“No vote, no mandate? Not true” says Minister K Shanmugam on the Reserved Presidency
LKY also won walkover victories. Was he not legit?
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With Nomination Day only a few days away on Sept. 13, the odds for a walkover in our first reserved Presidential Election grows as people come to terms with the fact that there is only one qualified candidate.
So, the government has rolled out its big guns at what would probably be its last large-scale public opportunity to put the case forward on the importance of a Reserved Presidency.
The event was the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Forum on The Reserved Presidential Election. Apparently it was deemed important enough for ministers to change their schedules to attend, according to Gillian Koh of IPS in her welcome remarks.
Nothing it seems, should be left to chance.
The President’s moral authority to confront an elected government
The first member from the government to speak to the audience of over 300 academics, members of the business community, and others with a lot of free time, was heavyweight Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam.
In a style that was reminiscent of his days as one of the titans of litigation in Singapore, he gave a comprehensive account of the evolution of the Elected President (EP) as an institution in his hour-long off-the-cuff speech that sought to convince people of the need for a reserved election.
Shanmugam explained how the role of the President evolved from a purely ceremonial one to someone with veto powers over the use of the reserves and appointments to key public service posts.
These additional responsibilities meant that the President could no longer be appointed, but had to be elected instead.
“Once you give the President these veto powers…then the question is, can he continue to be appointed by the government? For a start, if he’s a person who is appointed by the government, what moral authority will he have to say no to a subsequent government that is popularly elected, with a people’s mandate, with a campaign on a platform of spending the money?
He won’t have the moral authority. Second, if he can be appointed, then the next government can appoint somebody philosophically similar, bent of mind. So you need for the President to have the moral authority to say no to the government, you need him to be popularly elected, through the public will. Then he can say to the government, you’re elected, I’m elected, this is my view.”
LKY experienced many walkovers in Tanjong Pagar
However, Shanmugam rejected the implication that if a walkover occurs, it means that the winning candidate has no mandate – a thought that must be swirling in the minds of many Singaporeans right now
He cited the case of Lee Kuan Yew’s experience as MP for Tanjong Pagar, who claimed several walkover victories during elections.
“If I’m not wrong Mr Lee Kuan Yew, after 1959, maybe after 1963, I don’t know whether he was ever opposed in Tanjong Pagar. I don’t think anybody would say he didn’t have a mandate, right? He was Prime Minister in his constituency, which was single member until 1988, then GRC (until) 2015, he passed away in 2015. I don’t think he was opposed, I haven’t looked back to the 1960s. I think ’59 he must have, he fought an election. ’63 maybe. But I don’t think after that he was ever opposed. Does anyone question his legitimacy?”
Shanmugam is not quite accurate, as LKY competed against a number of candidates even after 1963. From 1968 to 1988 he trounced a number of political opponents at the polls, with one walkover victory occurring in 1984.
However, after Tanjong Pagar became a GRC in 1991, LKY and his teams enjoyed a string of unbroken walkover victories in the General Elections of 1991, 1997, 2001, 2006 and 2011.
Still, LKY did win a walkover in 1984 while serving as PM, and there were no serious claims that he had no mandate to govern, which was the point that Shanmugam was making.
Another member of the audience piped in at this point, revealing that LKY had served as his MP.
Audience member: “He was my MP!”
Shanmugam: “He was your MP. And you were happy for him to be your MP right?”
AM: “Because there was 92% support for him, like anybody who stand against him would have lost their deposit actually!”
Shanmugam: “I understand. Well, the point is, I think it’s a bit of a misleading statement to suggest if you don’t have the votes behind you, you don’t have (the) popular mandate. We have a prescribed process, the person has come forward. If he qualifies, assuming he qualifies, he or she, and if nobody else qualifies, I think that’s a mandate. He or she is entitled to stand up to any government and say I went through the process! I was prepared to submit myself to the people. That I think is the test.”
Balancing multi-racialism with the need for a meritocratic system
Shanmugam’s vigorous defence of the walkover win would later be reinforced by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing — a core member of the 4G leadership, who spoke at a separate dialogue at the Forum.
Chan had this to say in response to a question from the audience:
“We hold the same set of of rules to the best extent that we have to fulfil our aspirations for a meritocratic system, we have a hiatus-triggered mechanism to try to fulfil the multi-racial aspirations that we have. But imagine if we have different rules for different races, all for the sake of multi-racialism, without considerations for the meritocratic aspirations, I don’t think Singaporeans will accept that as well.
So I can understand the Singaporean aspirations that will like to see a contest, and perhaps will like to see more people (contesting), but I don’t think Singaporeans would like to see us having different rules for different races, because that would have shifted the balance I think too much just on multi-racialism without balancing the considerations for meritocracy. That’s my own sense.” (emphasis ours)
At this point in time, all these words sounded curiously prophetic.
Then again, who knows? While we wait for Sept. 13, there could be a few more twists in the tale to come just yet.
All images courtesy of IPSLKYSPP’s Flickr