Singapore: Controversy Around Elected Presidency

1999

Dr Chua Beng Huat

The National Day Parade on 9 August has become an annual event for the staging of nationhood. This year's parade marks the last for the first Elected President, Ong Teng Cheong. He had announced during a press briefing in July that he would not seek another term of office after his term of office expires on 31 August, but not because of ill-health, referring to his publicly known cancer. During the briefing, he disclosed that the civil service had been slow, if not reluctant, in providing him with the financial figures of the national reserve, for which he is constitutionally-bound to safeguard from its being drawn down irresponsibly by the government.

Furthermore, some ministers might have found his office a nuisance. Given the PAP government's stance that an accusation unanswered is an accusation admitted, the President's public airing had to be countered. The reply was delayed on account of the untimely death of the First Lady, Mrs Ong Teng Cheong. In the 17 August parliamentary session, Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, answered point for point the President's criticisms. In addition, he pointed out that the Cabinet, based on medical reports, had decided and accordingly informed the President that it would not support his earlier expressed desire to seek re-election. Whether this withdrawal of support affected the President's decision remains an open question.

In the interim, the government reasserts its position that the Elected Presidency is strictly a custodial office with no executive function in government. Subsequent search for candidates for the Elected Presidential Office came up with exactly one name, nominated by the cabinet itself. He is seventy-five years old S.R. Nathan, a career civil servant who is currently ambassador-at-large and Director of the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies at the Nanyang Technological University. On nomination day, 18 August, he was duly declared the next President.

As if to counter suggestions, voiced in some quarters, that Mr Nathan may not be widely known among the populace, after his acclamation the mass media prepared very substantial accounts, laced with interviews, of his past positions, achievements and habits of everyday life. Statements of support from those who had the opportunity to work with him were also publicized. As to his future activities, Mr Nathan suggests that his term in office will help to shape the working relations between the government and the office of the Elected Presidency, which is still in its infancy, presaging the possible public airing of differences.

WATCHPOINT: The likelihood of substantial differences between the President and the Government is low, as he will be working within the guidelines of a White Paper, drawn up between Prime Minister Goh and incumbent President Ong.

 

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