On Proposed Changes To Electing President Of Singapore

Mr. Alfian Sa’at, the concluding remark in your recent piece (http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2016/08/22/minorities-not-to-be-used-once-again-as-a-pretext-to-devise-a-system-to-allow-pap-to-entrench-power/) — ‘I would rather have a Chinese Elected President (EP) who can act as an effective check on the government than a puppet Malay President holding a golden rubberstamp’ — I find to be at variance with the rationale of an earlier essay of yours, posted on TOC in September of 2009. (http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2009/09/03/should-article-152-be-scrapped-from-the-singapore-constitution/) The core theme of your then nearly 2k-word essay (a follow-up on MM Lee’s remark in Parliament) was that official affirmative action was needed to safeguard minority interests/representations, to otherwise afford them a more level playing field in a polity of one overwhelming majority race; you evidently argued then in favor of upholding Article 152 of the Constitution.

In September 2009, NMP Viswa tabled a parliamentary motion (to remind Singaporeans of the National Pledge to be one united people as he was exhorting fellow citizens to be less race-conscious). LKY subsequently stood up to counter him but LKY was over the hill then — he had had better days as a dynamic parliamentary orator in his career for sure. I find his ‘aspiration-vs-ideology’ elucidation on the affirmative action point to be neither cogent nor particularly persuasive. He did stumble over several unconscious gaffes in his speech… clumsily misquoting a couple times America’s year of Independence as 1976 and, misnaming Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ historic speech as ‘We dare to dream’. At any rate, NMP Viswa’s motion was adopted by Parliament with LKY’s point noted. All that aside, the main thrust of LKY’s argument for the stance in affirmative action enshrined at the outset in our Constitution was right on point. LKY had never bought into the ‘Western-liberal’ platitude that ‘all men are created equal’ — never had and never would it be. This grandiose 5-word phrase attributed to Jefferson immortalized in America’s Declaration of Independence of 1776 had belied the everyday reality of treatment of her minority for almost 200 years. So in 1964 the landmark affirmative-action Civil Rights Bill was at long last enacted to ensure some measure of level playing field for her mistreated and underrepresented minority. But it took almost another 40 years, in 2003, for America’s highest Court to finally give its judicial blessing on affirmative action, that such assurance is needed for promoting greater minority participation in a diverse society. Whereas, Singapore’s founding fathers were sagacious and hard-nosed enough from the get-go to acknowledge the need for affirmative action for the greater good of all in a heterogenous society.

Hence I am all for an affirmative action policy to afford members of the minority a fairer shot at being elected to the highest office — albeit being a symbolic one — for that is in keeping with the original ethos of our Constitution that has served her well thus far. And especially because the Presidency is a distinctive, symbolic office, all the more reason to have members of the various races fairly represented in it. On your concern that such artificially crafted affirmative action at the highest level could be used as a subterfuge for the powers that be to consolidate even more power, on that I am surely less cynical or apprehensive than you seem to be. As it is, being already an authoritarian unitary state of one dominant political party, do you really see the need or hunger there for even more aggrandizement of power?

And that brings me to my final note of another minor disagreement. I beg to differ somewhat with your comment on EP’s prospective role as an effective check on the government. Just what meaningful veto power does he/she have other than the one act albeit an important one of being able to give the thumbs down to official request for emergency spending? If someday an EP ever acted to check on a profligate government, Singapore would be in a sorry, precarious state then. After President Ong Teng Cheong’s tenure in 1999, the EP’s role evidently has since been re-defined to one of mainly ceremonial function, intended not so much to check as it is to complement the government. President Ong was apparently frowned upon for being overly inquisitive during his tenure. But our first EP President Ong did put it aptly in his farewell speech in 1999: “Having a good government is better than having a good President to check on a bad government. Singaporeans are fortunate to have a clean and able government for the last 35 years.” And let’s hope it continues for another 135.

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April 3, 2017

Now, this is surreal. What Amos had done in the past doesn’t affect anyone’s future here. There are far weightier issues that should concern us. For example, what is your opinion of  Tan Cheng Bock’s request for clarification from the govt regarding the coming EP.

April 4, 2017  lesterkok replied:

Pik, thanks for such generous lecture on my remissness of duty in failing to comment on issues of the day you personally deem so very important. But you over-flatter me. I am but a ‘molecule’ in the universe of opinions, to borrow an expressive term of yours. Now, to be sure, you have unjustly singled me out for criticism. I have already made known my only post on the EP topic way back in Aug. 26 of last yr. Apparently you didn’t read it. Here’s the link: https://lester978.wordpress.com/2016/08/26/on-proposed-changes-to-electing-president/

It was a longish counter-piece of sorts to Alfian Sa’at’s even longer article. So let me summarize it here for you, points that I’ve already made to Ms. CherLing recently on the TOC site:

1. No matter, the new EP is still an honorary, ceremonial, ritualistic office. The importance of its makeover is grossly exaggerated. Therefore, the topic has done little to excite me to commentary other than what I have previously opined.

2. The good old doc of 76 years, Dr. Tan, knows a great deal better on the subject than I do. He’s popular with the crowd, by rights he should be next in line but PM has other ideas, so that’s politics of life.

3. I’m for affirmative action to give each minority a fair shake for the titular post. But the way it is set up, I’m afraid it’ll need re-tweaking down the road … but that’s what the local machinery here does so well, correcting itself along the way. I’ll leave it at that.

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I think a surreal conversation with PM LHL on the EP would be more interesting.

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