Although the matter of who is Singapore’s first Elected President (EP) has been settled in the Court of Appeal (CA), Singaporeans would still be uncertain of how and why the Government has deemed Wee Kim Wee as the nation’s first EP instead of Ong Teng Cheong.
Sylvia Lim of the opposition Workers’ Party has filed a parliamentary adjournment motion on the issue and it is left to be seen what her motion is about.
In the meantime, although the CA has decided on the issue of whether Parliament or the Government has the constitutional right to count Wee Kim Wee as the first EP, there are still questions which the Government needs to answer or explain.
One in particular is of particular interest (and importance) because it shows the Government changing its mind on Ong Teng Cheong being the first EP, and the Government failing to explain why it has apparently done so.
When Mr Ong passed away in 2002, the then Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, wrote a condolence letter to Mr Ong’s eldest son. (Mr Ong’s wife had earlier passed away from cancer.)
In the letter, which you can view here in the government archives, PM Goh – speaking in his official capacity as Prime Minister and a representative of the Government of the day – wrote [emphasis added]:
“As the first elected President, Teng Cheong had to work the new two-key system of safeguarding our reserves and key appointments in the public sector. We had no precedents to fall back on…. His efforts helped to put the two-key system through its paces, and made the job of future Presidents that much easier.”
It is worth reiterating that Mr Goh’s letter was issued through the “Media Division, Ministry of Information, Communications and The Arts.”
It was thus not a personal letter but an official one, stating the Government’s official opinion and views on Mr Ong and his contributions to the nation.
Another thing worth noting is Mr Goh’s statement that “we had no precedents to fall back on”, when it came to how the Government and the President interacted vis a vis the elected president’s powers. If Mr Wee had exercised his duties as an elected president, as the government now claims, it is a wonder that Mr Goh would say “we had no precedents to fall back on”.
Putting the two statements together – that Mr Ong is “Singapore’s first elected President” and how it was Mr Ong, and not Mr Wee, who set the precedents for the new scheme – it is reasonable (and in fact, rational) to assume that Mr Goh had seen Mr Ong as the nation’s first EP, as he stated in the letter.
Mr Goh is now Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM).
He has been entirely silent on the debate on the elected presidency, and the changes made to it last year.
It was a team in the 1980s led by Mr Goh, who was then deputy Prime Minister, which “develop[ed] the elected presidency scheme”, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Parliament in November 2016 during the debate on the Amendments to the Presidential Elections Act.
Mr Goh would thus, more than anybody else, be clear on who is the first EP of Singapore. This, in fact, seemed to have been made clear in his condolence letter to Mr Ong’s eldest son, a letter in which PM Goh made clear that Mr Ong is indeed Singapore’s first EP.
Amidst the debate on the changes to the EP and the recent court challenges by Dr Tan Cheng Bock and the CA’s subsequent decision, it would benefit Singaporeans if Mr Goh could explain why he had deemed Mr Ong as Singapore’s first EP, and wrote so in his condolence letter comforting Mr Ong’s family at their greatest time of grieving.
And why the Government has now changed its mind.