Friday, August 19, 2011 (political commentaries on singapore)

Political Commentary ( )
Challenging the Out-of-Bounds Markers for an Elected President

Seventeen years ago, the then Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr Goh Chok Tong, sternly warned government critics about what they could and could not criticize, using the golfing term ‘out-of-bounds markers’ which has since then become part of the political lexicon.

But in the General Election of 2011 (GE 2011), a newly emboldened, energized and subsequently triumphant electorate went all the way of criticism, sparing no personage in the People’s Action Party (PAP) leadership, no matter how long feared, nor any PAP policy, no matter how well established. Thus they removed, in one fell stroke, all the hated markers, clearing the way for even the most outspoken critic in the future.

Now, just some months later, they clearly want to do the same for the President of Singapore. For he too is hampered by out-of-bounds markers, the special constraints imposed on him by the constitution which forbids him to say or do anything that might be construed as disapproval of government policy. By challenging these markers and removing them, they want him to be an independent voice of the people, that dares raise itself, whenever necessary, on their behalf. Judging by their fervid, boundless activity in the Internet in the run-up to the presidential election, it is clear that they want to continue to use the same powerful instrument to achieve their purpose. If they succeed, they will in effect change forever the role of the Elected President (EP) and secure another people’s victory this year, surely one of the most remarkable years in Singapore’s electoral history.

But this time, the challenge is very much complicated by a powerful counter-challenge by the government, in the form of that most sacrosanct instrument of the social compact—the constitution. The constitution clearly spells out the role of the EP in its nature and scope: it is custodial, not executive; it is in harmony with, not against, the decisions of the government; in tone, it is dignified, in bearing stately, not cantankerous and demeaning of its high office. To refute the claims and promises of independence made by certain presidential hopefuls, PAP ministers have painstakingly drawn attention to these strictures in the constitution.

But the vociferous anti-PAP camp, still flush with the success of GE 2011, has little patience for the legalisms and punctilio of a constitution, as can be seen in the vigorous, unbridled exchanges among netizens bent on bringing out into the open allegedly past misdeeds of those hopefuls who are perceived to be favoured by the government. The prevailing attitude seems to be that since the constitution was created more than 20 years ago by a self-serving government that provided it with enough ambiguities to allow for an interpretation that will always suit their purpose, it is no longer relevant. Indeed, it contradicts the new spirit of openness, transparency and expanded powers for the people, ushered in by the watershed GE 2011, that a humbled PAP leadership has actually acknowledged and promised to promote.

Ironically, in the midst of the government’s deliberately conspicuous efforts to establish a more amicable relationship with the people (which some observers consider as needlessly effusive and overdone, detracting from the image of strong, confident leadership ), the estrangement persists in its most exacerbated form in the current EP controversy.

In addition to the unbridgeable gap between the diametrically opposed perceptions of a purely custodial role, on the one hand, and an actively adversarial one on the other, there are the following equally irreconcilable divergencies: where the government insists that the EP has veto power in only the five areas specified by the constitution, which include the protection of past reserves and the appointment of key personnel, the critics clearly want the EP to have a say in a whole array of other issues, especially those that had been their greatest concerns in GE 2011, namely, the ministerial salaries, the employment of foreign workers and unaffordable housing—and, presumably, any issue which affects the lives of Singaporeans. Where the government emphasizes dignity, gravitas and acumen as the most important qualities for the EP, the people want to see fearlessness, courage and readiness to stand up to a powerful government. Where the government wants the presidential voice, if it needs to be critical, to be so only in quiet, private consultation with the Prime Minister, the people will be satisfied with no less than open and public accounting.

In short, the differences are so vast that beyond the vague general agreement that the president must uphold the integrity of the highest office in the land, there is no common meeting ground. Every discussion on the EP is hence an impasse from the start.

Indeed, so intense is the clamouring of the people for change, so adamant is the government about preserving intact the constitutionality of the presidential role and so riddled with anomalies is the constitution itself when subjected to tests of real-life applications (as was evident in a recent forum where the Law Minister bravely answered questions put to him by academics and political analysts) that the rancour is likely to continue well beyond the election on 27 August, regardless of who gets elected.

