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The Roles and Powers of the President of Singapore

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by Aaron Fong

Commenting on the Constitutional position on the Presidential role, Minister for Law K Shanmugam stressed that the President “has custodial powers, not executive powers”. “In other words, he can veto or block Government actions in specified areas, but he has no role to advance his own policy agenda,” said Minister Shanmugam in a three-page statement issued to the mainstream media on Friday. “Recent comments in the media suggest some confusion over what the President can and cannot do,” said Minister Shanmugam, who is also Minister for Foreign Affairs. He urged, “As the Presidential Elections approach, it is important for Singaporeans to understand what the President is elected and empowered to do under the Singapore Constitution.” The Prime Minister and Cabinet, who are accountable to Parliament and voters, are the ones responsible for all policies and the running of the government. The President, on the other hand, only has veto powers limited to specific areas, he said. The three areas are: the protection of past reserves, appointment of key personnel and Internal Security Act detentions, investigations by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau and restraining orders connected to the maintenance of religious harmony. “On all other matters, under the Constitution the President must act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet,” said the Minister.

The powers of the President of Singapore are divided into those which the President may exercise in his own discretion, and those he must exercise in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet of Singapore or of a Minister acting under the general authority of the Cabinet. n addition, the President is required to consult the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) when performing some of his functions. In other cases, he may consult the CPA if he wishes to but is not bound to do so.

The Constitution confers on the President certain executive functions to block attempts by the government of the day to draw down past reserves that it did not accumulate. Thus, a guarantee may only be given or a loan raised by the Government if the President concurs, and his approval is also needed for budgets of specified statutory boards and Government companies that draw on their past reserves. The President also possesses personal discretion to withhold assent to any bill in Parliament providing directly or indirectly for the direct or indirect variation, changing or increase in powers of the Central Provident Fund Board to invest moneys belonging to it; and the borrowing of money, the giving of any guarantee or the raising of any loan by the Government if in the President’s opinion the bill is likely to draw on reserves not accumulated by the Government during its current term of office. In addition, the President may withhold assent to any Supply Bill, Supplementary Supply Bill or Final Supply Bill for any financial year if in his opinion the estimates of revenue and expenditure, supplementary estimates or statement of excess are likely to lead to a drawing on past reserves.

The President is also empowered to approve changes to key civil service positions, such as the Chief Justice, the Attorney-General, the chairman and members of the Public Service Commission, the Chief of Defence Force and the Commissioner of Police. He also appoints as Prime Minister Member of Parliament (MP) who, in his personal judgement, is likely to command the confidence of a majority of MPs. The President has certain powers of oversight over the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau and decisions of the Executive under the Internal Security Actand the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.

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