I almost want to tear my hair out. In the past weeks, as the Presidential election approaches nearer, we have been hearing how the potential candidates are all pledging to be “the voice of the people”. They also vow to “speak up for the people” and to let the government know what the people’s views are.
In brief, they want to provide feedback to the government.
In other words, the office of the president is nothing more than a feedback channel.
On the surface, this sounds all good, even as you suspect there might be a tint of good ole politicking behind some of the words. But on closer inspection, you realize that there is a fundamental flaw and a serious misunderstanding of what the presidency is all about.
The office of the elected president – the highest office in the land – is not a feedback channel.
If it were, it would be a redundant office – and a completely wasteful one too, since we are paying millions to the one who holds the office.
We already have many channels for feedback. Lets count the ones that come to mind.
- Members of Parliament – in their Meet-The-People sessions and various other outlets
- Civil servants
- Grassroots people
- The media
- Online platforms
- Personal and private emails from the public to government departments
- Committees, forums, studies, surveys, polls, etc.
So, it would make no sense to have another layer for feedback. If, despite all the above channels, the government still is unable to decipher the feedback properly (which incidentally was what PM Lee admitted to after the May general election), then that government deserves to be thrown out by the people at a parliamentary general elections.
And this is an important point – the power must lie with the people. And the people must exercise their responsibilities and use their power to oust a government if they feel they deserve to be kicked out.
The president must rise above partisan politics and be a sort of wise man. He looks far and provide timely advice. He represents everyone and delivers hope when needed, inspiration when the people is down, and keeps a watchful eye on the government of the day.
As the Law Minister rightly explained, the president is not a political power centre unto himself.
This power is – even if you intensely dislike the incumbent ruling party – rightly bestowed with Parliament. And this is how it should be. Otherwise, we would have just wasted much time, effort and money in going through what would be a useless exercise in electing our parliamentarians.
Also, Parliament is the place where debates are had over policies, legislations and matters of grave concern.
The president is not privy to such debates.
He would thus not have intimate knowledge of what transpired, the arguments, the facts and figures presented and raised. Of course he could ask for these but he would have to spend much time and effort being buried in endless readings, without the advantage of having an army of civil servants at his disposal.
So, what is the presidency about then?
My own view is this: The Constitution, unless and until it is changed, provides for very limited executive powers for the president. Basically, these reside in five areas:
According to the Straits Times:
The Constitution gives the elected president blocking powers in five narrowly defined areas: the spending of past reserves, key public service appointments, Internal Security Act detentions, Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act restraining orders and Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau investigations.
Besides these, the president has no power, as far as constitutional provisions are concerned.
And voters must recognize, understand and accept this.
The president has limited powers and the office is not a feedback channel. Lets be clear about these two things.
That is not to say that the president cannot engage the government in private dialogue about issues of the day. Indeed he must. But this is different from saying that giving feedback is his overarching duty, which seems to be the thing some of the presidential hopefuls are saying.
What the presidency is (or can be) is one which is above partisan politics (I know some will say that the fact that the presidency is an elected one means it is political but I will not go into this for now), where the incumbent, as I said previously, is a sort of wise old man, keeping the interests of his nation at heart, and providing counsel whenever needed. He is one who inspires citizens to higher ideals, while being able to empathise with their concerns and troubles. He is there when the nation rejoices, and wraps his arms around it when it weeps. He is one who is able to represent his fellow countrymen with dignity and respect among kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, while also is able to kneel with the lowest ones in our society.
The president is thus someone whom all look up to, whichever colour one wears.
The best person who epitomized this was the late President Wee Kim Wee.
To reduce the presidency to that of a feedback channel is thus, to me, thoroughly regrettable and would be an utter shame.
It would, truly, be an insult.