No need to clarify President’s powers: Shanmugam

Law Minister K. Shanmugam said there is no confusion over the powers of the president as it is clearly stated in the Constitution. (AP photo)Law Minister K. Shanmugam said there is no confusion over the powers of the president as it is clearly stated in …

Law Minister K. Shanmugam dismissed on Sunday the need to clarify the powers of the President of Singapore, saying that the Constitution was very clear on the matter.

He had earlier said that the president could only act and speak on the advice of the Cabinet, but two presidential hopefuls — Mr Tan Kin Lian andMrt Tan Jee Say — disagreed with the minister's interpretation.

"They think the president can or ought to do things which are not set out in the Constitution. They are entitled to their views," the law minister said at the Chong Pang Community Club on Sunday after joining Muslim community leaders and residents in the breaking of the fast.

Mr Shanmugam, who is also the Foreign Minister, added that whoever was elected as president would be entitled to consult lawyers, the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) and the Council of Presidential Advisers, reported The Straits Times.

"In the end, I don't see much of a conflict. And if there is a disagreement, which has happened before, you can always get it resolved through the courts.

"When you have a check and balance, you must expect that sometimes there might be differences in views, and if there are differences in views, we have a structure and system in place to deal with those differences," he said.

Under the Constitution, the president has substantive powers in five key areas.

These include, the protection of reserves, appointment of key personnel in the civil service, Internal Security Act detentions, investigations by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau and restraining orders connected to the maintenance of religious harmony.

Commenting on whether legislation on the presidency might be further refined to avoid future confusion, the minister said he personally thought the Constitution was very clear.

"I cannot speak for future governments nor can I speak, honestly, for the entire Cabinet on what might happen in the future.

"You ask me, today, is the position clear? As I said at the IPS forum, I think the position is crystal clear," he added.

President can still be influential

Mr Shanmugam also outlined three points to consider regarding the influence and respect of the president after another presidential hopeful, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, commented that the minister's recent comments at a forum implied "the people's choice of the president matters little unless he is endorsed by the government".

First, Mr Shanmugam noted that the office of the presidency itself commands respect. He said, "You look at the office of the Chief Justice, many other offices, the office commands respect."

Second, since the president is elected by the people, they have the power to make that choice and that power to make that choice must itself also be respected.

"Anyone who is elected through that process will obviously carry the respect of that office," he said.

"Whoever holds that office therefore deserves the respect of the office and the fact that he was elected through the process."

Touching on the third point, he said that the president can nevertheless be very influential although there are many areas of governance as stated in the Constitution which is reserved solely for the prime minister and the Cabinet — and where the president cannot give directions to the prime minister.

"And the point I was seeking to make is that the quality of the advice given by the president — because the president can give advice even on areas outside of his scope — would depend on the quality of the person giving the advice."

The minister added that a president "who is wise, knowledgeable and experienced" will be able to offer advice and would be more influential than another who does not possess as much experience or wisdom, all things being equal.

"I think it's a very simple point. The importance of qualifications for the office is recognised by the aspiring candidates themselves because they have all taken some pains to explain why they are qualified.

"So it's recognisable and a very simple and straightforward point: The quality of the advice is going to depend on who is giving that advice, and whether that advice will be influential would depend on how good that advice is."

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