We're been asked many questions about the President’s role and his powers. He is not just a ceremonial figure, he has constitutional duties as well. That is why in Singapore, the President is elected and not appointed. Here are some answers:

Q: Why don’t we just appoint the President?
A: We used to. But the PAP Government decided that the President should have more powers. They are veto powers or the power to say NO if the government wants to use our past reserves for no good reason and if the government picks unsuitable people for top public sector jobs. Because of these additional powers, he needs the people’s mandate to give him legitimacy to go against the government.

Q: We have had no problems using the reserves before, so why worry?
A: Do you want the Government to be able to use our money anytime it wants? Or should we have someone who can ask why it needs it or what it will do with it? It’s not just about whether to withdraw one lump sum. He has to look at the ministry budgets as well as the audited profit and loss account of statutory boards and companies like Temasek and GIC to know that what we have in the safe isn’t touched.

Q: What’s the big deal about his veto powers of appointment?
A: It’s a big deal because it covers the most important positions in the public sector, including all the High Court judges and all the members of the Public Service Commission. It also covers leaders of statutory boards like CPF and HDB, as well as Government companies like Temasek Holdings and GIC. Making sure that able and unbiased leaders are picked will ensure that down the line, all public servants put the people first, not personal, professional or political obligations.

Q: Isn’t it difficult for the President to use the veto because he needs his Council of Presidential Advisors to agree with him?
A: Yes, there are some rules about the process. It is possible that there will be a lot of discussion behind closed doors first. Then there is also the parliamentary over-ride. If it reaches this stage, then things would have reached crisis-point.

Q: If this is so, do we even need a President with veto powers?
A: Just because the veto has never been used, that does not mean it is unnecessary. The fact that it exists served to make the government more careful about its decisions. In most situations, the veto power is not needed: the executive, the CPA and President is likely to see eye-to-eye. The President is a guardian who comes in when he thinks money will be wasted or if the top civil servants are just cronies of the Government.

Q: What is the President’s role with regard to the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the Maintenance of Religous Harmony Act (MRHA)? Can you explain?
A: Yes. The President will have the power to break a deadlock between the Advisory Council and the Government (in the case of the ISA) or between the Council for Religious Harmony and the Government (in the case of the MRHA) where agreement is necessary for continued detention of an individual or the issue of a restraining order.

Q: There was something about corruption investigations as well…
A: Yes. The CPIB comes under the Prime Minister. But if the PM doesn’t want a minister or somebody (including himself) to be investigated, the CPIB Director invokes the President’s discretion for permission to investigate. This way, the system is kept clean and honest at the very top.

Lights on Istana

Through ‘Lights on Istana’ we hope to bring clarity to the facts and foster constructive discourse on the key themes of the upcoming Presidential Election.