Wednesday 9 November 2016

Workers' Party's proposal on Elected Presidency similar to Bullshit

Parliament debates WP call for senate and referendum
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

The House saw a spirited debate yesterday after the Workers' Party (WP) proposed a popularly elected senate and called for a referendum on its ideas. Its first major statement on changes to the elected presidency being debated in Parliament came under fire from no less than a dozen People's Action Party MPs.

The WP, which has opposed the elected presidency since it was introduced 25 years ago, wants a return to the old system in which Parliament appoints the president.

The president's current custodial powers over the national reserves and key public sector appointments would instead be vested in an eight-member senate, said WP chairman Sylvia Lim.

Minister of State for Communications and Information, and Education Janil Puthucheary gave the most forceful rebuttal at the end of the sitting:

"They did not submit this proposal to the Constitutional Commission, they did not submit it for public scrutiny or public debate. At the last minute, when the vote is tomorrow on this motion before us, we hear of this extraordinarily radical proposal to take apart our president, make it symbolic and elect another eight people who are effectively the custodial presidents."

Shanmugam, WP MPs on proposal for senate
The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

Law Minister K. Shanmugam had an exchange with Workers' Party (WP) MPs in Parliament yesterday over the opposition party's proposal for the president's custodial powers to be vested in a senate. Here are edited excerpts of his exchanges with WP chief Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) and Non-Constituency MPs Dennis Tan and Leon Perera.

On the details of the election for "senators"

Mr Low: I've said we have looked at the framework, the details we probably will have to fine-tune.

Mr Shanmugam: Can I take it that the details have not been worked out?

Mr Low: We've thought about the details, yes, and (they are) not fully worked out.

Mr Shanmugam: Can you tell us (if) the extent that you've worked out has been explained in this Parliament (sitting) today?

Mr Low: Yes, we've explained.

Mr Shanmugam: So what you've thought about is what you've explained so far?

Mr Low: There will be (WP) MPs speaking on some of the details.

Mr Shanmugam: I've asked a simple question. Fundamental to all of this is the criteria.

So I have you on record, Mr Low, as saying that you have thought of some, and some of that criteria and details will have to be worked out further? Second, I have you on record as saying whatever you've worked out has been set out.

I would like to ask Mr Tan, if there is any other detail on the selection criteria, please let us know. I'd also like a clarification. You said (the) criteria for the senators could be similar to the criteria for the presidents. Can you tell me to what extent will they be different?

Mr Tan: The criteria (will be) similar to the Council of Presidential Advisers.

On the criteria senatorial election candidates must satisfy

Mr Shanmugam: I take it that the basic criteria must be similar to the current elected presidency's qualification criteria.

Mr Perera: The basic qualities will be similar.

Mr Shanmugam: I'm not talking about qualities, I'm talking about criteria. Would you require the same criteria for the senators?

Mr Perera: The criteria would be similar.

Mr Shanmugam: I've heard this word "similar" several times. To what extent will they be different?

Mr Perera: It would be different in the sense that we would not have a hard and fast threshold or cut-off to say that regardless of the applicants who apply for this role... (interrupted)

Mr Shanmugam: But that is similar to the deliberative track today that we have because that's also not a hard and fast rule. So, what you are proposing for the senate is like what is being proposed for the elected presidency, (a) set of objective criteria which is the same, and some deliberative process, right?

Mr Perera: Essentially, yes. The reason for that is because (the senate) is still playing a custodial role, and it's not playing the role of reviewing legislations. So it's transferring the custodial (role) from an elected president to a senate.

Referendums should be for key issues only: Janil
Calling for vote on elected presidency would push responsibility for making laws to people
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

National referendums should be reserved for fundamental issues that concern a country's sovereignty, and not be held for people to vote on policy matters, said Minister of State for Communications and Information, and Education Janil Puthucheary yesterday.

Calling a referendum over such matters would amount to parliamentarians pushing to the people the responsibility for making laws for the country, he added. "That is the responsibility that we have been elected into this role for."

Dr Janil was responding to the Workers' Party's (WP) call for a national referendum for Singaporeans to choose what form the presidency should take.

The opposition party had proposed that the president be appointed, and his current custodial powers be vested in an elected senate, essentially a separate legislative chamber.

WP MPs who spoke said this option should be put to a national vote alongside the current elected presidency.

