While we often hear about the power of the President to protect reserves, less is said about his other role to safeguard the integrity of the public service. This takes place behind the scenes and signified through the assent of the President in the government gazette.

Q: Is it true that the President can say no to the Prime Minister's choice of candidates for key public appointments?
Yes. If the President thinks that the candidate is unsuitable for some reason, such as inadequate experience or because there will be conflicts of interest if the person assumes the post, he or she can veto the appointment. Whether the veto will hold depends on whether his Council of Presidential Advisors (CPA) agrees with him. If it does, then the President’s decision holds and the Prime Minister must offer an alternative candidate. However, if the CPA disagrees with the President, the Government can get Parliament to over-rule the President’s decision by a two-third majority.

Q: Is this power over key appointments that important?
Yes it is. This is a checking mechanism. For example, the Prime Minister, may decide to pack the top appointments with his cronies or “yes’’ men. This will undermine the integrity of the public service since appointments must be based on merit. Furthermore, the civil service is expected to remain impartial, putting the interests of the public - not its patron - first. How the top public officers behave will also have an impact on their subordinates, further eroding the ethos of the public service

Q: But who are these top public officers? Aren't they selected by the Public Service Commission anyway?
When we refer to top, we mean top. So the Prime Minister’s choice of the chairman and members of the PSC will also need the President’s concurrence. The list is not short. There are at least 16 roles listed in the Constitution. Take the judiciary. It’s not just the appointment of the Chief Justice that needs the President’s approval, but also Senior Judges and Judicial Commissioners. So there are some 30 appointments in the judiciary alone that require the President’s concurrence. Likewise, the President needs to agree to the appointment as well as re-appointments of all members of the presidential councils for minority rights and religious harmony. Other appointments to do with defence, and law and order which bear noting: Attorney-General, Auditor-General, Commissioner of Police, Director of Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau and the Chief of Defence Force as well as the chiefs of army, navy and airforce.

Q: Do appointments in GIC and Temasek come under this?
Yes, they do, Both are known as Fifth Schedule companies in the Constitution. The president’s concurrence is needed for their top positions, including chief executive and directors. There are also Fifth Schedule entities which are statutory boards: CPF, Monetary Authority of Singapore, Housing Board and Jurong Town Corporation. This list marks out the key institutions which have accumulated past reserves which are protected in the Constitution. They have to declare to the President that their budget proposals will not lead to a draw on past reserves.

In all, we estimate about 150 people now in top positions would have gone through this checking process by the President.

Q: But there has never been a rejection by the President before right?
That is true, at least not a public rejection. It is likely that any disagreement will be resolved privately or informally between the President and the Executive to forestall the necessity of a public confrontation which can divide the nation. There have, however, been past clashes between the President and the Executive but that’s for another post!

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.