Greater transparency needed for Presidential decisions

On Tuesday, Singaporeans witnessed for the first time a sitting President publicly justifying a decision he made.

President S R Nathan explained to Singaporeans why he consented to the Government’s $4.9 billion draw on the national reserves — another first in the history of this country. In the process he revealed that it took him not 11 days, but just one day to approve the draw from the time he received the proposal in writing from the Government.

The President said that he “responded after clinically examining the proposal”. Yet TODAY reported that he had already made up his mind when he received the proposal from the Finance Minister on Jan 20th — just two days before the Budget was presented in Parliament. Given that it takes much longer than two days to write a 60-page Budget speech with six annexes, let alone draft detailed policies on the use of the drawn reserves, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the decision was a done deal long before the proposal was submitted to the President — perhaps even before the Prime Minister “informally sounded him out” nine days before that.

When asked about his views on the $4 billion-plus Jobs Credit Scheme and the $5 billion-plus Special Risk-sharing Initiative, the President said that he was “not here to judge whether these schemes would ultimately work”. I am curious to find out who then is in a better position to judge, and prevent a rogue government from stealing cookies from the cookie jar?

Local dailies reported his explanations in depth, and also explained the functions of the Council of Presidential Advisors (CPA) and their responsibilities in this decision-making process. Many Singaporeans might not have been aware that the President is required to consult the CPA when making such decisions.

I think it is commendable that the President decided to explain his rationale publicly, even though he is not obliged by law to do so. Having said that, I feel there is room for our laws to be tweaked to make such transparency de jure.

Firstly, the President should be required by law to make public his reasons for approving any draw on the reserves. This should be done within one week of making the decision, and before any of the money is actually withdrawn and used.

Secondly, the CPA should also make public its recommendations to the President and their reasons for such. The individual votes of each of the council members should be transparent to Singaporeans as well, since the council makes its decisions on majority vote.

This would serve as a useful safeguard of the two-key system, particularly if the President decides to go against the advice of the CPA — which is his prerogative. The public can then decide which party it agrees with, and judge the Elected President and the Government accordingly.

Currently, according to Article 37K of the Constitution, for Supply Bills, the CPA is required to send a copy of its advice or recommendation made to the President to two individuals — the Prime Minister and the Speaker, who will present it to Parliament. I am not sure if this covers requests to draw down the reserves.

I will reserve judgment on the President’s decision until I see the effect (or non-effect) of the Jobs Credit Scheme. However, I think there is still a long way to go before we can claim that this two-key system is not one where the Government unlocks, and the other automatically follows suit, as Opposition leader Low Thia Khiang charged in Parliament.

Today the government draws down $5 billion. If in future it draws down $50 billion, or $250 billion, are Singaporeans still to expect the same degree of opacity as we have now?


Read also President Ong’s interview with AsiaWeek – revisited, on The Online Citizen.