Thursday, 3 November 2011

Singaporeans have limited understanding of Elected Presidency: IPS survey 2011

Many confused about job of president: Poll
Majority of respondents believe he ensures Govt manages economy well
By Cai Haoxiang, The Straits Times, 2 Nov 2011

IN A finding that took researchers by surprise, a survey shows Singaporeans are confused about the elected presidency, and have limited understanding of the roles the president is supposed to play.

The two biggest misconceptions: That the president is there to ensure the Government manages the economy wisely, and that he is free to speak publicly on national issues he deems important.

This raised eyebrows among researchers like Dr Gillian Koh, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), which commissioned the survey.

She said she had expected voters to understand the constitutional limits on the president, given the extensive media coverage on the subject in the lead-up to the presidential election in August.

The situation needs to be corrected so that there can be an informed debate on the president's role, she added.

'The starting point of the informed debate is to at least understand what the official interpretation is, and then take it from there,' she said.

Constitutional law expert Kevin Tan suggested using TV dramas to educate more people. 'Have a 24-part Channel 8 drama on some features of the presidency, showing crises and so on, set the date at 2050.

'You might actually succeed,' he said.

Both spoke at a forum organised by the IPS yesterday to present the findings of the survey. It polled more than 2,000 Singaporeans aged 21 and older who were interviewed on the phone between Sept 20 and Oct 5.

Among other things, they were asked whether they agreed with 11 statements designed to test their understanding of the president's role. Included were six 'incorrect' statements on the president's role.

About 95 per cent of them recognised - correctly - that the president represents Singapore abroad, is the head of state, and can block the Government's intention to spend national reserves.

But four out of five thought - wrongly - that the president ensures the Government manages the economy wisely.

Similarly, three in four thought wrongly that the president was free to speak publicly on national issues he deemed important.

When their scores were added, the average person got 5.4 points out of a possible 11. Almost 60 per cent got just five or fewer answers correct.

For those who agreed with a particular statement, researchers went one step further and asked if that was important in shaping their vote.

It was.

For instance, 96 per cent of the 1,600 people who believe the president ensures the Government manages the economy wisely, said this point shaped their vote.

Similarly, 95 per cent of the 1,300 voters who said the president ensures the Government does what it had promised in the general election, said it was an important factor in how they voted.

The presidential election took place three months after a fiercely fought general election. Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, 71, a former deputy prime minister, won narrowly in the four-cornered fight.

Among the presidential hopefuls, at least two campaigned on promises to play more than the custodial role prescribed in the Constitution.

The sound and fury in the months before polling day led sociologist Tan Ern Ser, a member of the IPS research team, to say that voters 'may actually be indicating their preferred position on the president's roles, rather than displaying their knowledge or ignorance'.

Singaporeans are responsible for educating themselves on the presidency, said Singapore Management University law lecturer Eugene Tan.

He noted that given so many 'grey areas' in the Constitution on the president's role, any Government attempt to educate voters will be misperceived as trying to 'straitjacket' the office.

He suggested the president can help educate Singaporeans by publishing an annual report.

Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao editor Goh Sin Teck, a panellist at the forum, was more sanguine.

He said that while an 18-year gap separated the last election and the recent one, presidential elections in future are likely to be contested. 'Voter knowledge will build up,' he said.

IPS survey highlights

Nine out of 10 people want the president to be elected by Singaporeans and not selected by Parliament.

85 per cent believe a person from an ethnic minority group can be elected president through the current system.

Three in five think there is no need to change anything in the existing system for electing the president.

42 per cent say the 'Patrick Tan issue' was 'very important' in deciding how they voted. But 48 per cent shrugged it off while the rest were neutral.

The 'Patrick Tan issue' refers to allegations that President Tony Tan Keng Yam's son Patrick had received preferential treatment in his national service deferment and posting. The Defence Ministry said no such treatment was given.

52 per cent say the outcome of the May general election shaped their vote in the August presidential election.

Three in four think the mass media gave all candidates fair coverage.

Newspapers were the most influential in shaping how Singaporeans voted in the presidential election.

Almost 90 per cent say newspapers were an important factor in shaping their voting decision.

Next in line were: TV (80 per cent), the Internet (67 per cent), election rallies (64 per cent), meeting candidates (62 per cent), radio (50 per cent), meeting supporters of candidates (46 per cent), word of mouth (45 per cent), election literature (43 per cent) and mobile phones (31 per cent).

