Wrap-up Speech by DPM Teo Chee Hean at 2nd Reading of Constitutional of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill
Madam Speaker, I would like to thank the 38 members for speaking on the Bill. This is an important debate about improvements to a key National Institution – the Elected Presidency (“EP”).
The Prime Minister has spoken extensively about the broad principles that underlie the need for the EP, the provisions to ensure multi-racial representation in the Presidency, and why the EP remains the most workable and effective solution for Singapore.
Let me address the specific matters raised by members, which can be grouped into two main issues:
First, the two core custodial functions of the EP – safeguarding our past reserves and the integrity of the public services; and
Second, representation of the various racial communities in the EP.
Let me begin with the first issue
Two Core Custodial Functions of the EP
Madam Speaker, I am heartened that all the speakers have expressed the need for safeguards to our reserves, and the integrity of the public services, as a legacy for our future generations. So let us lay to rest the notion that these safeguards are there only to stymie a new government coming into power. The safeguards will only do so if that government, indeed any government, even the current one, intends to use the reserves irresponsibly or erode the integrity of the public services. This agreement on the need for safeguards allows us then to focus on framing the most appropriate way of providing these safeguards. The Prime Minister said so yesterday. What we are trying to do is the find the best way of doing so.
The changes proposed in the Bill flow from the recommendations of an independent Constitutional Commission appointed by the Prime Minister in January this year. There was wide consultation by the independent Commission, which conducted its review in a non-partisan, inclusive, transparent, open, and comprehensive manner. Why did I emphasise an independent commission? The Prime Minister decided to set up an independent Commission because he did not want the Review to end up being embroiled in a to-ing and fro-ing as we have seen in the last few days. We wanted an objective look at the issue, so that we can have the most comprehensive report and to do it openly and transparently. After the Government received the Commission’s recommendations, the Government held dialogues as well. The whole process has taken 10 months. We know from our collective experience and knowledge built up over the past 25 years that the EP is an important and complex institution, and that we should only move after having carefully considered the options.
WP’s Elected Senate proposal
Madam Speaker, in contrast, the second day into the debate, the Worker’s Party (“WP”) sprung a new proposal upon the members of this House. Their proposal for an Upper House — composed of elected senators — is a fundamental change to our institutions of government. It is also a marked departure from what the WP has advocated in the past since the inception of the EP — different from their Manifesto at the recent General Elections in September last year, and different again from their submission to the Constitutional Commission in March this year. There was no mention of a Senate, let alone an elected one. What is most extraordinary is that Assoc Prof Daniel Goh, one of the WP’s NCMPs, who had spoken at length in this debate yesterday supporting an elected upper house, had just in December last year, argued strongly and quite persuasively, against just such a bicameral system though he took quite a different interpretation on that today. This was also just barely two months before the Constitutional Commission was formed.
The WP were invited to present their views publicly, and make their case before the Constitutional Commission. Unfortunately, they chose not to do so. The WP was the only one of the 20 invited contributors that declined the invitation. I was speaking to MP Christopher de Souza and he said that the Eurasian Association had many views and concerns but they found that it is a very useful process to present and discuss with the Constitutional Commission. They went away not completely agreeing with everything then, but with a better understanding of what were the concerns and considerations. The Commission nevertheless considered all the 107 written submissions it had received, including that of the WP. The problem is, of course, that the WP’s current proposal is very different from what they had submitted to the Commission.
The WP has now, less than 30 hours ago, put their proposal before this House, I must say, in a non-transparent, non-consultative way, literally keeping things close to their chest and asked this House to consider it. Even so, we endeavoured very hard to find out more about this proposal.
Unfortunately, it is apparent from the tentative way that the WP MPs have attempted to respond to questions about the most basic and important features of their proposal, that this proposal has not been well thought-through. The proposal has the benefit of brevity, but unfortunately not of clarity.
We saw WP MPs go back and forth on whether the Senate’s power was limited only to delay, or whether it actually held a veto; we saw them flip-flop on what eligibility criteria the Senators must satisfy; and we saw them hem and haw over how those Senators are to be elected into office.
Madam Speaker, governing is a complex and serious issue and no responsible Party should deal with an important issue such as changes to key national institutions in a cavalier manner. It is not something you can just be brazen about and dismiss by saying, “oh, don’t be bogged down by details”.