The proposal drew responses from over a dozen People's Action Party (PAP) MPs, with Dr Janil reminding the House that there has been only one referendum in Singapore's history - in 1962, when people voted on whether the country should merge with Malaysia - as there was "an extraordinarily high bar" to cross.

Workers' Party's senate idea flawed, unworkable: Shanmugam
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 10 Nov 2016

Law Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday called the Workers' Party (WP) proposal for an elected senate to safeguard the nation's reserves instead of an elected president "fundamentally flawed - in substance, and in terms of the process".

He rejected the substance of WP MPs' objections to an elected presidency. The WP had said the system was elitist, narrowed the field to a small pool of pro-establishment candidates, and could be politicised.

Instead, he said the WP's proposal to elect eight individuals to a senate would aggravate instead of ameliorate what it deems as problems in the elected presidency scheme.

Mr Shanmugam noted that WP MPs on Tuesday said that senators would need to have the same qualifications as an elected president.

"Instead of one elected president, we will have eight elected presidents. How does this deal with the objection of elitism?" he asked.

He also described as cynical the WP's view that "the whole exercise is to fix a non-People's Action Party (PAP) government", asking if its proposal would make this "eight times worse" as the senators would be drawn from the same pool.

Such a view also assumes the elected president would act in a dishonourable fashion to stymie a non-PAP government, a suggestion he called "unworthy" given the character of all the presidents who have held the custodial powers so far. He noted Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) and Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) made tributes to the late Mr S R Nathan after his death in August and said he served with distinction.

And having eight senators would build in politicisation throughout their term, as they would want to be re-elected and will have to constantly compete with each other, he said.

He asked: "Would this not considerably increase the risk of politicisation and gridlock, and a possible constitutional crisis?"

Mr Shanmugam also found the WP's process for its suggestion "deeply flawed", saying it was clear the proposal had not been thoroughly considered and did not stand up to scrutiny during the debate.

He cited questions WP MPs could not give clear answers on, such as whether senate candidates would campaign in teams or as individuals, how they would be selected, and how the senate would work.

"They are supposed to be independent. How do you form workable teams to compete against each other? Even worse, if the proposal is for them to run as independent, how can they work together as a team after that?" he asked.

When a scenario of a four-four split in a senate vote was raised, Mr Singh first said a casting vote could be used to break the deadlock, then later said there could be nine senators.

"It would have been comical, had we not been discussing such a serious matter," Mr Shanmugam said.

He also said the WP's proposal to select only 16 candidates for senate elections even if more qualified was an "extraordinary suggestion" that raises the issue of fairness.

On the eligibility criteria for senate candidates, Mr Shanmugam noted WP MPs seemed to suggest varying standards as their proposal was being questioned before settling on the same criteria as that of presidential candidates: "So this is clearly policy made on the fly in Parliament."

The WP was also not forthcoming about when the idea of the senate came about, he said.

"These are new ideas thought about in the last three months. Why not be just upfront and admit it?" he said, adding: "This proposal is like a home built with sand: One touch and it crumbles."

Mr Shanmugam noted the WP had on Tuesday mentioned its track record included running town councils. "If I were the WP, I would run away from talking about track records in town councils," he said.

He also took aim at Ms Lim's having said government leaders had been kept awake by the closely contested 2011 presidential election.

"Let me assure Ms Lim - ministers don't get sleepless nights, except when we are worried about Singapore and its future. The people who should be losing sleep are those who are accused of criminal impropriety," he said.

On risk of politicisation
The Straits Times, 10 Nov 2016

Several Workers' Party (WP) MPs questioned Law Minister K. Shanmugam after he spoke about flaws in the WP's proposal for a non-partisan elected senate that would have custodial powers, while the president is appointed by Parliament.

Here are edited excerpts of his exchange with Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera and Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC).

Mr Perera: (On) politicisation, how would we avoid the senate being politicised, and that has been bandied about a great deal... That same risk of politicisation is what the elected presidency is now vulnerable to. How do you manage that? No one from the other side of the House has given a definitive and convincing answer to this point.

Mr Shanmugam: As regards politicisation... we understand and accept that there is a risk. The Prime Minister talked about it, others have talked about it, there is a risk. We have always acknowledged the risk, we don't run away from the problem... Until and unless someone can suggest a better system, our assessment is: This is a risk worth taking and as our experience shows, if you elect good people, good presidents, the risk is well manageable.

