President on upper deck of a double-decker bus

From a blogpost on Tan Jee Say by fellow SDP candidate Dr Ang Yong Guan, 20 Aug 2011, from his blog

…At the interview, I said the nation is likened to a double decker bus; the PM is on the driver’s seat with the Opposition Leader Mr Low Thia Khiang as co-driver. Mr Low had mentioned during the GE2011 that as a co-driver, he would give a slap to the driver if he finds the latter is driving towards the wrong direction.

The President meanwhile is on the upper deck; above politics and the day-to-day running of the country. He will guard the 5 boxes representing his 5 main functions carefully. The most important box is of course the nation’s reserves; he will watch over it like a watch-dog and would only say yes to the PM and cabinet if he is convinced that there is a need to tap the reserves. Hence, the President must be independent and courageous enough to stand up to speak clearly why he agrees or disagrees with the PM (of course all will be done quietly in the upper deck). He is not going to stand on the top of the bus to challenge the PM.

There are many derogatory terms to describe the role of the elected president. Some would take offence to ‘watchdog’, while others, including prominent PAP ministers like S Rajaratnam would refer to custodial powers as nothing more than ‘guarding the safe’ (Beware the moral blind eye: Raja, 10 Sept 1988, ST). One metaphor that has yet to be brought into the fray so far in these elections is the word ‘puppet’, but I wonder how ‘guarding the safe’ or ‘holder of the second key’ would be any less prestigious than sitting on the top of a double decker bus. I think a more appropriate description of the EP’s role if you want to talk about vehicles is not in the capacity of a driver or alternative driver, or even a backseat passenger holding the map, but rather the alarm sensor, something that is there for the sake of it, built into the design and  ‘good to have’ as a deterrent to unnecessary bumps, but everyone in the car can choose to ignore it, no matter how loud it beeps.

The bus driver analogy was not brought up by Low Thia Khiang but in fact Law Minister K Shanmugam in response to Low’s slapping analogy. This could be a literal interpretation of the phrase ‘above politics’, which suggests that our EP is transcendent in knowledge of the affairs of the state, rather than being a neutral party or ‘non-partisan’.  I don’t believe anyone in the  capacity of a government official, be it of the highest order, could be the omniscient all-seeing eye on political matters, otherwise they wouldn’t need anyone’s counsel.  Anyone above the laws and petty affairs of society would be an oracle of some sort. We have a pair of spectacles, a palm tree, a shouting hand and a heart, but no pyramid with a divine eye on its apex as presidential logos.

But a few things about this double decker analogy other than the fact that THERE ARE NO CO-DRIVERS on a bus. Dr Ang forgot about the PASSENGERS on the lower deck, who are in a better position than the EP to shout instructions to the driver if the bus were heading in the wrong direction. Anyone who’s been on a double decker would also know that passengers on top can’t ‘stand up and speak clearly’ to the driver because one, you’re not ALLOWED to stand on top of the bus, and two, even if you did, the driver below can’t hear you. And if all the discussion is done ‘quietly’ on the upper deck, then who’s driving? Low Thia Khiang?

All this fits pretty nicely into the ‘dumb president’ model, but not someone of Tan Jee Say’s disposition, who is better represented in what I would call the equestrian model. The racehorse is the people of Singapore, whipped to work by the PM as the star jockey, while Jee Say as EP is the race manager who deals out the trophy winnings and  occasionally strokes the horse to win its affection. It doesn’t matter what he talks to the jockey about because the horse wouldn’t understand anything, is not capable of doing anything, nor would it get its share of the booty other than a few carrots now and then.


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