Deciding who is the first Elected President is a policy decision, not a legal matter: K Shanmugam
To him, Sylvia Lim protests far too much.
“…the government has always been clear that when it comes to the counting, it is a policy matter for Parliament to decide, and Ms Lim protests far too much.”
That was Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam’s rather feisty response to the Adjournment Motion made by Workers’ Party Chairman Sylvia Lim in Parliament on Oct. 3.
Having been third time lucky at the ballot, Lim got to speak for 20 minutes, uninterrupted, on the subject of the reserved Presidential election. Specifically, her motion was on the government’s decision to start the count of the first elected President from President Wee Kim Wee instead of President Ong Teng Cheong, which had triggered the need for a reserved election for Malay candidates last month
Did the decision come after AGC’s advice?
“To cut to the chase – did the PM, DPM Teo Chee Hean and Minister Chan Chun Sing make misleading statements to the House that the question of which President to count from was a legal question?
Did the government all along make a policy decision itself to count from President Wee Kim Wee? Did the government merely use the AGC’s advice as a cover to avoid full Parliamentary debate on why the count was not starting from President Ong Teng Cheong?”
That was the main thrust of Lim’s speech. Earlier on, she had made a reference to a speech given by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong 0n Nov 8. 2016, in which he said:
“We have taken the Attorney-General’s advice. We will start counting from the first President who exercised the powers of the Elected President, in other words, Dr Wee Kim Wee. That means we are now in the fifth term of the Elected Presidency.”
Lim pointed out that a “clear impression” was given that the government’s decision to count from President Wee was based on the AGC’s advice. She said that PM Lee had not said that the government intended to count from President Wee, and that the AGC’s advice merely confirmed it was acceptable to do so.
Lim said that this impression was “perpetuated” on Nov. 9, 2016 by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean. During clarification time in Parliament, Lim asked whether the government was prepared to publish the AGC’s advice. At the time, Teo responded as follows:
“On the reserved elections and how to count, I would like to confirm that this is indeed the Attorney-General’s Chambers’ advice. And if not, and you do not think that is correct, I think it is possible if you wish to challenge judicially.”
Said Lim in her motion:
“Any reasonable person hearing those words would assume the following, one, that the AGC had advised the government how to count. Two, that the AGC’s advice involved a question of law. Why else would I be asked to challenge it judicially?”
Shanmugam fielded the response for the government. He reiterated the point that it was government policy to choose where the count for the first elected President should begin, and not a legal matter.
“The Court of Appeal judgment makes clear a number of things. First, the Constitutional text is clear that Parliament can choose from any of the five terms preceding the 2017 elections. Second, the PM’s speech in Parliament on the constitutional amendments made it clear that Parliament intended to give itself the discretion to specify the last term of President Wee as the first term to be counted for purposes of deciding whether an election is reserved. Members can read the part Ms Lim quoted from the Prime Minister.
I don’t see anything that is ambiguous. The point is this, and we’re not changing history here, Ms Lim’s a lawyer, she knows this, Dr Wee’s second term exercised the powers of an elected President. There is nothing ambiguous about that. That is a matter of clear law.”
He emphasised the point that it was up to Parliament to make the decision, and that the government had consulted the Attorney-General just to check if there were any legal impediments that prevented the government from counting from President Wee’s term.
“We will usually ask AGC for advice on these things. If you look at the context, we decide and we check with AGC. Prime Minister said it, DPM Teo said it, and Minister Chan said it a few months later.”
He also added that the government, as a rule, generally does not publish the legal opinions that it gets.
You can see the full exchange in the video below.
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Top image from Gov.sg’s YouTube channel.