of Lee Kuan Yew's interview with the Straits Times
Straits Times August 12, 1999
In an interview with the Straits Times, Lee Kuan Yew gives a blunt retort to popular views about the role of an elected president and clarifies the limits of his powers. Lee, the chief architect of the scheme, also speaks on the importance of rotating the presidency among the races and his assessment of Mr S.R. Nathan, the only candidate to obtain an eligibility certificate, who was named president August 17.
Do you think the current excitement over the post of the
EP is some sort of reflection for a greater check on
government, or is it just a lack of understanding?
First, people think there should be more consultations
and their views should be heard. If they can't have their
views heard, then get an Elected President to get their
Well, then you're going to have two centres of
governments and you're going to have trouble.
Supposing the President goes out and makes speeches
contrary to the government's policies, there's going to be
a clash. He is acting outside his province. That is not on.
There are only two ways in which you can change the
government's view. One, stand for elections, contest.
The other way is to get your views over time accepted
by the majority, including the Government.
The PAP has survived not because it stuck by its guns
all the time. If it were ideological and dogmatic, it would
have become irrelevant. With every change in
circumstance, I said, let's look at the options, what are
It doesn't matter who produces the solution; if it's going
to work, adopt it and if he's got many solutions to offer,
co-opt him. I see no disadvantage in that.
You brought up a fundamental point when you
mentioned how Singapore cannot move away from the
Westminster model of parliamentary democracy.
No, I'm not saying we cannot move. I say it has
worked, so do we want to alter the system? Are you
sure that altering it will make it work better? We have
evolved, we have changed bits here and there.
Once we had a parliamentary draughtsman from
England who wrote up a brand new Constitution. I said
this looks neat, but should we go and change our habits
of working just to fit the Constitution?
The Constitution has got to accommodate the political,
social and cultural habits of the people. It has worked.
People know how it works. Better leave it largely as it
is. Continue to make it work.
There's some confusion on the ground on the role of the
EP, but that's also due to the fact that the Government
has put out expectations that the EP office is to clip its
No, if you've to clip the wings, then you are in for
trouble, you cannot govern. It is to prevent the
Government from doing manifestly wrong things.
But that quote came specifically from Mr Goh Chok
Tong in Parliament.
Well, I cannot remember it but I would not have used
that phrase because the executive powers of the
Government should not be clipped. It is when it exceeds
what is proper that it should be blocked or vetoed.
But considering that it's a new office, wouldn't you
expect that there should be disagreement between
Government and the EP?
Yes. There must be these disagreements.
What is the reason?
Because the system is new and the President does not
know the exact limits of his powers.
Are these over fundamentals?
No, disagreements are over the finer points, at the
margins. The broad outline of his powers is already
What would you count as interference by a president?
The government should not be stopped from doing what
it has always been doing.
You've also said that the president should not be an
No, he cannot initiate. He's not an executive president.
It's not for the president to say, look, I want to use the
second key, come on, let's use the reserves.
His job is to protect the reserves, not to use them.
But if you look at the small pool of people qualified to
be presidents, most of them would be former Cabinet
ministers and they are by nature activist.
Yes, therefore when you move into this job, you must
change your mindset.
One view is that the elected president's job is a very big
responsibility and is a complex task, in terms of looking
at the numbers, for example. No, you don't need to be
an accountant. This is not a job for an accountant.
What comes up to him or what should come up to him is
the final summary of the position: this is what has been
going on; this is what the Government is going to do;
does it infringe on the constitutional rights of the
president? That's all. If it does, he has to stop it.
Another issue that has surfaced is that people think there
has been a lack of transparency in the relationship
between the Presidency and Government.
What is there to be opaque about? There's nothing that
requires the Prime Minister to be secretive.
He does not require anything of the President other than
official signatures. When they are sent to the President,
he signs or he doesn't and he queries, if it is his right to
One comment, including by Mr Lim Kim San, is that the
presidency can be manipulated by a rogue government.I
have had this argument with him many times.
He has seen politics in the raw and he knows that if the
PM is a good populist mobiliser, he can work up
feelings, then arrange a referendum to support his
expenditures or appointments and eventually overturn
Either the president gives way or the PM may get his
amendments through a referendum. I accept that is
Therefore I say we must have a president with six
people who in such a crisis will sit down and quietly plan
what to do to block this move and not to allow this
populist to gather more support.
He would have to explain coolly and quietly to the
people with the support of his CPA why if you do this
you're putting in jeopardy your life savings and your
No, I agree with Kim San it is not foolproof because if
you want to make it foolproof, you have to block
yourself permanently into a corner, which you don't want
You may actually have to use those reserves from time
Do you think the system could be improved further?