The new president, no matter how he chooses to play out his role, will be in the unenviable position of being continually scrutinized and criticized in the light of his previous formal association, or absence of it, with the PAP. If he had been a former stalwart in the PAP administration, and had been publicly favoured by the government, he will be seen as just one more in a line of perfectly acquiescent, cosily harmonious presidents, exactly as the PAP had always intended and desired. If he had been formerly a member of the PAP but had pointedly distanced himself from it, whatever efforts he makes at asserting his independence will be overshadowed by the past links, or even seen as the sheer futility of trying to shake off an unshakeable, deeply entrenched PAP mentality. If he had never been a PAP member, the expectations of him will be so unrealistically high that whatever evidence of independence he displays will elicit disappointment as being not enough. And since the presidential salary is tied to ministerial salaries, any angry response to the outcome of the review currently being undertaken, will not spare him.

In the new political climate after GE 2011, the greatest loser might just be the EP, because he will have to bear the brunt of the anomalies, confusions and conflicts of a society that has been suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into the flux of transition. He will be stuck in an impossible situation, for the out-of-bounds markers set out in the constitution will strait-jacket him, making a mockery of his popular mandate and the will of the people who had directly elected him. He has continually to maintain the difficult balance between the need, on the one hand, to present the magisterial bearing and calm composure and detachment expected of a president, and, on the other, to project an image of empathy and affinity with the man-in-the-street, all the time aware that he is being watched and judged, and that the savage criticisms and relentless exposure of his private life, that he had endured during the run-up to the election, will by no means end with the high office he now holds. Rightly or wrongly, he will be linked with a government that has fallen so far in the people’s regard that close association with them is seen as something of a taint. With the traditional protective mantle of his office stripped away, he will be at the mercy of netizens who themselves enjoy the protective anonymity of the Internet.

The experience of the presidential election of 2011 could well be the most bruising, divisive and ugliest election in Singapore’s history. It may be necessary when a system ends up with nobody being a winner, and everybody having a bad taste in the mouth, to take another look at it, and subject it to an honest review.

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August 14th, 2011 — 16 Comments

16 comments below

August 14th, 2011 at 10:34 pm

Frankly speaking, if the people is united, the people could shift the centre of power from the parliament to the presidency!

The only question is are we united?

The above is hypothetical, so isd don’t arrest me, please!
(note:isd =Singapore Internal Security Department)

Ngiam Shih Kheng
August 15th, 2011 at 2:18 am

as a respected novelist, I feel you would made a great President….

the truth is under the current EP system, neither of our 1st 4 president would have been elected and neither would you.

They have turn this into a farce…

the only true Check and Balance is the elected opposition member of Parliament.

Alex Au
August 15th, 2011 at 3:15 am

You wrote: “He will be stuck in an impossible situation, for the out-of-bounds markers set out in the constitution will strait-jacket him”

Actually, the nature of out-of-bounds markers is the opposite of being set out in the constitution. What Shanmugam and company would want Singaporeans to believe is that these constraints are firm and explicit, when in fact they are tacit and ultimately grounded on unwritten British convention.

But is it so obvious that British constitutional convention must apply here without question? There is a fundamental difference between the UK and Singapore. Over there, there is a hereditary monarch. Here, the president is elected — the purpose of which is to give him a personal, democratic mandate.

If in an election campaign, he proposes to do something and the people knowingly vote in him, can it be incontestibly argued that he cannot do it (so long as it is not expressly disallowed by a clause in the constitution)? Can’t the opposite be argued? That the people want him to do it, and has given him the necessary mandate? In a democracy, the people are sovereign.

Thus, the first struggle is to contest these out-of-bounds markers as Singapore develops its own constitutional conventions. Ultimately what becomes of the office is what the people of Singapore will want of it.

August 15th, 2011 at 12:16 pm

I wish I could express myself as well and you and Alex. As far as I am concern, the ultimate authority are the voters and not the straight jacketed interpretations from certain self-serving quarters.

August 15th, 2011 at 12:56 pm

But why do we need this “farce” to start with? Why do we spend so much money on an election to put a figurehead into the “highest” office in the state? Given the limited sphere that the EP can operate, it really doesn’t matter to me who gets elected. i’m not an apathy citizen, just a normal man on the street which doesn’t understand the reason for having this election.

