The Straits Times reported that “50 turned up to discuss review of office” (Sunday Times, 6 March 2016).
It was reported,
“One of the speakers, constitutional law expert Kevin Tan, echoed a sentiment shared by several participants: that the current review of the system is spurred by the experience of the close contest in the last presidential election in 2011.”
This is perhaps the one and only real purpose from PM Lee’s point of view: to change the criteria so that only HIS preferred choice of candidate could qualify and win the elected presidency.
Let’s examine Lee’s main excuses for change:
that the number of at least $100 million companies has grown 13 folds to 2,114 since it was written into law 25 years ago.
So by simple arithmetics, we had only about 162 of such companies when it first started 25 years ago? But how is having more people now who qualify be an issue? SINGAPOREANS WILL NOW HAVE MORE POTENTIAL PEOPLE TO CHOOSE FROM TO BE THEIR NEXT EP. Why is this not good? Why is this apparently a bad thing that worries the PAP government?
To most of us ordinary mortals, it is a cause for celebration to have more capable people in our midst to choose from to fill the elected president’s job. Yet, Lee is apparently rueing the fact that this is the case! To date he did not condescend to explain to us what is his logic beyond those threadbare remarks.
In the manner Lee prefers to slant it, you get the impression that he thinks the 13 folds increase is apparently just so much more burdensome weed (or, duckweed?) that requires the appointment of a 9-member Constitution Commission of highly qualified and highly placed persons to prune and weed out.
There is one more weakness in Lee’s reasoning about the 13-fold increase in ‘eligible’ companies: he implied that a 13-fold increase would directly or inevitably translate into a rush of company Chairmen, Presidents and CEOs knocking on the Istana gate to become the next elected president.
This is quite unfounded and without real merits. A non-sequitur because from past experience this had not been so. More to the truth, he is motivated by the knowledge and fear that there is a very real opportunity for a president who truly represents the people to be elected this time round and upset the PAP’s apple cart.
It is seriously doubted that the vast majority of the 2,114 eligible companies and their top brass would even be slightly interested to jeopardize the well-being of their own businesses for the sake of the largely perfunctory position of the EP in the PAP’s scheme of things. But in contrast, it is extremely jealously guarded by PAP for reasons of its own vested interest as it is very much a part and parcel of its cosmetic window dressing and white washing for the outside world. It is also a weak link if a truly non-partisan and righteous person takes over command at the Istana.
His claim that the national reserves, which has always been shrouded in secrecy, has grown much bigger is a weak argument and makes little impression as how much bigger has it actually grown or for that matter, shrunk, no average citizen really knows. Real knowledge of the reserves’ status is a well guarded secret. Very probably, even top officials of the MAS, GIC and Temasek dealing with the reserves would have only a partial and incomplete picture confined to their own immediate portfolios and spheres of responsibility. Even Goh Chok Tong, an economist, was apparently kept at arms length by the father and son in respect of the reserves.
There is no way he would be able to convince Singaporeans on this point.
According to PM Lee’s implied logic, an at least $100-million company is now not good enough to qualify. It begs the question what should the new ‘magic’ cut-off figure would be – $200, $300, $500-million, or perhaps even a billion $ since this would be rarefied enough and would probably be good for the next 50 years?
One might also ask him what about those presidential advisers – shouldn’t they be the ones that would and should be constantly and readily changed and refreshed to suit a changed or different ‘steering’ requirement rather than constantly chop and change the Constitution to ‘adjust’ the EP’s qualifications at the drop of a hat. In comparison, in an executive president system like the US, presidential advisers come and go often to meet changed circumstances. In any event, the EP’s role is largely ceremonial 99% of the time and custodial 1% of the time, and he has no options but to take his cues from the Prime Minister and he is fully assisted in all important matters, including his custodial duties of guarding the national reserves, by a team of highly qualified advisers, experts and assistants.
