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President’s role significant due to say on reserves: Shanmugam

Law Minister K Shanmugam has reiterated that the President is not a figure-head. (Yahoo! file photo)
Law Minister K Shanmugam has reiterated that the President is not a figure-head. (Yahoo! file photo)

The President's powers are significant, especially now that Singapore faces a potential economic downturn, said Law Minister K. Shanmugam.

Speaking to reporters at a community event on Sunday morning, Mr Shanmugam explained that the President's role is important because he has the final say on whether the government can tap on the reserves during such situations.

According to The Straits Times, he said, "I think, the way people sometimes look at it, that fact is not highlighted -- that the role of the President is very significant."

Mr Shanmugam gave the example of how, in the 2008 financial crisis, the government was able to help Singaporeans by drawing on the reserves.

The reserves formed part of a $20 billion Resilience Package, which according to Mr Shanmugam, helped save jobs, gave tax breaks and provided direct assistance to families during that time, and this was "pretty much unique in the world."

The minister said the 5 Aug forum organised by the Institute of Policy Studies was useful in helping people understand the President's powers.

As a participant in the forum, Mr Shanmugam explained the Constitutional limits on the President's speaking rights, touching on how the President can speak and act only on advice of the Cabinet on areas outside his designation.

He said people now realise that while the President is not a separate executive centre of its own, he has significant powers still.

Among the four Presidential hopefuls, Dr Tony Tan has agreed with the Law Minister. In a statement on his blog, he wrote that the President "can speak on issues only as authorised by the Cabinet; and he must follow the advice of the Cabinet in the discharge of his duties."

While two other Presidential hopefuls -- Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Tan Kin Lian -- agreed that the President should work within the boundaries of the Constitution, they have questioned a few points raised by Mr Shanmugam.

While Tan Kin Lian disagreed with the fact "that the President cannot speak on anything else without the approval of the government," Dr Tan took issue with the fact that the President's influence on the government in areas outside his constitutional powers would depend on his "experience, knowledge and wisdom."

Dr Tan added: "Is he saying the choice of the voters of Singapore matters little?"

However, Mr Shanmugam pointed out on Sunday that the President is not a mere figurehead, and what is important is for the hopefuls to ask themselves whether they are up to the job.

"He has very significant powers, but understand what those powers are and then ask yourself whether you can perform the task and the role," 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.