The question of who should be deemed Singapore’s first Elected President has once again cropped up, this time the question comes from former presidential candidate, Dr Tan Cheng Bock.
The Government, in changes made to the Elected President Scheme in February, has decided that the honour should be given to Mr Wee Kim Wee who was Singapore’s president from 1985 to 1993.
The Elected President scheme came into effect in 1991, mid-way through Mr Wee’s second term.
Mr Wee never participated in an open election.
The Government’s decision to count Mr Wee as the nation’s first Elected President was made on the advice of the then Attorney General, VK Rajah. AG Rajah has since stepped down (in January) and was succeeded by Mr Lucien Wong.
In the parliamentary debate on the changes to the scheme in February, Minister-in-the-Prime Minister’s Office, Chan Chun Sing, moved the Second Reading of the Bill.
The Workers’ Party Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC, Sylvia Lim, asked why Mr Wee, instead of Mr Ong Teng Cheong, was being considered the first Elected President.
Ms Lim also called on the Government to publish the Attorney General’s advice which the Government said he had given them.
The following are extracts of the relevant parts of the exchange in Parliament between Mr Chan and Ms Lim, with emphasis, in bold, added.
Chan Chun Sing:
The first term of office to be counted is the last term of office of President Wee Kim Wee, during which he became the first President to exercise the functions created by the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Act 1991. The Schedule stipulates that Dr Wee Kim Wee and Mr Ong Teng Cheong belong to the Chinese community; Mr S R Nathan, who served two terms, belongs to the Indian community, Dr Tony Tan belongs to the Chinese community.
Let me move specifically to two aspects of this Bill which are very problematic. First, how to count reserve elections. .. The Schedule sets out a table showing President Wee Kim Wee as the first President to be counted. Together with the subsequent presidential terms of President Ong Teng Cheong, two terms of President SR Nathan and one term of President Tony Tan, these formed five terms where a non-Malay President was in office. Thus the Government reaches the conclusion that this year’s Presidential election will be reserved for Malays.
Madam, this is a conclusion that has left Singaporeans bewildered and suspicious. To recap, during the November debate, the Prime Minister told the House for the first time that the Government had received advice from the Attorney-General’s Chambers on how to apply the hiatus-triggered mechanism for reserved elections, that is, which President’s term to count from. We were told that the advice was that counting should begin from President Wee Kim Wee who was the first President to exercise the powers of an Elected President. This advice was surprising and illogical to many Singaporeans, given that President Wee Kim Wee was never elected to office. When I asked Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean then whether the Government would publish the AGC’s advice for Singaporeans to better understand the reasoning, the Government appeared reluctant to do so and even asked me whether I was suggesting that the Prime Minister was not being truthful.
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Madam, three months have passed since that debate. I have been reflecting on the decision to use President Wee as a reference point. I realise that this decision to count from President Wee was not a matter of getting legal advice to interpret any existing laws. If one looks at this Bill and the Schedule, the Government is asking Parliament to simply make it the law that President Wee is the first one to be counted. Why not count from the first Elected President, Mr Ong Teng Cheong? Is it because if President Ong was the first one to be counted, we would have to go through this year’s elections as an open election and risk the contest by Chinese or Indian candidates who may not be to the Government’s liking? Is the decision to count from President Wee not an arbitrary and deliberate decision of the Government to achieve desired outcome?
Chan Chun Sing:
Ms Sylvia Lim made two points. First, she asked, as she did last November during the debate on the changes to the Constitution, about the advice from the Attorney-General’s Chambers to the Government on the counting of terms. At the same debate, Deputy Prime Minister Teo had confirmed to Ms Lim that the advice referred to by the Prime Minister in his speech was, indeed, the Attorney-General’s Chambers’ advice, and invited Ms Lim to challenge it judicially if she thought that it was not correct advice. Ms Lim then suggested that there might be something controversial or confidential that the Government was unwilling to publish.
The Government is confident of the advice rendered by the Attorney-General. We proceeded on that basis during the debates on the constitutional changes in this House. Prime Minister Lee explained to all why we needed the hiatus-triggered mechanism, and we passed the Constitution (Amendment) Bill. We are here today to put the nuts and bolts in place for a decision made clear by the Prime Minister during the debates in November. And we will not go through this again.
Ms Lim spoke about being bewildered. I have also gone round to solicit feedback from the public. I am rather bewildered that Ms Lim is bewildered, because I did not receive the sentiments that Ms Lim said she got. The feedback that I have received has not been like that. And if I may just make two points.
Ms Lim once again questioned the Attorney-General’s advice. I am a bit bewildered by this. I would like to clarify: (a) Is Ms Lim suggesting that the Attorney-General did not give the Government the appropriate advice? Or (b) that the Prime Minister has not been truthful with the Attorney-General’s advice? If it is the first, then I think Ms Lim, as suggested by Deputy Prime Minister Teo, can challenge this in the courts. But if it is the second, then I am afraid it is a very serious issue to cast aspersions on the integrity of our Prime Minister. Ms Lim, you are a lawyer; I am not a lawyer. You will know that when you get advice, you do not freely publicise your advice and you may have various reasons why you do not publicise all your advice. And as a lawyer, I think you will know this better than me. So, I think we should not impute motives on this Government or the Prime Minister.
The second clarification concerns the counting of reserved elections. I think in Parliament in November the Government has already accused me of the things that Mr Chan has just repeated and I have also answered that in November to say that I am not accusing the Government or the Prime Minister of not telling the truth or that the AGC’s advice was not given. My point was simply that people find it hard to understand why Wee Kim Wee counts as the first Elected President. And if the advice from the AGC is such, it would be helpful if the Government could consent to publishing it so that people can understand or try to understand the reasoning. That was the point being made.
And he talked about the fact that I am a lawyer and I can understand why clients may want to have confidential communications. But the fact also remains that clients can choose to waive the confidentiality if they find that there is a purpose in publishing it. So, I am just asking for more illumination on why we are counting from President Wee Kim Wee.
Chan Chun Sing:
On the second point about the reserve election, I am glad that Ms Lim has confirmed that you are not casting any aspirations on Prime Minister Lee’s integrity and if that is the case then the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Teo Chee Hean, have explained in November why the counting start from the second term of President Wee Kim Wee’s term. That is because President Wee Kim Wee was the first President to exercise the powers under the new Elected Presidency Act.
On the second related point, you asked whether clients can choose to waive the advice and I think I have answered you – which that as a lawyer you know that there will be circumstances where you can choose to release the advice and you can choose not to release the advice and what we have done is no different. So, unless you are going back to challenge and casting doubt on the Prime Minister’s integrity, the Prime Minister has stated on record in this House that it has taken advice from the Attorney-General. We take the Prime Minister for it and it is the Prime Minister’s prerogative as to whether he wishes to release the advice as you have said.