Constitution is forward-looking. It looks at now and the future. Therefore, Constitution speaks of elected presidents and specifies that
“An election is reserved for racial group A because no candidate from racial group A has been elected for 5 consecutive terms.”
You have heard the arguments thrown up by Dr Adrian Tan aka Tan Cheng Bock.
Who is the first elected president and when should the reserved election be and is the government correct in the way they counted the elections.
These arguments are calculated distractions from the spirit and intent of a reserved election.
The President as a custodian of reserves began with the Elected Presidency
The need for an Elected Presidency was first conceptualised in the 1980s to guard against the risk of a profligate government squandering the nation’s reserves.
As then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew cautioned at his 1984 National Day Rally
“… all the reserves are available. The larder is wide open, you can raid it”.
A single 5-year “spending spree” could bankrupt us and dismantle everything that we have built, said DPM Teo Chee Hean in his speech in Parliament during the second reading of the Constitutional of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill.
Therefore we have an elected president to protect our reserves from being raided by irresponsible governments who may use Singaporeans’ savings to buy short-term popularity. The elected president also has veto power to veto a rogue government’s appointments of friends to high places to exploit these for personal gains rather than for the public good.
The President as a unifier and symbol of our nation began in 1965
The president as a custodian of our reserves began with the legislation of an Elected President.
But the role of the president as a ‘unifier’ of the nation began in 1965 when Singapore became independent. The president as a symbolic expression of our multi-racial composition and national identity did not begin with the Elected President.
The first president of independent Singapore was Encik Yusof bin Ishak.
His “central and defining” role was to be a symbol of national unity and a personification of the state, representing all Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion.
With the legislation of an Elected President, that role has not changed or diminished.
The argument over who the first elected president was is irrelevant to the role of the president as a unifying symbol. Irrelevant because the unifying symbol of the president did not arise out of an elected presidency. It began in 1965 when a nation was born and there was a need to unify a fractious city-state of many races.
The reserved election is for the purpose of ensuring that the role of the president as a unifying symbol remains and does not get diminished.
While Mr Ong Teng Cheong was the first elected president, Mr Wee Kim Wee was the first president to be vested with the custodian powers of an elected president. Mr Wee was the incumbent president when the elected president came into effect on 30 November 1991. He held custodianship of the reserves for almost 2 years until he retired in August 1993.
A hypothetical scenario
Think about this. If, at the time when Mr Wee was president and there was a financial crisis, and the government needed to draw on the reserves, Mr Wee would have to use his discretion to make a decision, acting as an elected president would. He would then be the first president to exercise the power of an elected president. What then would Dr Adrian’s argument be?
So let’s not have calculated distractions. Let’s put nation before self.
It does not matter who the first elected president is.
What matters is that the president of Singapore remains a strong unifying symbol representing Singaporeans of all races, language and religion and able to hold the people together when the politics of the land threatens to divide them.
A president must be above politics and above politicking, a unifying figure and not a divisive figure.
Dr Tan alleged that the reserved election was meant to keep him out. If the PAP intends to keep the dear doctor out of the election, they could easily proposed 4 terms instead of 5 terms without a minority.
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