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Reserved presidential election was ‘policy decision’, says Shanmugam

SINGAPORE — The Government has always been “clear and upfront” about its objective for the hiatus-triggered mechanism of the elected presidency scheme, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, denying opposition Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim’s charge that it had “misled” the public.

The Government has always been “clear and upfront” about its objective for the hiatus-triggered mechanism of the elected presidency scheme, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, denying opposition Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim’s charge that it had “misled” the public. TODAY file photo

The Government has always been “clear and upfront” about its objective for the hiatus-triggered mechanism of the elected presidency scheme, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, denying opposition Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim’s charge that it had “misled” the public. TODAY file photo

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SINGAPORE — The Government has always been “clear and upfront” about its objective for the hiatus-triggered mechanism of the elected presidency scheme, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, denying opposition Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim’s charge that it had “misled” the public.

He was responding on Tuesday (Oct 3) to her adjournment motion on whether the government’s count, from the tenure of the late Dr Wee Kim Wee, in triggering the recent reserved election for the Malay community was a policy decision or legal question.

Changes to the elected presidency passed last November included a mechanism reserving an election for a particular community that has not been represented for five consecutive terms. The elected presidency scheme took effect during Dr Wee’s term, while the first presidential election was held for his successor, the late Ong Teng Cheong. Before incumbent President Halimah Yacob, Singapore’s last Malay President was the late Yusof Ishak, who was head of state until his death in 1970.

The Government “made very clear that it was a policy decision” to start counting from Dr Wee, and had sought the Attorney-General’s Chambers’ (AGC) advice on whether there would be “legal impediments” in doing so, among other questions, said Mr Shanmugam.

It was never suggested that the timing of the reserved election was decided based on AGC’s advice, he said.

Ms Lim argued that the Government had used the AGC’s advice as a “cover” to “evade” debate. Her requests from November last year for the “mysterious” piece of advice to be published was declined by Minister in Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing, she said.

“Instead of confirming that it was the Government that made the decision to count from President Wee Kim Wee, Minister Chan explicitly said that the Government was confident of AGC’s advice and proceeded on that basis to make the constitutional changes,” said Ms Lim, who is chairman of the Workers’ Party.

When former presidential hopeful, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, later launched a legal challenge questioning the timing and basis of the reserved election, Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair – representing the Government – said the AGC’s advice was “irrelevant”.

The Government had been “inconsistent” in its explanations, said Ms Lim. “The Government should have told Parliament directly that counting from President Wee was its decision, and defended its decision with its merits. Instead, it chose to distract and confuse.”

The government has not been ambiguous, said Mr Shanmugam. “We are not changing history here … Nobody is suggesting that Dr Wee was elected, it is an untruth that is attributed to the proceedings. What is suggested is that he is the first person to exercise the powers of an elected President,” he said.

In explaining the Government’s decision to count from Dr Wee during parliamentary debate on constitutional amendments to the scheme last November, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the House that the Government had “taken the AGC’s advice (and) will start counting from… Dr Wee.”

Mr Shanmugam added: “What Ms Lim is saying is that we are starting the count here because of AGC’s advice. That was never suggested… We are a careful Government. We make a policy decision but we take advice to see whether there are any impediments,” he said.

And the Government “generally does not publish legal opinions that it gets”.

It would “make no sense” for Parliament to make a decision based on AGC’s opinion, and that is why in Dr Tan’s case, the courts have ruled that the AGC’s advice was “irrelevant”, he said.

A point of contention Dr Tan raised was that the Government had acted wrongly on the advice of the Attorney-General to start counting the five terms from Dr Wee’s presidency.

Dismissing Dr Tan’s challenge in August, a five-judge Court of Appeal said Parliament was free to pick any of the five most recent presidential terms to start the count, and the nature of the Attorney-General’s advice was moot in this case.

“Did anyone say we are going to decide this way because this is the way that AGC has told us that we have to decide? ... Ms Lim must know Parliament is sovereign. If there is a certain legal provision, we can change the law,” said Mr Shanmugam.

In her 20-minute speech, Ms Lim — who succeeded in her third attempt to raise the issue — also remarked on unhappiness on the ground ignited by “lightning circumstances under which this Government installed (Mdm Halimah) as head of state” in a walkover.

“In the past few days, it seems to be that top Governmental leaders have been…trying hard to convince Singaporeans that the elected presidency is an integral pivot of Singapore’s commitment to multiracialism. The Government now appears to be well aware of unhappiness on the ground caused by its manoeuvres to install President Halimah,” said Ms Lim.

Mr Shanmugam said it had been 46 years since Singapore had a Malay President. “Our challenge was how to achieve both meritocracy and multiracialism where qualified candidates of different races can regularly be elected to be our head of state,” he said.

 

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, we reported that the Government had acted on the advice of Attorney-General Lucien Wong to start counting the five terms, in which no member of the Malay community had been President, from Dr Wee Kim Wee’s tenure. This is incorrect. The Government was first reported to be seeking advice from the Attorney-General on aspects of proposals to ensure representation of all major races in the office of the President in September 2016. The Attorney-General at that time was VK Rajah. We are sorry for the error.

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