August 15th, 2011 at 2:12 pm

/// Seventeen years ago, the then Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr Goh Chok Tong, sternly warned government critics about what they could and could not criticize, using the golfing term ‘out-of-bounds markers’ which has since then become part of the political lexicon. ///

Catherine, I think George Yeo used the term OB markets even earlier in 1991. In golf, OB markers are clearly shown by stakes driven into the areas of the golf course, beyond which playing is not allowed and will be penalized. However, for the Singapore political scene (or minefield), the OB markers are invisible. All we could surmise then was that race, language and religion are some of the forbidden areas. The rest are not spelled out. If we do not know where the OB markers are, how are we expected to avoid them?

Which was why 17 years ago in 1994, you were taken to task by Goh Chok Tong for playing beyond the OB markers because of the article “The PAP and the people – A Great Affective Divide” that you wrote. As you can see, what you wrote hardly touched on race, language or religion, yet you were penalized for transgressing the invisible OB markers.

At least with the EP now, they are trying to plant some clearly visible OB markers. This is certainly an improvement over the previous invisible ones. However, I suspect they will keep the rest of the OB markers invisible to give them maximum flexibility in deciding where and who has gone out of bound.

To President Nathan, Shanmugan and Tony Tan, that which is not specifically spelled out is forbidden, whilst to Tan Cheng Bock, Tan Kin Lian and Tan Jee Say, that which is not specifically forbidden is allowed.

Max Chew
August 15th, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Simply brilliant and coincides with most of my sentiments…..

Every voter for the EP polling day should read It prior to casting his vote.

Viva la Cathy Lim!

Lee Kee Seng
August 15th, 2011 at 8:48 pm

As we so clearly seen in the last general elections, Singaporeans desire a multi-party parliament. This is a correct desire because single-party rule had always led to single-person rule and finally to very messy uprisings. In a multi-party system, there are bound to be more conflicts. In order to settle these conflicts and for the government to function despite these conflicts, Singapore will need some strong institutions. I feel that the elected president can play a role in this regard. The other hope is to have a truly independent judiciary. My guess is that we need both.


August 17th, 2011 at 6:01 pm

Catherine is jumping the gun; Singaporeans are a charitable lot. When it suits them. Of course, that depends on who actually gets into the hot seat.

@Alex: The President cannot do anything except with the advice of Cabinet, save for areas in which he can act in his discretion in art 22P. We’ve had a case illustrate that recently, which you would very well know of: Yong Vui Kong v PP.

August 18th, 2011 at 9:45 am

I’m not sure how many people realize that their elected MP’s might also be effectively muzzled when it comes to voting in parliament. I refer to: scroll down to Parliament Whip and you will see

“Often regarded as the disciplinarians controlling MPs in their respective parties, the Whips ensure that there are always sufficient party members in the Chamber to support the party’s position and that MPs vote according to the party’s line. Occasionally, he may “lift the whip” and allow MPs to vote according to their conscience.”

Several points:

Am I reading this matter correctly? ie that MP’s have to vote party line unless the whip is raised

Exactly how many times has the whip been raised over the last 46 years vs how many times has it NOT been raised?. These statistic is most revealing because it tells you exactly how much voice your elected (PAP)MP actually has.

Exactly what would happen if a PAP MP refused to vote party line?

Exactly who is it that formulates ‘party line’?

If my interpretation of the above is wrong, I really would like to know. But if I’m reading this right then I wonder

1 why this crucial matter was not picked up during all the pre-GE2011 furor.

2 if someone netizen would like to pick this up and run with it?

K C ong
August 19th, 2011 at 8:07 am

The only groundswell are the netizens who have found a voice in cyberspace. There is still a government in power voted in by the “people”. Yes there is disgruntlement, but the simple majority of the “people” still voted in the government. The silent majority appears to wield some power though not in the noisy, and sometimes ill-disciplined internet conversations. Do you also listen to them who do not speak out/ can’t speak out but still support the government (i.e PAP)? What are their fears of the noisy oppositional crowd?

Woo Lan Peng
August 19th, 2011 at 9:40 am

Yes the constitution today might have boundaries for the EP & the EP will have to perform to the best of his abilities to keep to his pre-election promises.

