The government had used the “red herring” of the advice from the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) when it decided to count the five terms of Elected Presidency (EP) from President Wee Kim Wee, said opposition MP Sylvia Lim on Tuesday (3 October).
Speaking in Parliament, Lim said that the government should have defended its decision on the term count to trigger this year’s reserved presidential election as a policy decision instead of using the AGC’s advice as “a distraction” and “ambiguous language”.
Lim, who had raised an adjournment motion on the issue, said that when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Deputy PM Teo Chee Hean spoke on the issue during parliamentary debates, MPs would have been given the impression that the decision was based on the AGC’s advice.
In November 2016, during the debate on the constitutional amendments to the EP, Lee said, “We have taken the Attorney-General’s advice. We will start counting from the first President who exercised the powers of the Elected President, in other words, Dr Wee Kim Wee. That means we are now in the fifth term of the Elected Presidency.
“We will also have to define the ethnic group of each of the Elected Presidents we have had so far. There is no practical doubt, but as a legal matter we have to define it.”
Similarly, Teo had confirmed the AGC’s advice on the EP, Lim told the House.
“Any reasonable person hearing those words (of Lee and Teo) would assume the following: 1) that the AGC had advised the government how to count 2) that the AGC’s advice involved a question of law,” Lim said.
The chairman of the Workers’ Party also highlighted the recent comments made by Deputy-Attorney General Hri Kumar Nair, who represented the Government in the court case filed by former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock against the term count of the EP.
Lim quoted a portion of Kumar’s submission filed on 29 June in relation to the case, “The PM never said that the AGC advised PM to start the count from President Wee. What PM said was that the AGC advised that what the government was proposing to do was legitimate.”
Kumar argued that the AGC’s advice on the term count was irrelevant and that “one should not look at speeches like statutory instruments”, according to Lim.
Calling Kumar’s submission “astonishing”, Lim said his statement implied that the PM’s speech should not be taken “literally but loosely” and there should not be too much emphasis placed on the terms that Lee used in his keynote speech on the constitutional amendments.
Lim concluded by saying, “The government’s inconsistent explanations would further fuel the suspicions of Singaporeans about the real intention behind the legislative changes that resulted in this year’s PE being a closed one.”
AGC’s advice on Elected Presidency was “irrelevant”
In response, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said that Parliament’s decision on the term count for the EP was a matter of law and the AGC’s advice was irrelevant as such.
“What Ms Lim is saying is that we are starting to count from here because of AGC’s advice. That was never suggested,” said Shanumgam.
The government made a “careful” policy decision but it had taken advice to see if there were any legal impediments, he added.
As a matter of law, both the Court of Appeal, when it dismissed Tan’s case, and the AGC had also said that the AGC’s advice was “irrelevant”.
“Ms Lim really should know about this instead of spending so much time making a point out of nothing,” Shanmugam argued.
On Lim’s request for the government to publish the AGC’s advice, Shanmugam argued that the government does not publish legal opinions that it gets as a general rule.
The minister also agreed with what Kumar stated in court that one should not refer to “every MP’s speech and every minister’s speech and then try and interpret as if it’s a statutory interpretation. You go back to the legislation.”
Ultimately, counting the five terms of the EP from Wee was a “policy matter” solely for Parliament to decide, Shanmugam said.
“Did anyone say we are going to decide this way because this is the way that AGC has told us that we have to decide? That would make no sense because Parliament is sovereign…its will is sovereign,” he added.