The High Court on Friday affirmed the Government’s position that the first Elected President of Singapore is indeed Wee Kim Wee, and not Ong Teng Cheong.
The decision by Justice Quentin Loh effectively means that the Government’s edit of Singapore’s political history is now law.
President Ong, who was head of state from 1993 to 1999, was widely recognised as the nation’s first Elected President following the introduction of the scheme in 1991.
He had contested in the first such elections in 1993, winning with a majority vote of 58.69 per cent.
President Ong succeeded President Wee Kim Wee who was a ceremonial president for two 4-year terms from 1985 to 1993.
He had exercised the powers of the Elected President after the scheme came into effect in 1991.
Prior to the introduction of the Elected President scheme, presidents in Singapore were nominated by the Prime Minister and elected by Parliament which, in a one-party legislature, was mostly just a formal endorsement.
Friday’s decision by Justice Loh followed the constitutional challenge by ex-PAP MP, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a presidential candidate in the 2011 elections.
Parliament had approved changes to the Elected President scheme earlier this year, to allow for a Reserved Election. Such an election will be held if there has not been a president from the minority races for 5 terms, or 30 years.
The Government had decided that the count of 5 terms would start from Singapore’s first Elected President which it deemed to be President Wee.
Dr Tan filed his case with the courts to contest this, arguing that the count should be from President Ong instead, since he was the first president to have gone through an actual open election and endorsed by the people of Singapore.
Dr Tan’s argument was dismissed by the judge.
Justice Loh agreed with the argument by Deputy Attorney General Hri Kumar who, incidentally, is also an ex-PAP MP.
“The recent constitutional amendments reflect a re-emphasis on the president’s unifying role and the conviction that, in order for the president to fulfil that role, that office must reflect the multiracial character of our country,” Justice Loh said.
He added, “From the perspective of ensuring multi-racial representation in the presidency…it makes no difference whether the president was elected by the electorate or by Parliament.”
He said that ultimately it was Parliament that had decided on the reserved elections with the knowledge that it allows Mr Wee’s term to be counted. And Parliament had the authority to do so.
While one is inclined to allow and defer to experts to debate the legal merits of Justice Loh’s decision, what perhaps would interest Singaporeans more is the recognition in the last 17 years since President Ong’s passing, that he is Singapore’s first Elected President.
While the letters of the law matters, so too does the spirit of things.
And in this case, it is self-evident, and patently so, that virtually all Singaporeans had recognised President Ong as the nation’s first Elected President.
As many have pointed out online, including this writer, the Government itself, and former Prime Minister Goh Goh Tong, the government’s own ministers and publications, news reports, history annals, and ordinary citizens have all accepted and recognised President Ong’s status.
What is regrettable, for example, is how former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, in his letter of condolence to President Ong’s eldest son, had described President Ong as “Singapore’s first Elected President”, but now the Government has made a u-turn on this.
PM Goh’s letter was sent from the Istana and in his official capacity as the leader of the nation. As such, PM Goh was expressing the views of the Government of the day, on behalf of all Singaporeans.
Now, 17 years later, the same Government, where PM Goh is now Emeritus Senior Minister, is arguing in the courts that in fact President Ong is not our first Elected President.
One wonders what Mr Goh would say to President Ong’s family now.
The records of things like this are important, for they tell of the spirit of things – in this case, that President Ong was honoured with that distinguished title after having paved the way by offering himself in service of his country and took part in the first Elected President elections.
Despite the court’s decision on Friday, one suspects that in the hearts of many Singaporeans – whatever their race or cultural background – President Ong was always and will always remain our nation’s first Elected President.
It is indeed a sad day for all of us that the Government has chosen to edit this part of our political history. And sadder still that the courts have endorsed such a mistake.