On Wednesday, Nov. 22, Parliament debated the constitutional amendment to allow Singaporean presidents and cabinet ministers to take up international roles in their personal capacities, if it is in line with national interests.
The House passed the bill 75 to eight, with seven Workers' Party (WP) MPs and one Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency MP voting no.
The debate surrounding the amendment brought about very understandable concerns, but also one in particular that seemed rather odd.
One expected topic was the difference between the president's personal interest, his private capacity, the national interest, and the president's official capacity, and how they may overlap and blur.
It is understandable for Singaporeans to want to draw thick, clear lines around what office holders can and cannot do, but this is something that is easier to do in theory than in practice.
An international dimension to the role of the office of President adds a certain layer of concern, or perhaps uncertainty.
WP MP Gerald Giam, through his speech and questions, made clear that the WP's objection was to President Tharman Shanmugaratnam holding a position in a private capacity, as Giam believes that this could detract the President from his substantial public duties.
He said that the party accepts that Tharman may sometimes take up such roles in his official capacity. But he questioned the manner in which Tharman was holding on to his roles prior to the amendment being passed.
Giam also asked:
"How will the government ensure that the President, when acting in his private capacity, follows the Cabinet’s advice about what to say or do in his role, since many of these organisations hold their meetings behind closed doors in foreign countries?"
The WP's objections were pertinent, and the explanation that it drew out was useful in clarifying how the government's framework would function and why it was needed.
Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong presented the bill for debate and had explained the issue earlier in his speech.
Wong said that if Tharman held his positions in an official capacity, it could be unclear if he was speaking for himself or the government, and therefore limit Tharman's ability to shape conversations.
"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. That would 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."
Conversely, an arrangement where Tharman is allowed to contribute independently in his personal capacity is currently not clearly provided for by the Constitution, as advised by the Attorney-General.
A smaller example of why such confusion might arise occurs at the opening of Parliament. There, the president gives a speech written by the government.
And although he announces policy objectives by saying "my government will do such and such", those policies were not determined by him.
It stems from the Westminster parliamentary system, where a similar speech is given by the monarch, and they are expected to remain neutral and disinterested throughout.
If there is no constitutional amendment, it is possible that there could be some confusion as to whether a recommendation given by Tharman in his international roles was his personal opinion, or his opinion in his official capacity.
Wong said the government was drawing the distinction out of a desire to remove possible ambiguity.
He drew a distinction between personal versus national interest, and how it interacted with the distinction of private and official capacities.
As Wong concluded, allowing the President to take up the roles in his private capacity means he can contribute his personal views but still be serving the national interest.
The condensed explanation: A president participates in an organisation or event if it was in the national interest. And such appointments domestically is to further President's symbolic and unifying role.
In any international role, Tharman serves after receiving the support of the cabinet, but not at its instruction.
However, what I found less straightforward as an argument was Giam and his WP colleague Dennis Tan's take about the president's bandwidth, and how much time international commitments would take up.
International roles, the travel that it entails, will take time away from the national interests that Tharman is expected to pursue. Tan described it as "bandwidth", Giam said: "All of us — even the President — have only 24 hours each day."
But during his presidential campaign, Tharman said on multiple occasions was that he wanted to prioritise the traditional role of the Singaporean presidency: "fly the Singapore flag high" internationally, and serve as a unifying figure in Singaporean society.
When Tharman talks about flying the Singapore flag high, he's talking about his international commitments, the standing that he has acquired over nearly three decades on the political and global stage.
So when Giam questions: "Surely the role of the President is significant enough to merit his undivided attention."
The reply is: Yes, it is.
Diplomats and sportspeople are the two most prominent groups that represent Singapore internationally.
Whether it is Shanti Pereira winning at the Asian Games, or Rena Lee concluding vital pieces of international standards for the United Nations, seeing these Singaporeans thrive on the international stage is a unifying experience.
The president is Singapore's top diplomat, representing Singapore is his job.
Congratulating national sporting heroes, meeting foreign representatives, lighting christmas lights, holding open houses, or attending a Group of 30 plenary meeting in New York: as Tharman has explained, these are all components of the same job.
None of these events are a side job for the president, they are the whole job.
And as for how many hours there are in a day, while I am unlikely to be half as busy as President Tharman, I too don't have enough time for everything I want to do. The same goes for all of us.
As the old cliché goes, you don't have time for things, you make time.
Tharman will have to make time for the various roles that he plays, both domestically and internationally.
If he fails to do this, he will be subject to all manner of complaints, on social media, in coffee shops, around dining tables.
Contrary to certain allegations, Singaporeans are not sheep. They are more than willing to complain about the perceived competence and priorities of every political leader, regardless of background or party.
Tharman will have to assess if corrections need to be made, and if he runs again for re-election or is judged by posterity, he will be assessed by the electorate on how well he arranged these priorities.
In single party-dominated Singapore, no fewer than three cabinet ministers have been felled in the past three elections, with others leaving politics entirely.
So Singaporean politicians are well aware of the consequences of not getting priorities right (or least being perceived to get it wrong).
And President Tharman has earned the right and the mandate to make the case for his priorities.
President Tharman previously held the following international positions, in his official capacity as President, with the advice and support of the Cabinet:
- Chairman of the Board of Trustees (BoT) of the Group of Thirty (G30). This oversees the governance and directions of the G30, which is a grouping of eminent thought leaders in economic policymaking, academia and the financial industry.
- Member of the BoT of the World Economic Forum (WEF). The advisory board helps shape the strategic directions of the WEF, without directly overseeing the running of the organisation.
- Co-Chair of the Global Commission on the Economics of Water (GCEW). This is an independent Commission that was convened to examine and make recommendations to United Nations and other international forums on how to improve the way societies govern, use and value water for the common good.
- Co-Chair of the United Nations Human Development Report (UN HDR) Advisory Board. This provides intellectual guidance and advice on the overall vision, direction, and messages of the UN HDR.
Tharman held these roles when he was Senior Minister.
He does not receive any remuneration or other benefits from these appointments.
The Cabinet has advised Tharman that it is in the national interest for him to accept and hold the four offices in his personal capacity.
Tharman has concurred with the advice of the Cabinet and has accepted those offices in his personal capacity.
Top image via Group of Thirty