However, the lack of a well-thought through proposal with a clear plan, has not stopped the WP from going even further - calling for a referendum and insisting on one for their proposal. They even put forward a draft referendum question for the House to consider, when they are not even clear about exactly what it is that they are proposing. Madam Speaker, we do not need to repeat the post-Brexit referendum confusion, where the British were left with no clear plan and lacked the execution ability to carry out what they had persuaded the voters to vote for.
The WP has also failed to articulate clear or consistent reasons for why they say their proposal is better than the EP. Just 11 months ago, one of the key MPs arguing for it these two days in this chamber, had publicly argued the opposite.
Their proposal gives an unelected Senate Elections Committee the ability to bar eligible candidates from even participating in the Senate elections. This exclusion is done in an entirely non-transparent, unaccountable and potentially arbitrary manner. It multiplies the difficulties associated with finding a suitable candidate for the Presidency by 8. Also unresolved are innumerable operational issues with the proposal: For example, how is gridlock in the Senate resolved?
Madam Speaker, what is troubling also, is that Members of the WP have, during this debate, attempted to draw support for their proposal by representing that the Commission recommended such a structure. This paints an incorrect picture of the Commission’s report and its recommendations.
Let us go to the Commission’s report itself. In Paragraph 7.47 of the Report, the Commission stated, with regard to the proposal to unbundle the custodial and symbolic functions: “The Commission considers that this is a proposal that the Government may wish to consider if and when it is appropriate and timely to undertake a more fundamental change to the Presidency.”
And again, at paragraph 7.53, “The Commission has set out its thoughts on this issue only for the Government’s consideration and, if the Government deems it fit and profitable, further debate. The Commission does so only as a group of citizens… ”.
Madam Speaker, this was certainly not a recommendation made by the Commission, much less a main or major recommendation. It was a suggestion that the Commission made for the Government’s consideration based on some of the submissions it had received.
Furthermore, what the members of the Commission had actually described for consideration was an appointed council of experts with no veto powers. This is fundamentally different from the WP’s proposal which is an Upper House of elected senators. Something which, in the words of one of the WP MPs, “a minor difference”. It is a fundamental and major difference.
Instead, Madam Speaker, the Commission’s main recommendations focussed squarely on enhancing and improving the existing institution of the EP. It dealt with the revision of the eligibility criteria, the strengthening of the CPA, and the hiatus triggered mechanism to ensure multiracial representation. The Government in most part has accepted these recommendations and where we have not done so, we have stated our rationale clearly in the White Paper.
If the WP wants to advocate for and campaign for the idea of an elected Senate they can and should do so. But they should do so in an open, transparent, and fully consultative way. Do not spring it on others. They can start by putting out a proper proposal. It is not a novel idea. Some countries have a bicameral system. One should examine its merits and pitfalls objectively. For example, the very issues that Assoc Prof Daniel Goh had so eloquently put forth less than a year ago. The WP can then campaign on that proposal at the next General Election, and, if they succeed, they can see to it that it comes to pass. In fact, if it were a good proposal, we would be prepared to consider it too. Why would we not consider something that is good for Singapore, and not accept it just because it comes from somewhere else. If it is good or better than the Elected Presidency that we have constructed today, we will be prepared to discuss it. But I do not think it is.
What they cannot do is to pull a half-formed proposal out of a hat and press for a referendum on the issue. Madam, I do worry if this ad-hoc-ism is symptomatic of the way they would wish to run our country and the public institutions they are responsible for.
Changes aimed at strengthening EP
Let me now turn to the substantive matters. The changes that the Government is making to improve the present system – the Bill that is before this House.
These recommendations are in accord with the recommendations of the Commission, and have been arrived at after thorough consideration, through the open, consultative process over ten months, that I had described earlier.
i) The changes to the eligibility criteria bring the 1991 figures up to date.
ii) The changes to the CPA framework harmonise it to make it function more smoothly and uniformly.
iii) The changes for minority representation introduce a new mechanism to ensure multi-racial representation from time to time.
Madam Speaker, as the Prime Minister has said, the EP is not a perfect system. What we are doing in this House, is institution-building. We are trying to improve our institutions and strengthen them for the Singapore of the future. It is part of an overall effort to build stabilisers in the system so that whether you are a Town Councilor, or a Member of Parliament or a President or a Prime Minister, you are governed by a set of laws, and are held accountable to them. Each person understands his or her role, and carries them out diligently and faithfully, for the good of the country.