Further, as has come to pass the overwhelming majority of these top companies top guns are perfectly contented to remain where they are as they are quite ‘ambitionless’ in the direction of becoming the next elected president of Singapore with a guaranteed limited tenure of only 5 years. This has been the case to date (see below). It is moot that they would prefer ‘challenges’ like kissing babies, making inane speeches, gracing ceremonies and shaking hands of ordinary folks and foreign dignitaries at the Istana and other functions, to running their business outfits.
Furthermore, given the PAP’s record of a lack of transparency with regard to the management and status of the national reserves (think of the treatment/answers meted out to late President Ong Teng Cheong when he wanted to take stock of his responsibilities for the reserves) how many self-respecting top guns of top companies could stomach the prospect of sacrificing their concrete and real control over their ‘mere’ $100 million companies, in exchange for something so vague and nebulous as a gilded jaga job over ‘invisible’ billions in national reserves.
Simple Real Statistics
Next, let’s look at the real statistics – based on the reported 2,114 at least $100-million companies today – there would have been roughly about 162 such companies 25 years ago when it started? What is the purpose of comparing with dated 25 years old figure? What about a more current figure such as the figure in 2011 when the last EPE was held? This was not given nor emphasized I believe.
When we extrapolate from 25 years assuming a progressive trend of increase over the 25 years to the present 2,114, there could have been theoretically, something like (roughly) 1,690 to 1,800 eligible $100 million and more companies in 2011, the year of the last EPE. Now, the interesting and enlightening point is how many people from these 1,690 to 1,800 companies who qualified for the 2011 EPE were actually interested enough to participate and were eventually allowed after their credentials were vetted? The answer is, precisely 1 (namely, Tan Kin Lian). So what is the significance of trotting out the 2,114 figure when it is obviously irrelevant?
Why does the PAP see a need to cut down on people who are eligible to participate when they are overwhelmingly not even interested to participate in the first place? Why is the PAP making it an issue when NONE exists in the first place? Why isn’t Lee happy if more from the eligible ‘cohort’ would qualify to stand given the current paucity of interest, even apathy, among them to come forward and serve? Instead, he is apparently making an excuse to cut down when he should be doing the very opposite – like a farmer spraying weed-killer when he should be nurturing the soil with fertilizer.
It is therefore plain that Lee is using it as an excuse for the Constitution Commission to introduce new criteria aimed at preventing 2011 EP candidates like Tan Cheng Bok (who lost to Tony Tan only by a whisker) and Tan Kin Lian from participating in the 2017 EPE. Many believe, not without justification, that should it come down to a two-horse race between Tony Tan and Tan Cheng Bok, the former would be soundly beaten this time round. The PAP knows it has a huge problem finding a replacement for Tony Tan who could outshine the popular medical practitioner.
Affirmative Action For Minority Participation in the Elected Presidency
“east is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet” – Kipling
This basically turns Lee’s own punctilious arithmetics and logic above on its head. On the one hand, the PM appeared impossibly fastidious about the calibre of the EP to take on the custodial duties for the national reserves, but on the other hand he is at the same time saying it is all right, now and then, to indulge in patronizing affirmative action towards members of minority groups by making them EPs (implying, even when they don’t meet the reserves custodial criteria). Is this flattery or an insult? It is apparent that Lee is saying it is OK sometimes to have such LAME DUCK EPs never mind his inability to discharge his fiduciary responsibilities towards the people! How would our local Indian and Malay Singaporeans see this? How would the rest see this? In a manner this is a Freudian Slip of Lee on the real sort of EPs that he in his heart of hearts really wants. What should we make of this except that he is playing to the gallery? Let’s see if members of the minority groups would call his bluff.
Why don’t the PAP simply scrap the EP and revert to a titular presidency – call a referendum if you will – where the government can pick and choose who it wants to be president? Spare us the pantomime and make-believe that we are going to elect someone into the Istana who could actually be depended upon to stop a rogue PAP government from doing whatever pleases it with our country’s reserves.
We all know that under the PAP the unchangeable fact is that the president whether, elected or selected, could only tread where the govt allowed him. He could NEVER ever dream of stopping the PAP government where it matters most and when the chips are down. So, can you stop the wayang, please?