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Comparing Singapore’s apple with PH’s orange

/ 12:30 AM February 13, 2016

THOSE WHO wish to give their battered senses a respite from our presidentiables may get themselves a recent copy of the Sunday Times of Singapore. In its Jan. 31 issue, I was struck by the lengthy discussion of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s address to the Parliament regarding the reforms that he feels should be made in the city-state’s presidency.

Singapore’s rules on the powers of its president are barely 25 years old. Ours were crafted by President Cory Aquino’s Constitutional Commission more than 30 years ago. Yet Singapore wants to review its rules soon; I submit we should be thinking of revising ours, too.

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Of course, we know that our respective constitutions are very different. But since we are both democracies, albeit of different parentage, we can learn from what our neighbor considers in its system that need some tweaking.

The first point Singapore wants to review is the set of qualifications to be president. It wants to raise the bar even if its president’s function is mostly ceremonial and primarily custodial. Please note, however, that he has custody of the country’s huge national reserves.

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The Philippine president’s function, in contrast, is much broader. Section 1, Article VII of our Constitution states: “The executive power shall be vested in the President of the Philippines.” That’s in addition to ceremonial functions of executive duties exercised by the Singaporean president.

Still, legal experts in Singapore suggest that their president needs to have senior management experience, either as head of a private corporation of huge capitalization and of sufficient complexity and suitability, or a government official holding positions such as judge, minister, or permanent secretary.

The problem Singapore faces is, however, the same that bugged us at the Constitutional Commission of 1986: how to adequately craft essentially qualitative qualifications. After much drafting and redrafting, we could do no better than say that our president needs to be a “natural born citizen…, a registered voter, able to read and write, and a resident … for at least ten years immediately preceding such election.” More was totally against the concept of a democratic state.

A second concern of Singapore is the composition of what it calls the “Council of Presidential Advisers.” This council is the mechanism to ensure that the president is well advised by a team of wise men and women, numbering six. The suggested improvement is to increase the number, diversify their backgrounds, and grant their “recommendations” greater weight, to the extent of enlarging the areas of their veto power.

In the Philippines, our president also traditionally organizes a team of people whose views he or she may wish to elicit from time to time before making major decisions. The group is made up of retired statesmen, enlightened leaders of business and industry. But they are purely advisory. This limitation on the president’s council is appropriate because ultimately it is the president who, elected by the people, is responsible to them, and only he or she will personally bear the wrath of an enraged people who, though very patient, nevertheless rise to the occasion when needed.

The third suggestion of Prime Minister Lee has its roots in the current buzzword: inclusivity. The idea is to ensure that minorities are given a chance to be president. It was observed that Singaporeans vote usually along racial lines, and they foresee that, when future elections for president become hotly contested, minorities will be effectively disabled from holding the presidency for some time. To ensure the election of a minority, it is suggested that the president, like ours, be elected only for a single term, but, in each alternate term, only the minorities’ candidates, who individually had passed the higher bar proposed for the presidency, be placed on the ballot.

A refinement of the idea is to formalize the current “unwritten rule” of rotating the presidency among the four major ethnic groups in
Singapore.

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The idea of giving a chance to the minority is certainly laudable and workable. But even this early, there are dissenters even in Singapore. Dissenters ask: What would happen if the minority whose turn it is to occupy the presidency is unable to name a suitable candidate? Worse, what if a more qualified and better suited person belongs to a minority which is not slated to be considered for election? This will deprive the country of the services of a better person who unfortunately does not belong to the minority group.

But in our country of 7,100 islands, legally limiting the presidency to minorities, even if only for a term, is repugnant to our idea of the sovereignty of the people. Since 1935, we have always believed that our president should be the candidate garnering the biggest number of votes in a free and honest electoral exercise.

Irrespective, however, of our views on Prime Minister Lee’s concerns about Singapore’s presidency, I agree that now, rather than later, is the time to make a serious effort to review our legal framework, the presidency, as well as the other institutions.

Ricardo J. Romulo is a senior partner of Romulo Mabanta Buenaventura Sayoc & De Los Angeles.

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TAGS: Constitution, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore
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