The important point when we consider voting later this evening, is that the WP has not come up with a workable and better alternative to the system that we have, and the improvements we are proposing.
The President continues to be the foremost symbol of our national unity. We acknowledge that there may be potential tension between the President’s historical and custodial roles. We have always said so, it is not something that we have ducked. We have acknowledged this. But as we have explained in the White Paper, and as the Constitutional Commission itself noted, all of our elected Presidents have been able to perform the two roles with distinction. Not a single member in this House has refuted this point from either side of this House.
Furthermore, this is not uncommon. It is quite common in other countries, such as the United States and France, for an elected Executive President to concurrently be the Head of State. While there is potential tension between an electoral process and the President’s unifying role in these countries, the President continue to play these roles in these countries, which are longstanding democracies. In these cases, the President is an executive President, not just a President with safeguards. The executive President in these countries have wide-ranging and extensive powers. In our case, our President is not an executive President. He is a President with symbolic and custodial roles. He is not elected on a party platform. And I believe that with wisdom among our voters, we should be able to elect good Presidents and handle this well.
Do the eligibility criteria limit candidature to certain groups?
Madam, with the introduction of elections for the EP, eligibility criteria were put in place to ensure that candidates standing for elections have a certain baseline of experience and skills for the Presidential role.
The Commission considered the imposition of criteria as a “necessity”. These are in the words of the Commission. Many members, including Ms Cheryl Chan, Ms Cheng Li Hui, Ms Tin Pei Ling, Mr Seah Kian Peng, and Ms Kuik Shiao-yin, spoke on this and agreed with the need for stringent criteria. Yet, some members, while accepting the need for eligibility criteria, asked whether the revised criteria were aimed at limiting the pool of candidates to certain groups.
The WP said in response to the Commission’s report that the “real risk” is that “you have a PAP Government with an Elected President which is from the establishment – both squandering away the national reserves”.
Madam Speaker, what is the WP saying? That the past Elected Presidents have been unable to act independently or carry out their duties properly? I have seen first-hand how our Elected Presidents have carried out their roles. These are men of integrity, men who have principles, and are prepared to stand by them and act on them. Has not the WP itself acknowledged, in this House, the independence of mind of the late President Ong, or the way that the late President Nathan had always treated them with courtesy and fairness and consideration? Let us not unfairly run down the system particularly or cast aspersions on honorable men in an attempt to try to score political points.
I also note that the WP, while seemingly critical of eligibility criteria, also accepts the need for eligibility criteria in its elected Senate proposal.
Mr Leon Perera confirmed that the eligibility criteria for its elected senate proposal is the same as that for elected Presidents. Yesterday, he promised to give details in his main speech but we have not heard from him today on further details. If that is the case, the WP is effectively also restricting its senate to a limited group of people. But the serious problem here lies with their proposed Senate Elections Committee (“SEC”), which is tasked to shortlist 16 candidates from a pool of qualified applicants. The SEC is not an elected body, it is an appointed body. As Dr Janil Puthucheary pointed out, unlike the current inclusionary model where the PEC certifies the eligibility of any applicant that meets the qualifying criteria, the WP’s model is exclusionary in that the SEC sets a cut-off at 16 candidates. The WP has not provided any details as to how the SEC will draw the line between the 16 candidates and the 17th and other candidates. So far, it has said that this line is drawn at the discretion of the SEC, and Mr Pritam Singh emphasized that the exercise of such discretion should be non-justiciable. The system, as proposed by the WP, is far from transparent. I wanted to bring up these issues because if one wants to criticise our present system, we need to offer something that works better. This shows how difficult it is to design a system and to make it better than the one we have today.
Are revised criteria too stringent
Mr Saktiandi Supaat and Mr Louis Ng spoke about the raised eligibility criteria, and how they might impact the pool of qualified candidates. Asst Prof Mahdev Mohan and Ms Kuik Shiao-yin asked about the differences between a chief executive of a $100 million paid-up capital company and that of a company with a $500 million shareholders’ equity.
Madam, the quantitative threshold of $500 million shareholders’ equity for candidates from private sector companies was proposed by the Commission, after studying the matter carefully. This took into consideration the need for a President to have the requisite experience and ability to make “large and complex financial decisions on an urgent basis” and the “diverse strategic and operational considerations” that bear upon such decisions.