I think it has to be worked out by convention, by
interaction over time.
The present government has to be careful that it does
not take too constricted a view that a future government
may not be able to operate without going to see the
President almost every other time, which will be
unworkable in practice. Also, you cannot work on the
basis that every government is a rogue government. So,
therefore, you must give a rogue government rope for
two to three years before you reign its excesses in. If
you start off on the basis that the next government is
going to be a rogue government, then you lock up
There is also some general unhappiness about the fact
that the powers of the President are not operationalised
like the Article 5(2A).
Once you operationalise it, you've got to go through a
referendum to change it. Do you want to do that?
Your argument also seems to be that with the PAP in
power - and the PAP is definitely not a rogue
government - the role of the EP would be mostly 99 per
cent ceremonial as before.
Well, provided the Government is doing right, I think
that should be the position. If he's interfering then he is
becoming an Executive President. You can't have a
division of executive powers.
So as long as this is the case, the next elected President
will be like the previous ceremonial presidents like Wee
Kim Wee, Benjamin Sheares and Yusof Ishak, playing
basically the same role.
Yes, it has to be that or the Government is unduly
restricted. It cannot be otherwise.
Supposing you have another source of authority and the
Government says, "No, we will not do this," and the
President says, 'Yes, we will do this" then we say, 'All
right, let's take a vote." And what will happen? Then he
should resign from there and get into Parliament for a
So you would need somebody who can just carry out
the symbolic functions of the office?
With the proviso that he is at the same time looking at all
the reports submitted in to make sure it is in fact on the
right track. You cannot assume things will not change.
You might get a PAP Government but a new generation,
beyond this present one, that becomes spendthrift and
has less skills, and begins to bribe the voters.
Then next to no time, the reserves are run down.
One popular catch-phrase in the recent debate is "We
want an independent President". Mr S.R Nathan
countered by saying "Independent of what?" In your
view, he would be independent only insofar as the need
to check a rogue government but beyond that, no?
No. Under the Constitution he has to act on the advice
of the Government. There's no difference between him
and any other other previous presidents. It is in the
Constitution, he has to act on the advice of the
He can't make speeches against the Government. His
address to Parliament is written up for him.
He cannot act independently of the Government. He
cannot act against the wishes of the Government,
full-stop, except when the Government wants to do
things which he's entitled to block or veto.
Maybe if we could turn to Mr Nathan and you could
share some insights on what sort of person he is.
Well, I've known Nathan since the 1960s. I think he first
came to my notice when I was looking for people to
boost up the NTUC because the NTUC lost many of its
capable workers when they split with the communists,
so among those we sent there, we seconded to the
NTUC research unit was Nathan and Hsu Tse Kwang,
and I remember seeing them personally and telling them
that this is a secondment, help them build the unions up.
Then from there, the relationship went on.
I found him very stable, steady, can get things done his
quiet way. He was sent to university later in life, but he
had his other qualities that enabled him to rise above his
So he ended up I think Perm Sec (Foreign Affairs),
Director SID and he was in Mindef for quite a long
while, associated with intelligence, and because I used to
meet the intelligence people regularly to gather updates
and not just read reports, so I got to know him.
So after he retired he joined the Straits Times Press
Group but then we needed somebody in Kuala Lumpur
at a difficult time, so I asked him to take on that job.
And after that he went on to Washington. He came
back, he was still active, he's got energy, ideas, so he
started IDSS which he launched and it's got on its way. I
would consider him a person who can accomplish
things, in his own way.
Was race a consideration when you drew up your
shortlist of three candidates to Cabinet?
Yes, in this regard, it's very difficult to find suitable
minority candidates. Because the population is so small,
when you reach the apex, the number of minority
candidates who can fill the job becomes even smaller.
So when you have a good man from the minority race, I
think it helps to remind Singaporeans that we are a
multiracial society. Although this is elected presidency,
had there been a contest against a populist Chinese, we
would have gone all out to make sure that he's elected.
It'd be a very sad day if a populist Chinese candidate
were to turn up and Nathan were defeated.
I would have gone all out for him. The Prime Minister
and the ministers knew that, if there was a contest with a
populist Chinese candidate, we have to throw in all our
resources to help him get elected.
Right. But the fact that he was Indian, do you think there
was a feeling that it's time for a minority to be president?
Yes, I think so because we've had two terms of Wee
Kim Wee, one term of Ong Teng Cheong. I think it's
time to remind Singaporeans that we are a multiracial
community. And it's also good. It's a symbolic
expression of our national identity.