However, the votes for the EP, can be an important “predictor” of the shape & form of the future constitution. The votes, not only determine who the EP or winner is, it will signal the “loyalties” Singaporeans have for the PAP party & the PAP majority parliament.

Let’s say Tony Tan is elected, which might not be so much of a surprise but garnered a low margin of win, say less than 60% (the same as the GE results) or even in the 30% range. What happens? Do we think that the incumbent government will sleep well for the next 4-5 years? If this EP election is a predictor of the voices of the people, the next GE might bring in more opposition & the re-writing of the constitution can be a possibility.

Of course, if the impossible becomes possible i.e a non PAP government endorsed candidate wins, the incumbent government will have many sleepless nights & the nightmare journey of huge & fast future losses will be guaranteed.

So while the role of the EP today is limited or even ceremonial, it can transform the landscape for the future of Singapore. That is the real, much understated power of this EP election.

August 19th, 2011 at 10:01 am

Looks like PAP help the next President paint himself into the corner.

Nevertheless, what is written in the Constitution can also be changed if necessary.

If only the PAP leaders had not got so greedy and stopped listening to the people, they would still have the moral authority to govern.

Gong Lan
August 19th, 2011 at 11:36 am

Catherine, you forgot one thing,and this is the psychoanalytical basis of the evolution of the Presidency from one of purely ceremonial to one having Ceremonial-Custodial-Supervisory functions. This is because in the 1980s, it was the Grand Old Man himself who envisaged this grand vision of retiring in the Istana as some sort of President Emeritus, the Boss Behind the Curtain, a Capo de Capo, who still can apply the brakes or leverage against Parliament, drawing his legitimacy from the fact (or hope) that he was voted in by the people directly. After the 7 May GE in which there is such a violent electoral backlash, this is no longer possible. The people can no longer be trusted. If The Grand Old Man stands as a presidential candidate now, he runs the very real risk of being mauled by protest voters and lose face irretrievably. So he does not dare put himself forward now. What then becomes of the Presidency? Now, the evolved newer and better ”Version 2” Presidency with vastly increased powers then becomes a sort of Frankenstein (or should that be ”PAPenstein”) Monster, which is, even as we speak, rampaging through the cityscape of Singapore, making all manner of unpredictable and frankly out-of-control statements and confusing the people. The presidency is the mutant that escaped from the mad scientist’s lab. What untold damage and confusion such a mutant will wrought on our political landscape boggles the mind. All bets are off now. I can only humbly agree that the disconnect between the expectations of the people (fired by all the speechifying done by the Tan, Tan, Tan & Tan) and the legal stipulations in the Constitution will be so wide as to cause even more chasm and and schism between the state and the people it purports to govern. This huge fault must be laid at the door of the Mad Scientist himself. Yet another anomaly is raising its ugly dead: the dreaded RACE issue itself. There are mutterings in the street that all four candidates are Chinese (and all Tan’s, to boot!). Where are the minority candidates? If this goes on, won’t every subsequent Presidential Election be Chinese dominated? Hitherto, the Istana operated on a sort of racial rotation system. This is has completely broken down. The Presidential Election Commission cannot produce minority candidates by fiat, nor can it disqualify any Chinese candidate if he fulfils the requirements to run. Shit. We are in trouble.

August 19th, 2011 at 1:34 pm


August 19th, 2011 at 3:58 pm

The Gate Keeper, arr…yes of course and again, Catherine as usual a well and thought proking writing and article therein that warrants the comments from various interesting ‘bloggers’ who having their own views have forgotten to say the least,”thank U” for the pleasure of reading as well as enchance their brains into ticking afterall, when does Singapore or for that matter, Singaporeans start thinking to fight for their basic of ‘rights’ abeilt the fact that we have neither the Constitution of USA either of First or even the Forth amendments to start with so, here goes ‘nothing’ on additional commenting save the fact Ms Catherine, i have always enjoy and shall continue to enjoy with great pleasure your penmanship…only a handful indeed very few handful could master writing like yours…

1 comment:

Its ME said...

I believe the five stars values of President Hopeful Tan Kin Lian can encourage Singaporeans to care for one another and be united as One People with Singapore Spirit singing One Voice of the People.

The Hi-5 Stars Values :

Positive Attitude,
Public Service.