The Government has accepted the Commission’s recommendation to increase the quantitative threshold. As explained in the White Paper:
i) The President may have to scrutinise huge potential drawdowns, possibly within short periods of time; and
ii) To effectively discharge responsibilities of such a scale and magnitude, the President must have the confidence that comes with familiarity with making decisions involving large sums of money.
As I have already mentioned in my opening speech, there are significantly more companies today that would meet the revised threshold of $500 million shareholders’ equity, than the 158 companies in 1993 which would have met the $100 million paid-up capital threshold.
There will continue to be qualified minority candidates, from both the public and private sectors. The precise figure is not available as companies do not make public the information on the racial background of their officers. But if we agree, as I think we do, that we must be uncompromising on the criteria and that we cannot lower the bar for any Community, we should focus on growing the pool of eligible candidates. Every community should aspire towards producing leaders that may one day represent the nation in her highest office, and to encourage those leaders to come forward to serve in that office. The pool will grow over time as our country progresses.
Are criteria too focused on financial acumen
Several members, including Mr Christopher De Souza and Mr Zaqy Mohamad, spoke about the financial aspect of the eligibility criteria.
Madam, the criteria are to ensure that the candidates running for office have the knowledge, competence and judgement to make decisions on financial matters of significant magnitude or scale, as well as on key appointments to the public services. These are criteria that we are able to state in an objective way, and to codify it.
However, other criteria such as integrity and good character are also crucial. We can write it down, but how do you specify it, how do you measure it? They are required of a Presidential candidate, as provided for under the existing Article 19(2)(e). So it is written down. This is, of course, not exhaustive of all the “intangible” qualities we desire in a President, such as “public spiritedness”, “compassion”, and “empathy”. These are key and critical responsibilities. But it is very difficult to legislate for all these “intangibles”. It is our people who will ultimately have to be the judge of whether a candidate has what it takes — especially where these important intangibles are concerned — to be the President when our people exercise their vote.
The CPA – role and standing
Some members, like Ms Sylvia Lim and Prof Daniel Goh, have asked about the CPA’s functions, and raised queries about an unelected body playing a role in the system of checks-and-balances. Others, like Mr Louis Ng, asked if the extension of the parliamentary overruling mechanism would dilute the President’s powers. Madam Speaker, I must emphasise that there are no changes to how the President’s veto powers, the moderating effect of the CPA’s advice, or the Parliamentary overruling mechanism operate in respect of the President’s custodial powers over reserves and appointments. I must emphasise that there are no changes to how the President’s veto powers, the moderating effect of the CPA’s advice, or the Parliamentary overruling mechanism operate. The changes merely adopt a uniform approach towards the President’s obligation to consult the CPA on financial and appointment-related matters, as well as extend the overruling mechanism to these areas.
As I have explained, the overruling mechanism already applies in two areas, namely, Supply Bills and key appointments. The approach taken in the Bill is to harmonise the approach towards Parliamentary overruling by subjecting the rest of his core custodial powers to the same overruling framework.
In short, what is being proposed simply ensures uniformity in the President’s obligation to consult the CPA, and the availability of Parliamentary overruling, insofar as his core custodial powers are concerned. As for the weight given to the CPA’s recommendations, I have already explained in my opening speech that the CPA’s role is to provide its advice to the President. It is the President who decides whether to veto a government proposal, and not the CPA. The CPA has no veto powers neither over what the President does, nor what the Government proposes. The CPA provides its advice. The WP has suggested that the Bill elevates the un-elected CPA to an “alternative centre of power” - creates a spectre of this very powerful CPA vetoing and blocking everything. It’s just simply not true. If you read the White Paper, if you listened to my speech, if you look at diagram – you will know that it’s not true. Mr Pritam Singh and Assoc Prof Daniel Goh have referred to the CPA as a “third key” and questioned its moral authority. Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Leon Perera said that the CPA can “checkmate” or “block” the President. Mr Low Thia Khiang even went so far as to suggest that the CPA’s power exceeds that of the elected President, or even the Government itself. And said that at critical moments, the CPA can block the Government from drawing on past reserves and making key appointments. Madam, this is entirely untrue. The WP MPs fundamentally misunderstand the role the CPA plays under the Constitution. In fact, they are misleading this House. It is not a third centre of power. It is unable to single-handedly block a government proposal. The CPA’s role has been the same for the past 25 years, and remains unchanged under the Bill. The CPA’s role is only relevant when the President vetoes a proposal from the Government. In such cases, where the President has exercised his veto, but the CPA agrees with the Government’s proposal, the CPA’s agreement serves to moderate the weight of the President’s veto – but only by referring the issue to Parliament. This Parliament – as the “most important deliberative body in the country” – has the opportunity to take a look, or a “second look”, at the matter, and can decide by a 2/3 majority to proceed with the proposal.
i) the Government makes a decision with the President’s concurrence, or
ii) the President disagrees with the Government’s decision, or
iii) Parliament overrules the President’s disagreement, it is always an elected institution, Parliament or EP, that makes the decision.