Those who understand the president's role better tend to be highly educated and well-to-do men below the age of 65. Those who do not are likely to be low-income earners aged 65 and older, and living in one- to three-room HDB flats.

74 per cent believe political parties should not be allowed to endorse candidates. Similarly, 68 per cent say social organisations, unions and other community groups should not be allowed to endorse candidates.

University-educated men aged 21 to 40, living in private property or bigger HDB flats and working in professional or executive jobs, tend to be more critical of the institution of the presidency.

**If I may add, when 3 out of the 4 Presidential candidates themselves are confused about the EP's role, would not the layman be even more confused.

President 'should be paid less than PM'
That's the opinion of 55% of Singaporeans polled in survey
By Cai Haoxiang, The Straits Times, 2 Nov 2011

MOST Singaporeans do not think the president should be paid more than the prime minister, according to a survey.

Many who hold this view tend to be university graduates in their 40s and early 50s, professionals or working as senior executives.

In all, 55 per cent of the 2,000 Singaporeans polled by researchers of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) disagreed that the elected president should get a bigger pay packet than the prime minister.

On the other hand, 25 per cent believe the president's pay should be higher than the prime minister's. They tend to be people aged 65 and older, and living in one- to three-room HDB flats.

The salaries of the president, prime minister, political appointment holders and members of Parliament are under review by a committee led by retired accountant Gerard Ee.

A progress report in May on the panel's work has indicated that the president's pay may be adjusted to below that of the prime minister.

Yesterday, when told of the findings, Mr Ee said: 'I'll take note of the sentiments. The review will be done by the end of the year.'

The pay of the president has risen over the years, in tandem with the salary increases of political, judicial and civil service appointment holders.

Earlier this year, the president's pay caused a stir when it was disclosed in Parliament that his salary for the year up to end-March was $4,267,500.

As for the prime minister's salary, the most current figure available is for 2009 when he was paid $3.04 million.

After the disclosure in Parliament of the president's salary, some people wrote to the Straits Times Forum page asking why then President S R Nathan was paid more than Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Mr Lee's press secretary responded, saying that as the president occupied the highest office in Singapore, it was 'appropriate to peg his salary higher than ministers' and just above the prime minister's'.

That was in March.

In May, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) issued terms of reference for the committee reviewing the salaries of the president, prime minister and other political appointment holders.

The PMO said that while the president's salary should reflect his high status as the head of state and his critical custodial role with regard to the reserves, it should also take into account that 'unlike the prime minister, he does not have direct executive responsibilities except as they relate to his custodial role'.

Fixing perceptions of the elected president's role
The Straits Times, 5 Nov 2011

A SURVEY on the elected presidency, released this week, made for interesting and surprising reading. Not least because it suggests that voters remain confused about the role and scope of responsibilities that the president has.

Significantly, it also established that their interpretations had a direct bearing on how they voted on Aug 27.

Given that the 2,000 respondents in the Institute of Policy Studies survey represent a sampling of the electorate, there is much work to be done in the years between now and the next presidential poll in 2017. That work will need to confront the very real views that these and future voters have about what the president can and should do as these perceptions will, in all likelihood, still weigh on how they cast their ballot. The work ahead could, arguably, even involve retooling the elected president's job description, given that the institution continues to evolve over time and with changing circumstances.

Among the survey's telling findings is that a sizeable number of the respondents continue to see the president having responsibilities beyond those stipulated in the Constitution. They believe, among other things, that he ensures the Government manages the economy wisely; that he can freely speak on national issues he deems important; and that he ensures the Government delivers its election promises.

Such misreadings exist despite the Government weighing in to explain, in the campaign's early stages, that the elected president works with the Government and acts on its advice, except in areas where he has custodial powers, such as over the reserves and key civil service appointments. The findings, coupled with the Aug 27 election results, suggest that a segment of voters want a president who will be a countervailing force, interventionist and a check on the Government. In short, an independent power centre.

Yet the advocates egging this development neglect to spell out the consequences. Have they thought it through? An adversarial relationship can spell chaos, confusion, gridlock; delays in passage of legislation, the Budget and key appointments. They also fail to acknowledge that interactions do take place, albeit in private, between government and president. It is worth considering that on issues of significance, both sides should go public on the scope of discussions and outcomes in much the same way as when the government and former president S R Nathan did over the draw on reserves to combat the recession in 2009. Doing this, together with a strategy to educate voters, will raise the level of understanding and ensure there can be a more informed discussion about the role and parameters within which the president operates.

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