The President of Singapore, alongside his council of advisors, has many powers that could be used to frustrate a future democratically elected government. Current President Tony Tan, as a former PAP Deputy Prime Minister, has extremely close links to the ruling party and is also one of a core group of senior cadres noted for their abuse of the legislative process in bringing defamation suits against Tan Liang Hong and others. Come 2016, it will be essential to contrast Mr Tan’s currently hands off attitude towards the ruling party’s recent unlawful and unconstitutional behaviour, with any stance he may take towards a possible opposition government. Tony Tan has a troubling track record when it comes to partisan abuses of power and Singaporeans must be vigilant that his position as President is not used as a platform to block democratic progress.
It is interesting to note that two of the requirements for becoming President of Singapore are not to be a member of a political party, and not to be a member of parliament. This appears to be an attempt to guard against conflicts of interest and the possibility that the extreme powers of the President could be abused for partisan ends. Some of those powers include the ability to block the budgets and appointments of government companies and statutory boards, as well as block the appointment of public servants such as the Chief Justice, Attorney General, Auditor General, the director of CPIB and many more.
It is clear that the above powers are ones which must be exercised with the utmost care and impartiality. However the most significant power of the President is in selecting the next Prime Minister. Come 2016, the President must choose a PM who “in his personal judgment, is likely to command the confidence of a majority of MPs”. Despite not currently being a PAP member, is Tony Tan really so independent of the ruling party? Will he be able to exercise these powers without any possibility for conflicts of interest to arise? When he was a PAP cabinet minister for over two decades? When he was Deputy Prime Minister under the current PM for over a year? When he is in fact a (distant) relative of Lee Hsien Loong himself? It would be hard to argue that Mr Tan does not have a vested interest in the ongoing political success of the PAP, when his personal reputation is inextricably linked to that party, as one of the so-called “men in white”.
Mr Tan’s power to appoint the Prime Minister in 2016 will be entirely down to his own personal judgement and he will most likely not be required to give any explanation. If criticisms around his choice do however arise, Mr Tan’s extensive establishment connections will surely prove useful – as a former Chairman of the notoriously cowed Singapore Press Holdings, Mr Tan is uniquely well positioned to encourage the voluminous airing of views in his defence, while those of his critics are likely to be easily silenced. There is therefore a significant concern about the level of impartiality that Tony Tan will apply in selecting the next Prime Minister of Singapore, as well as executing his other powers.
Eyes closed to unlawful government actions
The President is widely seen as having a significant oversight role in the running of Singapore. As the holder of a so-called “second key” to the reserves, and as one of only two people in government who can trigger corruption investigations (the other being the PM), the President’s powers are extremely significant. Mr Tan chose a pair of glasses (shown above) as his presidential election symbol, apparently to indicate the close scrutiny he would apply in exercising that oversight. Yet the most significant aspect of his presidency thus far has been his silent refusal to scrutinise unlawful activities on the part of the current government. From the unconstitutional World Bank loan overturned by the Auditor General to a questionable multi-billion dollar loan to the IMF, to the Auditor General’s findings of unlawful behaviour in the Prime Minister’s Office, Tony Tan has maintained a stunning silence. It could well be that Mr Tan never had any intention to diligently exercise his powers of oversight, in which case he would presumably apply an equally hands-off attitude towards any future non-PAP government or Ministers. However, we must not completely discount the possibility that partisan motives underly the silence currently enveloping the Istana. It will be interesting to contrast the recent silence of Mr Tan with any more vocal criticisms he may air against a future opposition government. If Mr Tan does raise any such criticisms in the future it will be essential to challenge him to justify those actions. Why, after maintaining a stoic silence in the face of unconstitutional government behaviour in recent years, might the former PAP Minister start to speak out against a future opposition government? The accusation of partisanship will be hard to avoid.
Protecting the legacy
The legacy of Tony Tan’s time with the PAP is a troubling one. That stems mostly from his role as part of a core group of senior members who made Singapore notorious for the abuse of law in bringing defamation cases against their political opponents. Tony Tan for example sued Tang Liang Hong over the most innocuous of fair commentary in the aftermath of the Hotel Properties Scandal. The full details of the cases against Tang are quite shocking, and this abuse of process has done significant harm to the reputation of Singapore as a rule of law country. Furthermore, Mr Tan was a government cabinet minister in 1987 when Operation Spectrum was launched against members of a so-called “Marxist Conspiracy”. His refusal or inability to speak out against this gross injustice is telling. His continued membership of a government that denied freedom to those detained without charge by passing extremely repressive amendments to the Internal Security Act and the constitution itself speaks volumes about how this man weighs the conflicting demands of party allegiance and natural justice.
In view of his troubling legacy, it is quite legitimate to question the suitability of this man to be Singapore’s head of state. The fact that his significant reserve powers could be used to frustrate the efforts of a future government to make amends for the mistakes of the past is particularly concerning. Would Mr Tan be impartial enough to not challenge the appointment of a future Attorney General who may be critical of his own historical abuses of defamation law? Would Mr Tan be impartial enough to not challenge the appointment of a future Auditor General who may desire to take a closer look at those loans and gifts to the IMF and The World Bank? Would Mr Tan be impartial enough to not challenge increased budgetary funding to a statutory board in the name of investigating the circumstances of the so-called “Marxist Conspiracy”? It will be impossible to know unless such situations arise in the future, but it is important to ask the questions now and we should be prepared to scrutinise the execution of his Presidential powers by Tony Tan were an opposition government to be formed in 2016.
The well-connected Alex Au has written previously that the upper echelons of the civil service are seen by many as highly politicised and willing to frustrate an opposition government. We must suppose that the same could be true of the Council of Presidential Advisers and Tony Tan himself. Come 2016, it must be all eyes on Tony Tan.