President does not have to be dumb

From Tan Kin Lian’s statement in response to Law Minister Shanmugam, ‘Can the President speak’, 6 Aug 2011,

..I do not agree with his view that  the President cannot speak about anything else without the approval of the Government.

I find the Law Minister’s interpretation to be too narrow. It seemed to give the President less freedom of speech than an ordinary citizen of Singapore….I have looked at the constitution earlier about whether the President can be the voice of the people to bring issues to the Government. I do not find any requirement that the President should be “dumb”.

What K Shanmugam said was that the elected President can only ‘speak on issues only as authorised by the Cabinet’, and any act that is deemed to ‘contradict the government’ or ‘speak publicly’ is ‘unconstitutional’. Though ‘dumb’ may be an exaggeration, the muffled president concept in which he only acts in accordance to what the Government wishes and thrashes things out in confidence rather than challenging policies openly does imply that despite some rudimentary ‘blocking powers‘ and ‘star power’, the EP is indeed deprived of freedom of speech compared to what an electorate is entitled to. This could mean that the government may be more willing to listen to its own people through social media and Meet the People sessions rather than their own EP.

Having a president and Head of State without any role in the actual management of this State is nothing new, yet everyone is all worked up over what the President can’t do and being ambivalent about the upcoming elections without realising that the Singaporean presidency has always been a distant cousin of a monarchy, only without the royal weddings. Here’s a list of the other very important things that our very first president Yusof Ishak has accomplished as part of the job, just to put things in perspective and show that perhaps our future EP may be too caught up in ceremony-gracing activities to argue with the PAP after all:  Opening International Bazaar for the Blind(1967), patron in chief of Football Association of Singapore (1966), entertaining members of the Poppy Day organisation (1967), holding tea parties for SEA games sportsmen (1959), watching movies like ‘Rabaa El Aldaweya’ for charity (1966), admiring flowers at a orchid show (1962) and playing games at a fun fair (1967). Of all the courtesy calls, attending charity premieres and plays is probably the best way to get any presidential hopeful to shut up for a couple of hours at least.

How these great figures are described in death will also give us some clue about the kind of qualities that the government looks for in the ideal president. The eulogy for Benjamin Sheares read as ‘a man of humility’ who served with ‘dedication’ and ‘quiet dignity’, referred to by LKY as the ‘best man for the job’ (Best man for the job, 30 Dec 1978, ST). Yusof Ishak was a ‘man of the people’ and always put the ‘people before self’. Ong Teng Cheong was upright, caring, stoical and gracious. Which brings us to the current selection of presidential hopefuls and how hard it is to fit their profiles into the presidential mould. Law professor Thio Li-Ann also made strange references to celebrities like Angelina Jolie and George Clooney to describe the ‘star power’ of a president to galvanise the people for a  good cause, though charismatic and influential, as these stars doubtless are, are not traits people like Shamumgam would appreciate in the EP. If you’re just talking about ‘star power’ alone, none exemplifies this as much as this picture below featuring Tan Kin Lian himself, looking like he’s about to receive an Academy award instead of the key to the nation’s reserves.

I bet he moves like Jagger


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