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The Responsibilities of the Elected President – Just A Singapore Fairy Tale?

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With the abundant news coverage, most of us would by now be quite familiar with what the primary duties of the elected president of Singapore are, apart from his ceremonial ones.  

Duty 1: He is to guard our national reserves from a profligate govt of the day.

 This post’s focus is on Duty 1.

Let me ask aloud, how many of us know even roughly how the EP actually gets down to discharging this most heavy of burden imposed on him by the constitution? 

Has he a team of independent presidential staffers who are constantly monitoring what the govt of the day is doing with our reserves, which is after all not a humongous pile of money sitting quietly in some heavily Gurkha-guarded vault somewhere in the heart of Singapore?

The reserves are huge assets made up of virtually hundreds if not thousands of diverse and widely-spread and dispersed components – ranging from fixed assets like properties and going commercial concerns purchased overseas by the govt, to investments of many types, shades and colours made by the GIC and Temasek here and worldwide. 

We can all recall reading about that infamous reply given to our late President Ong Teng Cheong by the govt Auditor General that it required 56 man-years merely to compile a list for his reference.  

OTC might had thought that it was a logical starting point to take responsibility for his job.  Wouldn’t he had to know and to take stock of what he was being entrusted with to ‘guard’, before he could even begin to assume responsibility for them? 

Among others, he would have to monitor what was happening to them. It would be far fetched to expect him to protect them if he was not constantly aware of their status.  

All this would require a mechanism, an SOP, a set of procedures for smooth implementation. 

An analogy would be the American/NATO forces enforcing a NO FLY ZONE in North Africa – they sent out aircraft and UFVs equipped with cameras and electronics to monitor and watch what was going on in the targeted air space. 

In like manner, there should be a system of presidential ‘eyes and ears’ installed to enable the EP to keep tabs and to constantly track the status and status quo of reserves under his ‘jurisdiction’.   Logical?  YES, for no thief or no-fly-zone breaker would come announced. Any govt is capable of behaving inappropriately. 

Given our govt’s proclivity for efficiency, surely an SOP must have already been worked out, formalized and  even refined through practise after some 18 years of the elected presidential system? 

But what are these procedures and SOPs? Where are they? 

I am asking because personally I do not recall reading about it in the news. Has anyone the slightest idea whether even the most simplified flow chart of its operation has been publicized by the press? As citizens whose country’s life savings are at stake, I think I speak for all that we most certainly want to know and be assured. 

IMO, a profligate govt intending to make unauthorized use of the country’s reserve would not be so foolish as to openly and brazenly confront the EP for the other ‘key’ to open the vault, so to speak.  That would be amateurish. An enterprising ‘baddie’ govt would very likely do it in stealth. Slowly, but gradually, transferring out, whittling and frittering away our savings! And nobody would be the wiser if nobody has been tasked to ‘mind’ the ‘business’! 

There could be so many imaginable ways to do it. Big time crooks routinely launder their ill-gotten gains to conceal them and their origins. And there would be ample opportunities to do so too given the sheer size, complexity and diverse nature of govt activities. Cash are not date-stamped to identify when it was first earned, for instance. Any tell tale signs or trails could easily be ‘lost’ in a maze of transactions. It would not be too difficult to cover up when no one else is allowed to know or look. No whistle-blower, no worries about discovery. 

Confidentiality aside, the people do not need to know the exact nitty-gritty details – it would be sufficient that an EP (WHOM WE CAN TRUST) gets to see it on our behalves. But we do have a collective responsibility and a RIGHT to expect that an Elected President system set up by the incumbent govt to protect the national reserves would be properly equipped with the necessary powers, authority and independent means, to do the job properly, without fear or favour. 

Prof Jayakumar was quoted as saying that the ‘President is not a separate political centre’ and that he has only ‘blocking powers’, ‘discretionary, custodial power’ in the five areas. 

But, I am pondering how is the EP able to perform effectively if he is not given the commensurating means and powers to pursue his role as the guardian of the nation’s national reserves when a situation arises? How does the EP even begin to ‘block’ or exercise his ‘custodial power’ WITHOUT the substantive means and resources to back him up? Surely, no one should seriously suggest that he can rely on a govt he is taking on to provide or facilitate him in this respect? 

The experience of the first EP, OTC, is a telling illustration of how without any concomitant prerogative or authority delegated to him by law over relevant govt departments or senior public servants when in such a situation, his efforts are easily blocked and he could do little more than to wait, in other words, STALLED. 

Are there provisions made for the chiefs of the judiciary and law enforcement, for example, to obey and take orders from the president in such eventualities? Obviously, the EP cannot take into ‘safe custody’ our reserves in a ‘fight’ with a profligate govt without the necessary enabling support structure? Would his last recourse in such a crisis be to appeal to the people who elected him into office?  

I am flummoxed by what assumptions and premises could have been used as the bases for enacting the constitutional change to create the EP and his special responsibilities without much apparent thought given as to how he would be able to perform them. To what ends do ‘blocking powers’ and ‘discretionary, custodial powers’ of the EP serve if they do not translate into real and concrete powers to arrest or stop a wrong doing? 

It all boils down to bargaining power. The EP, as presently constituted, has little where it really matters. He is a one-horse calvary charge

It pleases no one, certainly not the people who are asked to vote for an EP of their choice, nor the govt who actually started the whole shebang and last of all, the man in the hot seat – the EP himself, who is apparently no more than a lame duck with things as they are. 

In the final analysis, the EP system cannot work without real empowerment being included as part and parcel of the ‘package’.  


No one believed it when someone said that faith would move a mountain. But, when someone said that an atomic bomb would move a mountain, everybody believed it – Bertrand Russell




  1. […] Election – Thetwophilo’s Blog: The Responsibilities of the Elected President – Just A Singapore Fairy Tale? [Thanks yl] – Thoughts of a Cynical Investor: Tan Chin Bock & the ISA – Blogging for Myself: […]

  2. patriot says:

    Wow, looks like most Singaporeans are hopelessly looking for an almighty president that will be powerful enough to take on a cabinet of elected law-makers, each of them more powerful than the Elected President himself.
    Knowing very well that the Elected President has NO EXECUTIVE POWER and still wishful and wistful for him to do the impossible only goes to show the daftness of the people.
    If only the people have ask for a no confidence vote on the Presidency, then we are on our way to some democracy.

    • thetwophilo says:

      Nothing is cast in stone. Well, even stones can be pulverized and replaced. On the contrary it is daft to swallow hook line and sinker that all wisdom, all ways and means, all initiative for change, starts and ends with the PAP.

  3. Saycheese says:

    There is no more need for all the concerns you have expressed with Tony Tan as EP. Remember Ong Teng Cheong was also deputy PM (and without the benefit of being in GIC) and see what a marvelous job he did. Tony Tan can be expected to do better – he do not have to question the Reserve – he already knows the reserves and since the PAP is not a profligate government, his job is a walk in the park and only daft songapireans will willingly put up with that astronomical pay. He already knows the workings of GIC and if the PM (who appointed himself in GIC) wants funds, Tony can say no?

  4. patriot says:

    Like it or not, all dynasty and kingdom will have to end.
    It is really only a question of time and the manners they
    fall; peaceful transition or violent end.
    If stones have to be pulverized to reshape or mould them,
    there must be the artisan(s) to do it.
    And, I bet with my name that in Sin, the President does
    not have the quality of such an artisan.

  5. Jake Hunter says:

    What is the second or rest duties??

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