Thanks to Mr K Shanmugam for making the Presidential Election more exciting...

A Powerful Title of an Article Screenshot Source

"If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law." Henry David Thoreau was once quoted to say that.

I know many of us are eager to misuse that statement to add a cry against Mr K Shanmugam, but do read through the following quoted articles. He meant no disrespect to the Presidential hopefuls and he for sure is not an 'agent of injustice' to them.

A few points to highlight from the various articles quoted below:

1. The elected President--whoever he is--must be respected.

2. The President cannot publicly challenge the Government or initiate policy changes, but he can give his views and his advice even in areas outside his Constitutional power.

3. It is untrue that only Government endorsed candidates can be influential.

I am still looking forwards hearing what Dr Tony Tan shall say about the whole issue. He after all has aptly chosen to think more about it than just to hastily make his feeling known.

Any suggestions that only a Government-endorsed presidential candidate can be influential as the Elected President "would be wrong", Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said yesterday.

Speaking to reporters after a community event, Mr Shanmugam also reiterated that whoever is elected must be respected.

He was responding to comments by presidential hopeful Tan Cheng Bock, who took issue with what Mr Shanmugam had said on Friday at an Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) forum on the Elected Presidency.

Dr Tan had said that he was surprised by Mr Shanmugam's remarks, including that "whether the President actually wields influence obviously depends on who the President is".

Dr Tan had asked: "Is (Mr Shanmugam) saying that the people's choice of the President matters little unless he is endorsed by the Government? Then how is the President to be above politics?"

Mr Shanmugam reiterated yesterday that the President's influence on the Government in areas outside his constitutional powers would depend on his experience, knowledge and wisdom.

He added: "A President who is wise, knowledgeable and experienced will obviously be able to give advice which would be more influential than another who doesn't have as much experience, or as much wisdom."

He noted that the importance of credentials have also been recognised by the presidential hopefuls, as they have emphasised their specific qualifications to be head of state in the lead-up to the Presidential Election.

During the IPS forum, Mr Shanmugam also pointed out that the President "can speak on issues only as authorised by the Cabinet; and he must follow the advice of the Cabinet in the discharge of his duties".

Mr Shanmugam cited Article 21(1) of the Constitution which says the President shall "act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or of a Minister acting under the general authority of the Cabinet".

But Mr Shanmugam also stressed that not only are the constitutional powers vested in the Elected President "significant" ones, he can also be "highly influential" on issues of the day. That, however, does not entail him speaking out in public against the Government because it would be "completely unconstitutional".

Apart from Dr Tan Cheng Bock, other hopefuls, such as former NTUC Income chief Tan Kin Lian and ex-senior civil servant Tan Jee Say, also disagreed with Mr Shamugam's remarks and said that they believe that the President has wider powers.

Mr Shanmugam said yesterday that his remarks during the IPS forum was to clarify what had been set out in the Constitution, and to help in bringing about "a more informed debate".

Adding that it would not be appropriate for him to comment further, Mr Shanmugam said that the other Presidential hopefuls "are entitled to their views".

Mr Shanmugam's remarks on Friday were the second time when he had sought to debunk notions that the President can publicly challenge the Government or initiate policy changes.

Yesterday, Mr Shanmugam was asked by reporters if he expects future clashes on the interpretation between the Government and the next Elected President.

Mr Shanmugam replied that there is "no broad disagreement" between his views and other lawyers who have expressed their views.

"In the end, I don't see that there would be much of a conflict," he said.

"If there is disagreement, as previously it has happened before, you can get it resolved through the courts. When you have a check and balance, you must expect that sometimes there must be differences in views. If there are differences in views, we have a structure and system in place to deal with those differences."

Noting that there have been three White Papers on the role of the President, Mr Shanmugam reiterated that it would be the duty of the Cabinet and Members of Parliament to explain the "technical issues" to the public. But such a process "will take time", he noted.

"It allows us the process of explaining and that's good. But we still mustn't assume everyone understands," said Mr Shanmugam.

From Today, "Voters' choice must be respected". (08/08/11)

Law Minister K Shanmugam said he does not think his statements justify any interpretations made by potential presidential candidate, Dr Tan Cheng Bock.

He added that he does not want to comment on the issue any further.

He said this in response to Dr Tan, who in an earlier statement, had claimed that Mr Shanmugam had "set a stage of confrontation between the President and the Prime Minister."