Mr Faisal: Does the minister agree that the Constitutional Commission is taking a more prudent approach in dealing with the inherent tension by asking to do away with the elected presidency?

Mr Shanmugam: One doesn't have to characterise the Constitutional Commission's proposals. What I will say is, the Constitutional Commission gave many important recommendations which were directly relevant to the questions that were asked. In addition, it added an observation for the Government to consider if it wished and if it wanted to accept. That's what the commission said and I think we'll keep to the commission's words.

Proposal for elected senate? Moment for debate has passed, but bigger questions remain
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

It was supposed to be the second day of debate on proposed constitutional amendments concerning the elected presidency.

Yet, a good chunk of yesterday's sitting was taken up by an entirely different proposal: to revert to a ceremonial appointed president, and have an elected senate to protect the reserves.

That was the idea put forward by the Workers' Party (WP) and elaborated on by seven of its MPs and Non-Constituency MPs in their speeches yesterday.

They also called for a national referendum so citizens could choose between the Government's proposal and the WP's.

Of course, suggesting alternatives to government policy is a natural and important role for opposition MPs to play. The WP has made much about wanting to keep its powder dry and said it would present its views on reform of the elected presidency only when the issue came for debate in Parliament.

Yet, arguably the WP's proposal yesterday seemed to come too late to have any meaningful impact.

Including the idea in its submission to the Constitutional Commission, say, could have allowed the commission to consider it.

The WP's submission to the commission in March included strong arguments against the elected presidency and mentioned the possibility of reverting to an appointed one.

But it did not set out a detailed alternative or mention a senate. This seems like a missed opportunity.

Mr Edwin Tong (Marine Parade GRC) from the People's Action Party (PAP) pointed out as much in his speech, saying: "(The WP) had every opportunity of having their views considered and taken into account by the commission, put into the commission report, tabled in the White Paper and for this House to consider."

Unfortunately, it did not do so.

Alternatively, if the WP had simply made its idea public earlier, that would have allowed the idea of a ceremonial president and an elected senate to become part of the wider public debate on the issue.

Yesterday, the WP MPs raised philosophical issues surrounding the nature of the presidency.

They noted, for instance, the inherent tension between the president's symbolic role as a unifying figure and the contentious process of standing for election - something that the Constitutional Commission had also flagged.

Earlier in his speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong touched on the alternatives that had been considered and rejected, including one that came close to the WP proposal: to have a ceremonial, unelected president and vesting the powers of the second key in the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA).

"And if we were to elect the CPA, it would in effect become an Upper House," he said.

"Instead of just one national election to elect a president, we would have elections for six, eight or 10 presidential advisers," he added. The process would risk becoming politicised, and "the problem will be amplified, not reduced".

Nevertheless, the WP did raise important points that deserve to be debated.

Yet, as Minister of State for Communications and Information, and Education Janil Puthucheary pointed out, the moment - for the debate that the WP wanted to have - has passed.

The House is not debating whether to retain an elected presidency, but the proposed changes to the elected presidency.

Nevertheless, ruling party MPs chose to devote much time to engaging the WP on its proposal in excruciating detail.

No fewer than 10 PAP MPs stood up to pose "supplementary questions" on the minutiae of the senate idea. They included at least four office-holders, including Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.

They had questions on everything from the criteria for shortlisting senate candidates to the schedule for senate elections, and whether these would be staggered.

Perhaps it made political sense for them to scrutinise the WP's proposal for weaknesses, or attempt to expose the WP as under-prepared.

But it did seem a bit of a sideshow for so much time to be spent picking apart a proposal that had not been put on the table till so late in the day.

After one such round of clarification, WP chief Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) said: "Let's have some debate on the fundamental (issues), the pros and cons of having a senate and an elected presidency. Don't be bogged down by details."

The bigger point is that the moment for such a debate has passed.

But if PAP MPs had wished to object to the WP's proposal nonetheless, then perhaps it would have been more fruitful to engage the party on the philosophical issues.

Questions about the nitty-gritty details of the WP's senate idea apply only to that specific proposal.

But there are bigger questions, not least about how to handle the tension between the elected president's symbolic role and the electoral process, which apply even if the WP's proposal is taken off the table. These deserved more airtime.

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