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Elected Presidency: Bigger Council of Presidential Advisers with more responsibilities mooted

SINGAPORE — To enhance the “stablisers” in Singapore’s system of governance and to keep pace with the changes made to the Elected Presidency, the Constitutional Commission proposed that the President be obliged to consult the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) before exercising his discretion on all fiscal matters, and that the CPA be expanded from six to eight members.

Swearing in and re-appointment of members and alternate members of the Council of Presidential Advisers at the Istana on Jan 5, 2016.From left: President Tony Tan, Bobby Chin, Lim Chee Onn, Stephen Lee. TODAY file photo

Swearing in and re-appointment of members and alternate members of the Council of Presidential Advisers at the Istana on Jan 5, 2016.From left: President Tony Tan, Bobby Chin, Lim Chee Onn, Stephen Lee. TODAY file photo

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SINGAPORE — To enhance the “stablisers” in Singapore’s system of governance and to keep pace with the changes made to the Elected Presidency, the Constitutional Commission proposed that the President be obliged to consult the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) before exercising his discretion on all fiscal matters, and that the CPA be expanded from six to eight members.

It also proposed giving more weight to the CPA’s support for a presidential veto in determining whether Parliament can override a President’s decision, even as it emphasised that Parliament should be able to override the President’s exercise of all custodial powers over the reserves and powers on key public service appointments.

One key recommendation in its raft of recommendations on the role and composition of the CPA was to simplify the system by requiring that the President consult the council on all fiscal matters concerning Singapore’s reserves and all public service appointments.  

Currently, a Parliamentary override covers only fiscal matters such as the President’s veto of Supply Bills, Supplementary Supply Bills or Final Supply Bills; or on the appointment or removal of the heads of key institutions which hold significant amounts of Singapore’s fiscal assets. 

And to provide more heft and weight to the CPA’s consulting role, the commission also urged for the threshold for Parliamentary override against CPA support to be refined further. 

Currently, the CPA makes decisions based on a simple majority vote, and in the case where the vote is evenly split, the CPA chairman will make a casting vote. But under the proposed changes, the level of CPA support makes a difference to the Parliament majority needed to override the President’s decision. The commission said: “Put simply, the stronger the CPA’s support for the President’s decision, the more difficult it should be for Parliament to undo that decision.”

To help the CPA deal with the “expanded scope of work”, the commission recommended that the number of members to be increased from six to eight — with one additional member appointed by the President and the other by the Prime Minister.

In a departure from the current re-appointment term of four years, it also suggested that CPA members’ appointments should be set as fixed terms of six years — be it a first appointment or a re-appointment. Such terms should also be staggered to ensure continuity and stability. 

For instance, appointments should be made biennially, with the President and the Prime Minister (and either the Chief Justice or the Chairman, Public Service Commission) taking turns to appoint members to the CPA. 

The commission also recommended that constitutional provisions be enacted to stipulate criteria for CPA membership, without being overly prescriptive. To be appointed, they should be persons of “integrity, good character and reputation”, possess relevant expertise to help inform the exercise of the President’s powers, and add to the CPA’s diversity so the council as a whole can possess the “requisite breadth and depth of experience” to better advise the President. They may include persons who have held senior government positions, or distinguished themselves in areas like law, accounting or business.

Reiterating that because of the seniority of appointments, the commission said that it was “not necessary” to go beyond general provisions to define the criteria so rigidly. 

The commission also disagreed with some suggestions that the CPA should have a specified number of minority members, saying that it was ultimately their “expertise” and “not their ethnic background” that is relevant. It also dismissed views that the criteria should be raised to levels comparable of that to Presidential candidates.

Other suggestions included increased accountability, through the CPA being required to disclose to the President the votes of each individual CPA member and the grounds for the CPA’s advice, including dissenting views. It also proposed extending the time frame of a request or proposal being sent to the President from the current 30 days to six weeks, within which the President must indicate his refusal.

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