Later on Monday evening, Mr Shanmugam celebrated the nation's birthday with residents of Canberra constituency. Some 2,500 were present to enjoy energising performances by schools in the area and grassroots organisations.

From Channel NewsAsia, "PE: Statements do not justify Tan Cheng Bock's interpretation, says Shanmugam". (08/08/11)

LAW Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday that he never suggested that only a Government-endorsed presidential candidate can wield influence with the prime minister.

He was reacting to presidential hopeful Tan Cheng Bock's interpretation of what he had meant when he spoke at an Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) forum on Friday.

Mr Shanmugam had said at the IPS forum that if the president is someone who commands little or no respect with the prime minister, then the influence would be limited.

Dr Tan, 71, commenting a day later, asked if Mr Shanmugam was saying that 'the people's choice of the president matters little unless he is endorsed by the Government'.

From Straits Times, "Shanmugam on presidential candidates: Quality is what counts".(08/08/11)

Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam has clarified his comments made at a recent forum about how influential the president can be.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a community event, Mr Shanmugam said that there are many areas where the Prime Minister has the duty to make decisions.

Although the President cannot direct the Prime Minister on these matters, he can give his views and his advice even in areas outside his Constitutional power.

Mr Shanmugam said it is untrue that only Government endorsed candidates can be influential.

"The quality of the advice will depend on the person giving that advice and a President who is wise, knowledgeable and experienced will obviously be more influential than another who doesn't have as much experience or as much wisdom," said Mr Shanmugam.

Mr Shanmugam said the office itself commands respect and whoever holds the office must be given the respect due.

And as the President is elected by the people, Mr Shanmugam said that the people's power to make the choice must be respected.

Mr Shamugam also responded to comments made by several other Presidential hopefuls who disagreed with him on the Constitutional Role of the President.

He said they are entitled to their views and felt it was not appropriate for him to comment further on their statements.

Mr Shanmugam said: "If there are disagreements, as previously it has happened before, we can always get it resolved through the courts. When you have check and balance, you must expect that sometimes there might be differences in views. And if there are differences in views, we have a structure and system in place to deal with those differences."

From Channel NewsAsia, "PE: Shanmugam clarifies comments on President's role". (07/08/11)

Describing the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) as a "pre-qualification mechanism" to sieve out unsuitable candidates, Law Minister K Shanmugam reiterated yesterday that qualified candidates are not "all equally capable".

Speaking at a forum organised by the Institute of Policy Studies, Mr Shanmugam, who is also the Foreign Minister, said: "Once the PEC certifies them, they are all equally capable? No. The PEC is some sort of a mechanism to say that these are not obviously incapable people and that they meet some minimum requirement."

Professor Thio Li-ann, a constitutional law expert who was on the panel with Mr Shanmugam, questioned if there was a need to have a PEC in the first place.

Mr Shanmugam replied: "One possibility could have been for the Parliament to elect a President, but the idea was that we wanted a President to be a check on the Parliament in specific areas - so it doesn't work."

He added: "The other possibility was to let the people choose the President but (former Minister Mentor) Lee Kuan Yew explained why he didn't think that was suitable because then you will have all manner of people competing and it is a popularity contest. He wanted to limit the consequences of such a popularity contest at least to people who are not inherently unqualified."

The PEC comprises the chairmen of the Public Service Commission and the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority, and a member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. Once satisfied that the criteria are met, the PEC issues the candidate with a Certificate of Eligibility. Its decision is final and it is not constitutionally required to provide any justification for its decision.

Prof Thio said that the electoral process vis-a-vis the function of the PEC should be more transparent and accountable.

She said: "Anyone who exercises public power in Singapore should be subject to some mechanism of accountability."

Prof Thio noted that the criteria for "integrity, good character and reputation" is subjective. She also pointed out that when the PEC decides that a candidate is of poor character, the judgment may be defamatory. However, the PEC is immune from a defamation suit in the absence of malice under the Presidential Elections Act, said Prof Thio. She suggested that the PEC allow the candidates a right of reply - as a matter of protecting the candidate's reputation - should their eligibility be questioned.

From Today, "Presidential Elections Committee 'a pre-qualification mechanism'". (06/08/11)

The elected president can only speak and act in public as advised by the Cabinet. If he does otherwise, he would be acting unconstitutionally.

