The president, as provided for in the Constitution, has veto power in respect of the protection of national reserves, appointments of key personnel in the civil service, ISA detentions, CPIB investigations and the maintenance of religious harmony. Beyond these responsibilities he has to act in accordance with the advice of the prime minister and his Cabinet. For instance, the Law Minister asserted that the president cannot speak publicly without the advice of the PM and his Cabinet. This has raised a minor storm from the three presidential candidates other than Dr Tony Tan. Mr Shanmugam has since softened on his hard stand.
In the recent presidential hustings, apart from Dr Tony Tan who was considered a pro-PAP candidate quite comfortable with the constraints imposed by the Constitution on the president, the other three candidates were all very vocal against this circumscription. They were definitely voicing the strong dissensions of the majority of the voting electorate against these undemocratic restraints on the president's powers. They wanted the president to be able to initiate action on social issues, especially those on the poor people's livelihood. It is significant that one candidate wanted the president to have discretionary power to decide on the clemency of condemned prisoners. The case of Yong Vui Kong, who has gone through all the processes of appeals in the High Court and to the president for clemency over his death sentence for heroine possession, has generated considerable sympathy among Singaporeans for sparing his life. The outgoing president has no discretion but to act on the advice of the Cabinet. The new president will not be able to act any differently.
The three presidential candidates, other than Dr Tony Tan, had created such a furore with their animated stand against constitutional constraints on the president's powers that it could be ignored at the PAP Government's own peril now that the hustings are over. The events have clearly shown that Singaporeans are strongly desirous for a change to enhance the powers of the future president. The new president Dr Tony Tan will still be circumscribed by the Constitution but as he has said he will not feel uncomfortable with it. This is because of his close liaison with PAP leaders. He professes to be an independent president but how independent he can be will be interesting to watch.
Coming back to the enhancement of presidential powers, even the MSM Lianhe Zaobao, in its editorial on 30-8-11, is able to see this trend coming and advises the PAP Government that it cannot put off for long the desire of Singaporeans for an enhancement of the president's powers. The writing is already on the wall. The PAP Government can choose either to ride roughshod over the people's desire or to show a more democratic facade by preparing to accommodate the people's wish to see the future president's powers enhanced. Even the new president Dr Tony Tan is able to see this inevitable trend coming.