At this juncture I should address the points raised by Assoc Prof Daniel Goh on the standing and independence of the CPA. I found it very disappointing that Prof Goh repeatedly suggested that the CPA is a politicised body, while providing no substantiation for such a serious claim. Lowering the dignity of the CPA’s role and standing in this manner is entirely uncalled for.
Madam Speaker, I speak on behalf of the Government when I say that the CPA members are eminent members of our society who have done much good work throughout their terms of CPA office. The CPA members are highly distinguished, competent and experienced persons who have given willingly of themselves to public service; their record of service and integrity speak for themselves. They have always acted independently of their appointing authorities, and advised the President based on what, in their judgment, is in the best interests of Singapore. The changes that we have proposed further strengthen the CPA and enhance its ability to play its enlarged role. We have added two members to the CPA as well, so that the President can benefit from a slightly wider range of views.
Disclosure of President’s grounds and CPA’s recommendations
Asst Prof Mahdev Mohan asked about the disclosure of the President’s and the CPA’s grounds in a situation where the President exercises his veto. He referred to Articles 5A, 5B and 5C. These actually reflect the broader framework set out in the new Articles 37ID, 37IE and 37IF, which deal with the disclosure of the President’s and CPA’s reasons in the general context of the President’s veto.
As stated in the White Paper, the proposed approach seeks to strike a suitable balance between enhancing the CPA’s and President’s accountability for matters involving vetoes on the one hand, and protecting potentially sensitive and confidential information on the other. The 3-stage approach I have set out in my opening speech gives form to this approach.
I now turn to the second issue: Whether we should ensure the representation of the various racial communities in the EP?
Whether to Ensure the Representation of Various Racial Communities in EP?
Does race matter in the EP
Does race matter? Madam Speaker, many members have supported the need to ensure the representation of the various racial communities in the EP. The issue is how we achieve this representation.
Singapore has made significant progress in building a multiracial society. It’s difficult to do, countries have fallen apart either when they’ve lived in harmony for decades, even a century or two. We are only more than 50 years old. We are in a better situation than most countries, and have managed to avoid the toxic racial debates and tensions that we see elsewhere precisely because the Government has always taken an honest, pre-emptive, open and active approach to fostering multiracialism. We did not leave this to chance.
As Mr Edwin Tong mentioned yesterday, we see this in the Housing Development Board’s (“HDB”) Ethnic Integration Policy, and in the ethnic-based self-help groups, such as Mendaki and the Singapore Indian Development Association (“SINDA”). We also see this in the Group Representation Constituency (“GRC”) scheme, which has ensured multi-racial representation in Parliament. When we introduced the GRC scheme, there were similar concerns expressed about how we make sure there is adequate racial representation. I think Mr Leon Perera fully understands why we have the Ethnic Integration Policy and how it has helped to avoid the concentration of races, and to make sure that we are raised to live together in harmony in all our housing estates. And yet he chose to raise it in a very political way in his speech just now.
As a result of these policies, we have expanded the common space, facilitated racial integration and ensured that our politics remain above race and religion.
Contrast this with the approach that France has taken, which Dr Tan Wu Meng alluded to in his speech on Monday. In principle, the approach that France takes espouses a “colour-blind” approach to race relations. In effect, this has masked the stark differences in socio-economic opportunities and outcomes between the races, which has in turn led to racial tension and strife. I was in France about a month and a half ago, and had a deep discussion on radicalisation. Senior French officials and scholars and those doing community work acknowledge that there are deep fissures in their society. They are trying to grapple with it. But they run up against their long-held belief that the issue of race would go away if one simply does not acknowledge race and racial differences. But the issue has not gone away. Racial differences have been accentuated and become worse over time.
