SINGAPORE, Nov 24 — Parliament on Wednesday (Nov 22) passed changes to the Constitution that will allow Singapore’s president and government ministers to take on international appointments in their private capacities, if these are in the country’s national interest.

In opening the debate, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said in his speech that the president’s appointments in international organisations in his private capacity are beneficial to Singapore.

He pointed out that when the president serves in his private capacity, it does not mean that he is doing this outside of his work duties.

“These international appointments are core to the president’s international diplomacy role. They are, in fact, how we project Singapore’s influence and strengthen our networks in the world,” Mr Wong added.

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TODAY looks at the appointments that the president can take on, and why changes to the law are needed.

What can the president do under current laws?

Presidents have taken on additional appointments in their official capacities, done on the advice of the Cabinet.

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For instance, previous presidents have served as university chancellors and patrons of charitable or other organisations.

On the international front, presidents can take on appointments in their official capacity to further Singapore’s national interest.

President Tharman Shanmugaratnam, for instance, is in several international councils, focused especially on economic and financial reforms.

He is the chairman of the board of trustees of the Group of Thirty (G30), an independent global council of economic and financial leaders.

The board oversees the governance and directions of the G30, which is a grouping of eminent thought leaders in economic policymaking, academia and the financial industry.

Mr Tharman is also a member of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) board of trustees, an advisory board that helps shape strategic directions, without directly overseeing the running of the WEF.

He is also the co-chair of the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, an independent commission that examines and makes recommendations to the United Nations and other international forums on how to improve the way societies govern, use and value water.

Additionally, he is the co-chair of the advisory board for the United Nations Human Development Report (UN HDR). The board provides intellectual advice and guidance on the overall vision, direction and messages of the UN HDR.

Mr Wong said: “Cabinet has considered the matter and agreed that it is in the national interest for him to continue holding these appointments as president.”

Mr Wong also said that Mr Tharman does not receive any remuneration or other benefits from these appointments.

How would changes help President Tharman in these appointments?

Noting that international bodies want their appointees to contribute independently to achieve the aims of the respective bodies, Mr Wong said that if the president were to serve in these international bodies purely in his official capacity, then he would be limited to representing the official Singapore position in everything he says.

“That would not be in keeping with the requirements of these organisations,” he added.

“Nor would it be in the interest of Singapore for our president to be so limited, as it restricts our ability to shape global conversations and initiatives.”

From Singapore’s standpoint, there is value in having the president represented on these international bodies.

“It enables us to be plugged into global conversations and to understand and help shape the thinking that takes place in these important international bodies,” Mr Wong said.

“These are reputable international bodies with global reach, and with eminent persons serving on their respective boards. The president’s continued involvement in these organisations is in Singapore’s national interest.”

Allowing the president to serve in his private capacity enables him to act independently in achieving the aims of the international bodies, Mr Wong added.

Such an arrangement would then enable the president to take on appointments that help to expand Singapore’s influence and network.

What does this Bill seek to change?

There is nothing in the Constitution that pertains to the president’s roles in international organisations in his private capacity.

The law also does not prohibit the president from expressing his private views while in an official capacity.

However, the Government has chosen to amend the Constitution in order to be “upfront and transparent” instead of operating in ambiguity, Mr Wong said.

Therefore, the Cabinet has proposed a new Article 22Q to the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, introducing a framework that applies only to appointments in international organisations and not in the domestic context.

It will be a specific and defined extension of the president’s international role as the head of state and is not part of the elected president’s custodial powers, Mr Wong said.

It will enable current and future presidents to accept international appointments in their private capacities, subject to several conditions.

One is that the president is prohibited from being actively engaged in commercial enterprises.

Secondly, the Cabinet must assess and advise the president that it is in the national interest for him to accept the appointment. They will also advise him against making any commitments on behalf of the Government or Singapore, whether formally or informally, and retaining any remuneration or benefits in connection with the appointment.

Third, the president must concur with the advice of the Cabinet.

This means that the president cannot accept an international appointment in his private capacity outside of the framework.

Any international appointment for the president to act in his private capacity must be justified by the national interest.

At the same time, the president should have a say in deciding whether to take on such appointments, Mr Wong said. He should be able to decline such appointments if, for example, he considers them to be incompatible with his constitutional functions.

The framework enables the president to take on appointments that help to expand Singapore’s influence and network, while acting independently on international bodies.

There will also be a new Article 33A that applies to government ministers. The framework is similar to Article 22Q, except that ministers must obtain the permission of the prime minister and are subject to his instructions.

Article 33A does not extend to the prime minister.

“Previous and current prime ministers have not undertaken any such international appointments, and we do not expect future ones to do so,” Mr Wong said.

The proposed additions are to safeguard the dignity and status of the roles of president and ministers in Singapore, he added.

Articles 22Q and 33 will enable both the president and ministers of Singapore to continue making significant contributions to international bodies and shaping global thinking, for example.

“In this way, we can make the most of the expertise, experience and personal standing of the individuals we elect to office, so as to advance Singapore’s interests and reinforce our value to the world,” Mr Wong said. — TODAY