Elected Presidency and the Anson by-election was confirmed by the late former President Ong Teng Cheong, who said in a Straits Times interview in March 2000, that,

“The elected presidency was Lee Kuan Yew’s initiative. He came out with the idea way back in ’82, ’83…”

The idea that Ong referred to was a President with significant powers, such that instead of having a primarily ceremonial role, it could act as a “check” on a non-PAP government in the event of a PAP election defeat, in order to protect the country from any imprudent policy-making by the new government. According to Lee Kuan Yew himself,

“Without the elected president and if there is a freak result, within two or three years, the army would have to come in and stop it” (Reuters, 16 September 2006)

From the above, it is quite clear that the Elected Presidency was never intended to be a check on the PAP’s own power. Think of it as a one-way mirror – it was designed to look into the affairs of non-PAP governments, but not PAP ones. This is because, in Lee Kuan Yew’s mind, only a non-PAP government would govern recklessly and irresponsibility, and this sort of government needs to be stopped.

This therefore explains the remarkable resistance against the idea of a non PAP-friendly president. Since the president was never intended to be a check on the PAP; a non PAP-friendly president that “checks” on the PAP would defeat the whole point of having the Elected Presidency in the first place. So far, so good: out of the last 4 Presidents, 3 of them have been former PAP MPs.

It was therefore only natural that the closer we got to a non PAP-friendly president (i.e. Tan Cheng Bock’s remarkably narrow defeat in the 2011 Presidential Elections), the harder the PAP fought to ensure that the president remains PAP-friendly, or, to reduce the powers of the President to such an extent that even if a non PAP-friendly President comes into power, he/she will not hinder the PAP’s freedom to govern.

This is something that the PAP’s leaders saw as fundamental to the role of the President in the first place – the PAP invented the Elected President to check on a non-PAP government, and so it would never tolerate the embarrassment of having its own creation being used against it. Hence, the status quo was something that it needed to defend relentlessly, even if it meant having to pay a heavy price during the next general election.

It therefore appears that the Reserved Presidency was not something that came out of an exercise of careful deliberation, but a natural outcome given the way the Presidency, and its constitutional role, is viewed in the eyes of its own creators.

In this regard, non PAP-friendly personalities with presidential ambitions should realize that it is likely that the PAP would prefer losing more votes in a general election to having a non-PAP friendly president. For them, there is arguably no backing down on this issue. To quote that random person who once tried to give me life advice on an aeroplane flight, “realize that if a door is closed, it’s because what was behind it wasn’t meant for you.”

By Rio Hoe

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Image credit: Straits Times

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