Madam Speaker, we have come a long way. But achieving a society where individuals make decisions independent of racial considerations will take time, as the recent CNA-IPS survey suggests. Race is likely to have an effect in elections that are moderately close. That is why we have introduced the hiatus safeguard mechanism recommended by the Constitutional Commission: it addresses present realities, while encouraging us to strive to achieve our goals and aspirations. . Is it perfect? No. Does it have some drawbacks? Yes. Does it help us to achieve our aim of having multiracial representation in the Presidency from time to time? Yes. And does it do it in a way which is self-extinguishing if we reach a point when we are race blind? Yes. I think the Commission has applied its mind and come up with a good solution for our times.
Is 30 years too long?
Mr Yee Chia Hsing asked whether a gap of 5 terms was too long for the hiatus safeguard mechanism.
The Commission had proposed 5 terms as they felt it would strike a right balance between ensuring minority representation, while not being too invasive or prescriptive. A gap that is too short in effect, create a rotation between races, which could impede our progress towards the ideal of a society where race is no longer a significant issue. And the Government agrees. I think some of the more passionate and best speeches these past few days have been on this subject of race and ethnicity. Several MPs – Dr Yaacob on the first day, Mr Masagos, Ms Kuik, Ms Rahayu, among others, spoke from the heart, and Ms Chia just now as well. Mr Kok Heng Leun too. And I think that this is an advance on the way that we interact with each other, we look at each other and look at ourselves and how we look at others. And we hope with this process we will become a better country, a more integrated, and a more multi-racial country.
Eurasians/ mixed-race applicants: how to categorise?
Ms Joan Pereira asked whether a separate, fourth category for Eurasians could be established for the safeguard mechanism. Ms Fatimah Lateef spoke about mixed-race marriages.
The model that the Constitutional Commission has proposed, and the mechanics we have adopted in the bill, closely follow the framework for racial classification in the GRC system. This framework has worked well. Committees will be established to certify whether a person belongs to the Chinese community; Malay community or Indian and other minority communities. The mechanics of these will be dealt with in the amendments to the Presidential Elections Act.
Any person who does not fall within one of the three racial groupings may still contest in open elections.
Do we need a racial safeguard in CPA
Ms Joan Pereira asked whether we should ensure the representation of the major racial communities in the CPA. The Commission considered this but did not find this necessary.
It highlighted that the primary role of the CPA is to provide expert advice to the President in the exercise of his discretionary powers. Unlike the President, the CPA is not intended to discharge a symbolic role as an expression of our national identity the way the Presidency is. This is a critical distinction between the Presidency and the CPA which justifies the need to ensure racial diversity in the former but not the latter. The Government agrees with the Commission.
Should we reserve elections for women
Mr Louis Ng and Ms Jessica Tan spoke about the lack of representation of women in the office of President.
Madam, if we look at some of the sizeable companies and key public sector offices, the pool of women who qualify is not insignificant. Rather than legislate female representation in the office of President, we should identify, support and encourage qualified female candidates to run for Presidency.
Before I conclude on this segment, may I say that I was really also very moved when the PM announced yesterday that next election for the Presidency would be a reserved election for the Malay community. I will explain on this later but let me address the questions raised by Members on the NCMP scheme.
Changes to the NCMP Scheme
Mr Seah Kian Peng spoke about the changes to the NCMP scheme, and asked how granting NCMPs full voting rights would relate to the role and responsibility of the elected Members.
Madam, the NCMP scheme ensures that there will always be opposition voices in Parliament. A floor of 9 today, a floor of 12 in the future. Mr Perera, this is not a cap. The NCMPs secured the highest votes among the candidates who did not win the seat they contested. They have contributed their views to debates in Parliament, and we want to give more weight to those opposition voices in Parliament by giving them a vote in those additional areas where they currently do not have a vote. However, this does not diminish or detract from the vital role and responsibilities that we, as elected MPs have to serve the needs of our constituents. This is a vital, critical and important role and duty that we have.
Mr Dennis Tan and Mr Leon Perera repeated the WP’s contention that the scheme distracts and dissuades voters from voting in opposition MPs.
