Thursday, July 28, 2011

For my children: Why the President must be beyond Politics.

By now my kids are old enough to have the experience of looking at cells under a microscope. What a shock for them to discover that it was totally different from the pictures they see in their text books. There is a yawning gap between theory and reality. Teachers focused on meeting the requirements of the syllabus do not bother or have time to close the gap of this reality distortion experience. What a pity. Repeat this experience over and over again across all subjects is what Mark Twain had warned us about schooling and education.

"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education."

We do not have many Mark Twains just as we do not have the Wright Brothers, the Einsteins etc., In fact, too many who were only schooled cruise through life thinking they were educated. Some of them had the misfortune of losing a pile buying Lehman bonds. The government conveniently ignore the schooled-educated dichotomy. MAS knew better but chose to leverage the ignorance of the investing public for the "larger good of the nation" in support of public policy. Tan Kin Lian did them a service trying to help them.

I witnessed this situation also in the unexpected number of comments in my earlier blog post on why an activist EP would be a menace to us. I think it is useful to explain to my kids who are too young to understand issues of the political economy that this is just another but more abstract example of the cells pictures in your book to the one under the microscope.

Using the allegory of the Roman Catholic Church for the EP and the Cabinet is like looking at pictures of cells in a text book. What might real life of seeing the same object under a real microscope be like? An article on Bernanke role in the ongoing debate to raise the US debt ceiling at Bloomberg is instructive: See "Bernanke May Need to Stay ‘Above Politics’ in Debt Standoff"

The US and the Philippines have executive Presidents, but every nation needs someone to perform the role of the constitution monarch or head of state. In the US, this role is distributed and opportunistic. Bernanke is the man of the moment at this time. In the Philippines, Cardinal Sin used to fill that role or absent a personality like him, the sitting Archbishop of Roman Catholic Church. Some less developed nations, the military chief wears that hat even if he often abuse it.

It is an irreplaceable loss for Singapore if we have an activist President because he will fail to perform the needed role of someone above and beyond politics at those critical moments. Our first President, Yusof Ishak performed that role with distinction going out to meet the people every day to unify the races and religions. It was a job politicians cannot do as well. An activist President will cost us dearly. If you want to be activist, go and get elected into Parliament. The Presidency is the wrong place for it. You will be forcing the government of the day to remove you from office.

I am sure I have just gone over the heads of my kids reading this. But they are not going away empty handed. They will come back again and again until they learn it. They have had such experience many times, especially with conceptual Physics.


  1. We had a non-activist president for the past 12 years. Did he perform the "needed role of someone above and beyond politics at those critical moments"?

    Time to move on and change what is clearly not working

  2. I support the suggestion of a non-activist president.
    I must qualify this statement by saying that "non-activist" means not pushing own agenda and / or create another political power / centre.
    The EP should be non-activist, but it should not stop him from interacting with ordinary citizens everyday, should not hide in the palace all days. Maybe a way to learn if from King of Thailand, where he was well respected by the people of Thailand, although there been lots of political unrest in the country. Thai King did not push for any political agenda nor political reforms, but he has the courage to make statement in time of crisis, to remind the government in power address people's concern. He is certainly an example to follow.
    I understand this suggestion will not go down well to many, in particular those believes EP should take confrontational approach.
    Perhaps best to address this issue is to adopt suggestion from WP - abolish EP system and move on from there.
    For those seek a change, GE is the route, and I believe the change is slowly (to some people, it was too slow) taking place from the just concluded GE in May.
    Wish all well.

  3. The question is not whether the president should be above politics or not, but why is there a clamour for an "activist" president? Could it be a symptom of some fundmental flaw in our structure of governance? I think that if there was a true separation of powers in the first place, such a clamour would not have occurred.

  4. @"An activist President will cost us dearly. If you want to be activist, go and get elected into Parliament. The Presidency is the wrong place for it. You will be forcing the government of the day to remove you from office."

    For roles and responsibilities of the EP, these could be and are defined by the Constitution.

    When its "Voice of the People" ... The Constitution would not be able to define this, or rather dictate the "scope" of what people want to say freely.

    Obviously, the EP will be intelligent enough to reflect the "Voice of the People" only relating to his "Roles and responsibilities". Certainly, this should not be a "minority" voice. Whether or not the EP will "go wrong" whilst speaking up, it is a performance issue. Choose one who is logically with the right "values".

    Due to "structural issues" with governance as pointed out by Mr Tan KL, is it then necessary to see where the thin line falls between the role and responsibilities of the Govt with "executive powers" and those of the EP with "custodial powers"? Our Govt now wants to keep them separate and distinct.

    So if MPs and the Govt., given the "executive" powers; chose to "ignore" or "keep quiet", should the EP then speaks up as ""Voice of the People", while representing the majority (both technically, as empowered by the people's votes; and practically, as collecting and representing people's views)

    Next is whether the Constitution should give the EP a "leeway" to say more outside his "authorised" roles and responsibilities which are defined by the Constitution. Again, if the Govt refuses to amend the Constitution in this respect, can the EP raise this up openly?

  5. An EP is not a King (like the one in Thailand), nor the Queen (like the one in UK), and so the clowns running for it, are misunderstanding the role of the EP.

    If Singaporeans really want an alternative voice, a champion, then vote Chee Soon Juan into Parliament or more opposition. Voting in the EP is not going to change any policy, period.

  6. @KAM
    That is exactly what the government wants you to think. This is one where the government would not want anyone, the EP included, to think out of the box.

  7. " If Singaporeans really want an alternative voice, a champion, then vote Chee Soon Juan into Parliament or more opposition. Voting in the EP is not going to change any policy, period. "

    Why do you think Chee is suffering all these abuses by govt for so long?

    It is well and good to talk about party politics as the platform. But, this is credible only in a country like UK, US, France, Germany, Australia, NZ and many other European countries where the rights of an opposition party and its members are respected by the govt of the day.

    You must be joking to even suggest that it is also possible here where the LAW even made it illegal for ONE person to stand up publicly to voice his opinion, let alone his dissent. For those who are still like the sleeping frog in a slowly heating up pot of water, such a performance by a lone person is according to PAP made law, an ILLEGAL GATHERING. Such a concept makes a laughing stock of the govt of Singapore the world over.

    So please stop preaching and misinforming others about the situation here. The way LKY and his cronies have been behaving towards people who have different views here and the world over have been earning the govt lots of IOUs from people, esp, those outside of the country just waiting and biding their time to kick it in the teeth whenever the opportunities arrive and the PAP cannot do anything about it, except to lie to Singaporeans and muzzle the local press from spilling the beans about it.

    One reason the GIC did so badly during the financial storm may be attribute to such golden opportunities to wack the LKY gang. LKY has NEVER won any court cases outside Singapore eg. LKY's case against ex-president Nair in Canada. Australia is a good example of a country who is constantly getting one back for Singaporeans and the rest of the world by being able to dictate terms to the govt because of its superior bargaining position and perhaps hardened ex-convict forefathers (joking). And I must say, most of the time the PAP govt deserves it for their petty tin-pot dictatorship behaviour. The Aussies are obviously not impress. See how heavy a going SIA has been having for decades trying to spread its wings downunder?

    The very unfortunate thing for us Singaporeans is that no significant changes is possible until the local dictator and autocrat leaves the scene- PERMANENTLY. I don't believe that part about clawing his way out of the grave!