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Transcript 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.

    ST:

              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?

              SM Lee:

              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
              views through.

              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
              the solutions?

              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.

              ST:

              You brought up a fundamental point when you
              mentioned how Singapore cannot move away from the
              Westminster model of parliamentary democracy.

              SM Lee:

              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.

              ST:

              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
              wings.

              SM Lee:

              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.

              ST:

              But that quote came specifically from Mr Goh Chok
              Tong in Parliament.

              SM Lee:

              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.

              ST:

              But considering that it's a new office, wouldn't you
              expect that there should be disagreement between
              Government and the EP?

              SM Lee:

              Yes. There must be these disagreements.

              ST:

              What is the reason?

              SM Lee:

              Because the system is new and the President does not
              know the exact limits of his powers.

              ST:

              Are these over fundamentals?

              SM Lee:

              No, disagreements are over the finer points, at the
              margins. The broad outline of his powers is already
              clear.

              ST:

              What would you count as interference by a president?

              SM Lee:

              The government should not be stopped from doing what
              it has always been doing.

              ST:

              You've also said that the president should not be an
              activist?

              SM Lee:

              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.

              ST:

              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.

              SM Lee:

              Yes, therefore when you move into this job, you must
              change your mindset.

              ST:

              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.

              ST:

              Another issue that has surfaced is that people think there
              has been a lack of transparency in the relationship
              between the Presidency and Government.

              SM Lee:

              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
              block it.

              ST:

              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.

              SM Lee:

              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
              the Constitution.

              Either the president gives way or the PM may get his
              amendments through a referendum. I accept that is
              possible.

              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
              future.

              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
              to do.

              You may actually have to use those reserves from time
              to time.

              ST:

              Do you think the system could be improved further?

              SM Lee:

              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
              everything.

              ST:

              There is also some general unhappiness about the fact
              that the powers of the President are not operationalised
              like the Article 5(2A).

              SM Lee:

              Once you operationalise it, you've got to go through a
              referendum to change it. Do you want to do that?

              ST:

              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.

              SM Lee:

              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.

              ST:

              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.

              SM Lee:

              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
              proper contest.

              ST:

              So you would need somebody who can just carry out
              the symbolic functions of the office?

              SM Lee:

              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.

              ST:

              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?

              SM Lee:

              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
              Government.

              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.

              ST:

              Maybe if we could turn to Mr Nathan and you could
              share some insights on what sort of person he is.

              SM Lee:

              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
              disadvantaged youth.

              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.

              ST:

              Was race a consideration when you drew up your
              shortlist of three candidates to Cabinet?

              SM Lee:

              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.

              ST:

              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?

              SM Lee:

              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.

              ST:

              So this idea of rotating the presidency among the races
              is on?

              SM Lee:

              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
              problem.

              There's no doubt that this is a problem because it would
              take several generations before we get out of this.

              ST:

              Before Singaporeans stopped voting along racial lines?

              SM Lee:

              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
              wear down.

              ST:

              Was it difficult to persuade Mr Nathan to stand?

              SM Lee:

              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.

              ST:

              You mentioned that it's difficult to find candidates for the
              position, why do you think this is so?

              SM Lee:

              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.

              ST:

              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.

              SM Lee:

              You want us to go out and look for another candidate?
              (Laughs)

              ST:

              No, my question is: If there were no election, would you
              consider it a good thing or an unhealthy development?

              SM Lee:

              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?

              ST:

              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?

              SM Lee:

              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
              out.

              ST:

              Why did the Government not feel the need to do so this
              time around?

              SM Lee:

              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.

              ST:

              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
              election.

              SM Lee:

              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.

              ST:

              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?

              SM Lee:

              Go ahead. First he must be qualified; secondly, he must
              have some weight to be credible or he will lose
              $30,000.

              ST:

              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
              themselves?

              SM Lee:

              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
              organisation?

              When you talk about an alternative, either the alternative
              has to be a PAP alternative or it has got to be an
              opposition alternative.

              ST:

              But it can be an independent alternative as well.

              SM Lee:

              Ah yes, but who's going to run around for you?

              ST:

              Civil society groups perhaps?

              SM Lee:

              (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
              hands?

              ST:

              Perhaps the Presidential election is less taxing than the
              General Election.

              SM Lee:

              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