MPs' Q&A on constitutional changes allowing S'pore presidents to hold international roles in private capacities

10 MPs spoke on the matter and DPM Lawrence Wong addressed their concerns.

Matthias Ang | Fiona Tan | November 23, 2023, 10:17 AM



Members of Parliament (MPs) debated over the amendments to Singapore's Constitution on Nov. 22, 2023 to allow Singapore's president and ministers to hold international positions in their private capacities instead of only in their official capacities.

10 MPs rose to speak about their concerns and support for the amendments, while Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong addressed them accordingly.

Parliament passed the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment No.3) Bill 75 to eight, with all seven Workers' Party MPs and one Progress Singapore Party Non-constituency MP voting no.

Q: Will international commitments affect a president's national duties?

WP MP Gerald Giam noted that the current president, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, holds several international appointments in his official capacity and other substantial commitments, which he said will “demand a significant investment” of time and effort away from his national duties.

Noting that the President draws an annual salary of $S1.57 million and that the President’s office’s total budgeted expenditure is over S$12 million, Giam argued that it is “only reasonable” for Singaporeans to expect President Tharman to dedicate all his time and energy to his role as these amounts are a “substantial amount of taxpayer money”.

WP MP Dennis Tan shared Giam's concerns, pointing out that the president "only has 24 hours a day".

PAP MP Yip Hon Weng also questioned if presidents would have "sufficient time and bandwidth to execute their roles".

A: The president is also S'pore's "top diplomat".

PAP MP Christopher de Souza refuted Giam, stating that even though President Tharman "only has 24 hours a day", he "packs a lot in 24 hours of his day".

He added that the president is also Singapore's “top diplomat”, and it is advantageous that the president is a party to foreign and international organisations.

DPM Wong elaborated that international responsibilities are "part and parcel" of the president's role and are not a "trade-off" from their other presidential duties.

He also explained that the Cabinet will assess if the appointments' meeting load and travel demands are reasonable and weigh them against "potential benefits".

Q: Why are we backdating the amendments?

Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai said that if the international and foreign appointments are not unconstitutional, it is "perplexing" why the amendments must be backdated.

WP MP Jamus Lim also raised his concerns about retroactive lawmaking, describing it as "thorny" when it involves constitutional changes.

He claimed that it is uncontested that laws should generally be prospective, open and clear and that all instances where retroactive legislature is enacted should be sparing.

He said that any such cases should be justifiable by the gravity of not otherwise doing so.

A: It's a "novel situation" when it comes to the president.

In response, DPM Wong said the government is now dealing with a "novel situation" regarding President Tharman as he has served in international organisations in the past in his official capacity.

He said this is "the exception rather than the norm" and the amendments were backdated "out of an abundance of caution".

DPM Wong said that President Tharman has not attended any formal meetings of the four international bodies that he has been appointed to since Sep. 14 and prior to this reading in Parliament.

He explained that while backdating might prejudice people who "relied on existing law", this is not the case here as "no one is prejudiced".

DPM Wong added that "in any case", the approval of the president's appointments "will be done on a prospective basis".

Q: What about conflict of interest?

Tan questioned whether the amendments are sufficient for different scenarios, such as when there is a conflict of interest due to the president "double hatting".

He said the amendments also do not state who will bear the expenses due to the president's appointments, such as for their travels.

A: Private capacity does not mean "private interest".

DPM Wong responded that there appears to be "confusion" between "private views" and "private interest".

Wong reiterated that it is not the case that when the president serves in their "private capacity", they are serving their "private interests".

Instead, they contribute their "private views" for the national interest while being subjected to safeguards.

 "We are doing this for the national interests. We are doing this so that the President can project Singapore's influence and strengthen our networks in the world, fulfilling his presidential duties."

He added that the cabinet can advise the president accordingly to relinquish an appointment if conflicts of interest cannot be resolved.

Q: Is the government treating the matter "lightly"?

Other than doubting whether "retroactive lawmaking" should be "justifiable",  Lim went on further to doubt if the government "treated the matter lightly, taking for granted" that "a supermajority" in parliament "is able to alter the Constitution at will".

Leong shared his concerns, stating that it seemed like parliament was being made to pass the amendments to "enable a specific individual to remain within legal boundaries".

He claimed that how the matter is handled has "created unnecessary unease among Singaporeans".

A: DPM Wong: The amendments are for making things proper

de Souza questioned if the opposition MPs would "railroad" and prevent the amendments from going through if they had enough members.

He then said, "I'd like to take that conclusion and flip it on its head. I am humbly proud that I am part of the two-thirds that pushes through constitutional legislations that are robustly in favour of our national interests."

DPM Wong criticised the opposition MPs' suggestions that the amendments were "not proper".

"This is completely unfounded. Nothing could be further from the truth," he said.

He said that if the government chose to keep things as it is, "people will be none the wiser".

He reiterated that the government didn't want to operate "in an area with some ambiguity" and instead came to parliament to "pass a proper and principled framework".

"That’s the proper thing to do."

Top images via MCI/YouTube