President ‘has no role to advance his policy agenda’

Law Minister K Shanmugam explains the role of the President as laid out in the Constitution. (Yahoo! photo)
Law Minister K Shanmugam explains the role of the President as laid out in the Constitution. (Yahoo! photo)

Another government leader has stepped forward to clarify the President's role and powers.

Citing the Constitutional position on the Presidential role, Minister for Law K Shanmugam stressed that the President "has custodial powers, not executive powers".

"In other words, he can veto or block Government actions in specified areas, but he has no role to advance his own policy agenda," said Minister Shanmugam in a three-page statement issued to the mainstream media on Friday.

"Recent comments in the media suggest some confusion over what the President can and cannot do," said Minister Shanmugam, who is also Minister for Foreign Affairs.

He urged, "As the Presidential Elections approach, it is important for Singaporeans to understand what the President is elected and empowered to do under the Singapore Constitution."

The Prime Minister and Cabinet, who are accountable to Parliament and voters, are the ones responsible for all policies and the running of the government. The President, on the other hand, only has veto powers limited to specific areas, he said.

The three areas are: the protection of past reserves, appointment of key personnel and Internal Security Act detentions, investigations by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau and restraining orders connected to the maintenance of religious harmony.

"On all other matters, under the Constitution the President must act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet," said the Minister.

While Presidential hopeful Tan Kin Lian earlier said he wanted to use the influence of the President's office to push for a conservative investment approach in Singapore's two sovereign wealth funds, Minister Shanmugam stressed that the President is "not empowered to direct the investment strategies of GIC (Government Investment Corp) and Temasek (Temasek Holdings)".

The President's role is to appoint suitable and qualified individuals to the Boards of both companies, which then manage the investment strategies.

In a blog post, the former NTUC Income chief pointed out that his earlier statement on adopting a conservative approach to investment recognised the possible "limitation in the power of the President on this matter".

He declined further comment.

On Thursday, former Senior Minister S Jayakumar said he was "surprised and disappointed" that would-be presidential candidates appeared to think the President was a "centre of power unto himself".

On Tuesday, current President SR Nathan reminded candidates that the President operates on the Constitution.

Such debate on the role of the President is not new. In 1999, Singaporeans weighed in on the role and scope of the President after then President Ong Teng Cheong went public about his run-ins with the government.

Then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew told Singaporeans 'there can be only one centre of government in the country' and then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong told Parliament that 'only the Government exercises executive powers'.

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