So said Law Minister K. Shanmugam at a forum at the Institute of Policy Studies held yesterday. The forum was moderated by Professor Tommy Koh.

"The president can speak on issues only as authorised by the Cabinet,” said Mr Shanmugam, whose remarks were reported in The Straits Times. “He must follow the advice of the Cabinet in the discharge of his duties."

He noted that although the 1991 amendment to the Constitution gave the president blocking powers in five areas, it "does not change the fundamental position" that the president has to speak and act on the advice of the Government.

The five areas in which the elected president has blocking powers are the spending of past reserves, the appointment of key public sector leaders, Internal Security Act (ISA) detentions, investigations by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), and restraining orders to maintain religious harmony.

The Law Minister noted that the elected president can influence the prime minister through their regular discussions. "Whether the president actually wields influence obviously depends on who the president is,” he said. “If he is someone who commands little or no respect of the prime minister, then of course influence will be limited.’"

Mr Shanmugam said that Singaporeans should ask which candidate has the knowledge and skill to protect the country’s reserves, who can influence the prime minister and Cabinet, and who has the necessary gravitas and standing to be the symbol of the country.

"What I would call the 'wrong questions' would be: Who is going to speak up publicly? Who's going to contradict the Government? Who's going to engage publicly on political issues? These are wrong questions because the president can't do any of these things," he said.

What if the president crosses the line?

During the forum, two academics - Dr Ian Chong and Dr Cherian George - launched a discussion on what the President could and could not say in public. Professor Tommy Koh, the moderator of the forum, and speakers K. Shanmugam and Thio Li-ann, responded to the queries. This is a transcript of the discussion.

Ian Chong: What if the president says in public that more can be done for the handicapped? Would that be unconstitutional?

Thio Li-ann: I think I would look at constitutional convention because the Constitution text is not exhaustive. When it comes to social causes, I don't think the Government has any problem with President Nathan and previous presidents highlighting causes like that, because in a sense they're relatively uncontroversial. The difficulty comes when you wade into controversial topics and then you get into questions of legitimacy - 'I voted for you to protect the money, why are you talking about something else?'

Ian Chong: So what can the courts or the Government do in that case?

Thio Li-ann: The courts can't do anything because the Constitution is silent on this. This would be a matter of political negotiation between the political branches.

K. Shanmugam: I don't have much of a disagreement with Li-ann except I will put this qualifier in. You talked about handicapped welfare. If the president were to go and open a place for handicapped people or people who are physically disadvantaged, and says that more such centres should be opened, it's good, this sort of work should be encouraged, that's fine. But if he were to say, the Government should put more money, that becomes a matter of government policy. Based on our Constitution he's not allowed to say that, except as advised by the Cabinet.

Ian Chong: So if he does, what are you going to do?

K. Shanmugam: So if he does, what you can do, he's acting unconstitutionally. Various consequences laid out. I will prefer not to go into that.

Thio Li-ann: When it comes to charitable causes, I don't see why you always have to point the finger at the Government. You should be galvanising the society at large. I think the president is a bit like Angelina Jolie, or George Clooney, in the sense they have star power, right? You know, there's an event and the president turns up, then everybody will listen to him. When George Clooney highlighted the plight of the southern Sudanese, everybody starts looking at the whole issue. So I think that the president can usefully use his star power to promote charitable work among society at large. I don't think there will be any objection to that.

Tommy Koh: Supposing the president goes to a school for children with a particular disability. Suppose at the end of the visit, he were to say, 'I'm very impressed by the teachers, I'm very impressed by the students. But I think the physical plan of the school is not good enough.'

K. Shanmugam: Cross the red line? I don't think so. I think these situations have got to be resolved by common sense. First of all, he will be entitled to say anything he thinks, including the physical plans or the lack of proper care, et cetera, to the prime minister. But separately in public I think he's entitled to talk about the state of repair or disrepair. And I wouldn't think that's crossing the line.

Tommy Koh: Would it cross the red line if he were to go further and say that Singapore has not yet acceded to the (United Nations) Convention (on the Rights of Disabled People)? He should not say this in public?

K. Shanmugam: Absolutely. Which conventions we accede to is an issue decided in Cabinet. There are good reasons why we accede to some and not to others.

From Asiaone, "President can only speak and act as advised by the Cabinet". (06/08/11)


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