Madam, The Worker’s Party has taken up its full quota of NCMP seats and it has even positioned candidates from specific constituencies to be NCMPs in preference to other candidates. This shows that being an NCMP offers advantages not least of which are public exposure and Parliamentary experience. Ms Sylvia Lim herself has been a beneficiary of this and said so. Madam Speaker, Mr Leon Perera said that we would not have introduced the NCMP scheme for the benefit of the Opposition alone, surely the PAP benefits from it too. Well, the government has found the presence of the NCMPs in Parliament useful. All the three NCMPs have made their views heard during the debate over the past three days. But it benefits the PAP in a way that is different from what Mr Perera implied. It helps the PAP in two ways: First, and this point has been also been made by Mr Lee Kuan Yew. It exposes PAP MPs to the types of arguments that opposition MPs made. How you take a situation, how you turn it to political advantage and score political points, how you argue. He wanted our PAP MPs to have experience in this House, not just during the General Elections but every time this House sat. We have had ample demonstrations of this throughout the terms of Parliament that we have had. And also to teach our PAP MPs – give them the experience of how to respond clearly and calmly. Second and equally importantly, it allows the Government to engage the opposition – Unlike “phantoms in the night” that turn up only at GEs, make claims, not engage, and then disappear again. Here, your policy alternatives have to be put up, scrutinised, examined and discussed. Just as the Opposition questions and examines the policies that the Government puts up, the Government examines the policies the proposals that the Opposition puts up. Just as we have seen over the past few days with the WP’s proposal for the elected Senate. You cannot make this proposal and disappear. You may try to retreat into rousing rhetoric but you have to answer the questions in detail. We are looking not just for rousing rhetoric, but practical policies and practical programmes. How do we execute these policies? Where are the resources coming from? We can do this in Parliament, engage the Opposition rather than fighting with shadows who appear and disappear in the night. Ultimately, Singapore, and Singaporeans will benefit from such debate, and diversity of views.
Madam Speaker, let me conclude. There has been vigorous debate over the past three days on eligibility criteria, representation of communities in the office of President, and other specific details. It is important that we stand back and end by bringing the focus back to the key principles underlying the Elected Presidency.
First, the President is the key symbol of our multi-racial nation. The importance of this symbolism is something that has touched my life since my young days as a schoolboy.
I remember, as a young school boy, saluting President Yusof Ishak and marching proudly past him in the rain at the National Day Parade. I still recall his funeral procession 46 years ago, and the crowds that lined the streets to bid farewell to him.
I remember receiving my commission as an SAF officer, and the President’s scholarship from the hand of President Benjamin Sheares, and then later serving as an Aide-de-Camp (“ADC”) to him, and also attending at his funeral. After President Sheares’ passing, I continued to serve proudly as an ADC to President Devan Nair.
I have also experienced the additional custodial powers of the President. As a Naval officer, I received my appointment as the Chief of Navy from President Wee Kim Wee in June 1991, shortly after the new provisions for the Elected President came into force. The Chief of Navy is one of those appointments that require the Elected President’s concurrence.
And I have served in cabinet, when Presidents Ong Teng Cheong, S R Nathan and Dr Tony Tan carried out their presidential duties, including the additional custodial roles of the office. They did so with dignity and grace, reaching out to all communities, and doing us proud internationally.
They also exercised their custodial powers with integrity, circumspectly, and with independence of mind.
Madam Speaker, in my own life-time, I have seen how our Presidents, collectively, have stood for our values as a multi-racial society - as a unifying symbol of a united, harmonious Singapore. I want my children, my grandchildren and children of every community, to see in their own life-times the rich ethnic diversity that is Singapore, reflected in the Presidency.
The changes that we are making to provide for ethnic representation will ensure that they do so.
Madam Speaker, the pioneer generation of Singaporeans had no reserves to protect. They lived by the sweat of their brow, and worried about how the vagaries of life might throw them and our country on hard times. They saved and steadily built up our reserves, so that by the middle 1980s, we actually had reserves and had something to protect. Before that we didn’t, and that’s why we didn’t need to have a President to safeguard the reserves .And this is what they have bequeathed to us.
The EP has helped to safeguard these reserves accumulated by previous generations. It is our duty to make sure that the system continues to do the same for future generations. That we leave the generations that come, the reserves that will help us survive and bounce back in a crisis - not empty coffers, or a debt to repay because we have failed to put in safeguards when we could.
Madam Speaker, today, we enjoy racial harmony. Our reserves are strong and healthy. Our public service is honest and able. These are not things that come about on their own. They require both good people, and good systems in place.
Let us then, members from both sides of this House, do the responsible thing today, by putting in place, the safeguards that will help ensure that we continue to have good governance, and a harmonious and stable future for those who will come after us.
Madam Speaker, I beg to move and I urge all Members to give your support to the Bill.
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