S'pore presidents can now take on international roles in private capacities

Ministers, except for the Prime Minister, will also be able to take on international appointments in their private capacities.

Khine Zin Htet | November 22, 2023, 09:42 PM



Amendments to Singapore's Constitution have been passed in Parliament on Nov. 22, 2023, to allow the president and ministers of Singapore to accept appointments in foreign and international organisations in their private capacities if required by the national interest.

Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong explained why the constitutional amendment is required.

Presidents have served additional roles in official capacities

In his speeches, Wong first explained that presidents in Singapore have taken on additional appointments from "time to time" — but only in their official capacities.

The cabinet applied certain principles when advising the President to assume such roles.

Domestic appointments must be in furtherance of the president's symbolic and unifying role, while international appointments must be in furtherance of Singapore's national interest, Wong said.

Additionally, in his official capacity, the president needs to be apolitical and cannot become involved in issues or events that may generate political controversy.

He added that the appointments must not undermine or be incompatible with the President's discretionary functions under the Constitution, including his custodial functions as the elected president.

President Tharman's current international appointments

Wong shared that the cabinet had previously agreed on President Tharman Shanmugaratnam continuing his international appointments that he had held as a senior minister in his official capacity.

These roles include:

  • Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Group of 30 (G-30).
  • Member of the Board of Trustees of the World Economic Forum (WEF).
  • Co-chair of the Global Commission on the Economics of Water.
  • Co-chair of the United Nations Human Development Report advisory board.

However, they have been advised by the attorney-general that this arrangement was not ideal, Wong shared.

This is because the four international organisations want their distinguished appointees to contribute independently to achieve the aims of the respective bodies, even while holding on to their official status.

If the President were to serve in these international bodies purely in his official capacity, then he would be limited to representing the official Singapore position in everything he says, Wong said.

"That will not be in keeping with the requirements of these organisations, nor would it be in the interest of Singapore for our president to be so limited as it restricts our ability to shape global conversations and initiatives," he explained.

Beneficial for President to contribute in international appointments

The cabinet has concluded that it would benefit Singapore for the president to contribute to his international appointments in an independent and private capacity, Wong said.

It does not mean that the president is doing this outside of his work duties, he elaborated.

Wong further explained that undertaking an international role in a private capacity does not mean that the president or the Minister is "somehow doing some ECA, some extracurricular activity".

For the president, international dimensions are part and parcel of their role and how they contribute to Singapore.

As such, taking on such roles is not a "trade-off" as they are integral to his presidential duties, Wong explained.

These international appointments are core to the President's international diplomacy role as head of state and are how Singapore projects her influence and strengthens networks worldwide.

To allow the President to serve in his private capacity, constitutional amendments are then needed, Wong said.

Framework to govern appointments in private capacity

The provisions in the amendment bill will put in place a proper framework under which current and future appointments are governed, Wong said.

Considerations for the framework include:

  • The framework will only apply to appointments in international organisations. In the domestic context, the current position will continue to apply, and the President will not have an independent role outside of the specific discretionary powers conferred on him by the Constitution.
  • Any international appointments must be justified by the national interest and be supported by the cabinet. And if need be, the cabinet must be able to intervene to advise the President on how he acts in these appointments.
  • Thirdly, the president should have a say in deciding whether to take on such appointments, and any appointment must be on the public record in the interest of transparency and accountability.

Conditions to take up international role

Wong shared that presidents will have three conditions to take up international roles in their private capacity.

First, the president cannot contravene the "disabilities" imposed on presidents in the Constitution, which includes a prohibition on active engagement in commercial enterprises.

Second, the cabinet must assess and advise the President that it is in the national interest for them to accept the appointment, and in making this assessment, the cabinet will be guided by similar principles.

Thirdly, the president, acting in his discretion, must concur with the advice of the cabinet. The president cannot accept an international appointment in his private capacity outside of the framework set out.

Legal framework for ministers

Wong said the ministers' code of conduct permits them to take on external appointments in their private capacities if the Prime Minister considers it to be in the national interest and grants permission.

While there are no general legal impediments for ministers to take on external appointments, a legal framework will now be established.

Under the framework, ministers must obtain the Prime Minister's permission and are subject to his instructions.

They will be instructed against breaching collective cabinet responsibility against making any commitments on behalf of the government, whether formally or informally, and against retaining any remuneration or benefits in connection with the appointment.

However, the amendments to the Constitution will not apply to the Prime Minister.

"Previous and current Prime Ministers have not undertaken any such international appointments, and we do not expect future Prime Ministers to do so."

President and ministers can make significant contributions in international bodies: DPM Wong

Wong said the amendments provide a principle framework to govern how the President and ministers take on international appointments in their private capacities if required by the national interest.

It seeks to ensure that we safeguard the dignity and status of the roles of the President and ministers in Singapore while enabling them to make significant contributions to international bodies and shape global thinking if these contributions are in the interest of Singapore.

"In this way, we can make the most of the expertise, experience and personal standing of the individuals we elect to office so as to advance Singapore's interests and reinforce our value to the world."

The bill for the constitutional amendments has been passed with a vote of 75 against 8.

In Singapore, a majority of two-thirds in parliament is required for constitutional amendments.

@mothershipsg "Any international appointment for the President to act in his private capacity must be justified by the national interest," explained Wong. #sgnews #tiktoksg #sgparliament ♬ original sound - Mothership

Top photos from Tharman.sg/Instagram and MCI/Youtube