President can only speak and act as advised by the Cabinet

SINGAPORE – The elected president can only speak and act in public as advised by the Cabinet. If he does otherwise, he would be acting unconstitutionally.

So said Law Minister K. Shanmugam at a forum at the Institute of Policy Studies held yesterday. The forum was moderated by Professor Tommy Koh.

"The president can speak on issues only as authorised by the Cabinet,” said Mr Shanmugam, whose remarks were reported in The Straits Times. “He must follow the advice of the Cabinet in the discharge of his duties."

He noted that although the 1991 amendment to the Constitution gave the president blocking powers in five areas, it "does not change the fundamental position" that the president has to speak and act on the advice of the Government.

The five areas in which the elected president has blocking powers are the spending of past reserves, the appointment of key public sector leaders, Internal Security Act (ISA) detentions, investigations by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), and restraining orders to maintain religious harmony.

The Law Minister noted that the elected president can influence the prime minister through their regular discussions. "Whether the president actually wields influence obviously depends on who the president is,” he said. “If he is someone who commands little or no respect of the prime minister, then of course influence will be limited.’"

Mr Shanmugam said that Singaporeans should ask which candidate has the knowledge and skill to protect the country’s reserves, who can influence the prime minister and Cabinet, and who has the necessary gravitas and standing to be the symbol of the country.

"What I would call the 'wrong questions' would be: Who is going to speak up publicly? Who's going to contradict the Government? Who's going to engage publicly on political issues? These are wrong questions because the president can't do any of these things," he said.

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