So this idea of rotating the presidency among the races
I think it will continue. I would be very sad if expediency
made future governments just support Chinese
candidates. I think that would be a very bad thing.
But if they put up a minority candidate, they must be
prepared to back him to the hilt because if he comes up
against a populist, Chinese chauvinist type, you have a
There's no doubt that this is a problem because it would
take several generations before we get out of this.
Before Singaporeans stopped voting along racial lines?
Yes. It took several generations for the Americans to
vote for a Catholic candidate as President. These are gut
feelings, emotional prejudices which are very difficult to
Was it difficult to persuade Mr Nathan to stand?
Well, he did not jump at it. He knew it would mean a
change of life for him and for his wife and family. So he
asked for time to discuss it with his wife. The wife of a
President can be of great help because, for many of the
social functions, you will need a hostess and a good
hostess helps in keeping more people happy.
You mentioned that it's difficult to find candidates for the
position, why do you think this is so?
Well, why should they give up their privacy. If you are
not a megalomaniac, why do you want this job for?
Everywhere you go, the spotlights are on you. People
salute you, you are on parade.
You can't go sauntering around to a hawker centre or go
to Daimaru, and do whatever you like. And if you go for
a walk in the Botanic Gardens, some crazy guy may
approach you and say, "Look, here's my petition" or
whatever. You have lost your right to be yourself; you
are on parade.
The Straits Times ran two surveys to find out whether
people wanted an election and the majority, 80 per cent,
wanted to see an election because they wanted to take
part in the process of choosing their President. But it
would seem there would not be an election after all.
You want us to go out and look for another candidate?
No, my question is: If there were no election, would you
consider it a good thing or an unhealthy development?
No, I'm completely agnostic on that. In many of the last
10 general elections I've been uncontested. Now, why
did they not contest? Because their chances of winning
were pretty small, so they looked around for where they
thought their chances were better, that's it. I was ready
to contest and I made sure that my party branch,
although I don't go down as regularly as other MPs, is
functioning. I've got another MP to nurse it. I go down
from time to time and I know come election time I can
meet anybody in the contest. I don't know, should we
have arranged for a second candidate?
To put it another way, maybe even if it was a contrived
contest, at least the candidate will be able to say, 'I have
X per cent of the people" behind me. Would that help
the moral standing of the President?
I don't know. They have not contested because they
don't believe they stand a chance. Nathan's name was
out in the newspapers for several weeks, right?
Singapore is a small place, you can calculate who are
the possibles. You can eliminate the unlikely ones and
come down to about half to a dozen people. If people
thought they stood a chance they would have come out,
that's what my experience tells me. The last time we had
to go out of our way to nudge Chua Kim Yeow to come
Why did the Government not feel the need to do so this
Well, the last time was the first time ever so it was
necessary to run the system in. This is the second time
so we didn't feel strongly about it.
But don't you think it's actually not a good precedent in
the sense that, of course, the Government would put up
its own candidate, one with qualities required for the EP.
Then every time a term ends, there might not be an
I would not be prepared to say that. That depends upon
the mood at that time and the standing of the person and
the standing of the Government.
If the Government is wildly unpopular, I think its
candidate would not enjoy the same acceptance.
But I wouldn't like to project what would happen in the
next election; it's six years down the road and many
things can happen in six years.
But do you think the public should seriously consider
taking it upon themselves to put up their own candidates
rather than keep waiting for the Government?
Go ahead. First he must be qualified; secondly, he must
have some weight to be credible or he will lose
But this will be the sixth President that you would have
recommended. Do you think there will ever be a time
where the President can actually emerge out of natural
selection, where people actually come forward to offer
It depends upon the evolution of the relationship
between the political parties and the people.
If there is a credible opposition that credible opposition
will put up a candidate. But the opposition cannot put up
a candidate because it's not credible. If you just stand
for election you must have the organisation to canvass
for votes. You can't just say, 'I'm Jimmy Carter, I'm a
peanut farmer, vote for me." He had to run around like
mad using the Democratic Party machine. It's easy to
say I'll run but is it so easy to do, if you haven't got the
When you talk about an alternative, either the alternative
has to be a PAP alternative or it has got to be an
But it can be an independent alternative as well.
Ah yes, but who's going to run around for you?
Civil society groups perhaps?
(Laughs) You know, civil society groups are okay for
committee meetings, issuing statements and press
conferences. Go on the hustings? Do you know how
tiring it is to go up 20 floors, and walk down to shake
Perhaps the Presidential election is less taxing than the
Right, okay, if you believe that. You put up a candidate
next time with your NGOs.
Published in the Straits Times. August 12, 1999 Return Home