On 6 November, Singapore’s government proposed legislative reforms to the nation’s Constitution, which, if passed, will allow the President and ministers to accept appointments within foreign and international organizations in their personal capacities.
This move, initiated by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and presented to parliament on 6 Nov, is said to amplify Singapore’s diplomatic influence and serve the national interest more effectively on the global stage.
The proposed amendments, encapsulated in the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment No. 3) Bill, address the current constitutional constraints that prohibit the President from participating in public roles in a private capacity.
“The Bill therefore proposes to amend the Constitution to create a framework that enables the President to perform foreign and international roles in his private capacity, when Cabinet advises that it is in the national interest for him to do so.”
The Cabinet’s role is also highlighted in these amendments, as it will provide guidance to the President on actions and statements in these roles and possess the authority to advise the President to relinquish any such position if deemed necessary.
This aspect, according to PMO, underscores the government’s intent to maintain a balance between the President’s autonomy in these roles and the overarching national priorities.
The PMO clarified that these constitutional amendments aim for comprehensive coverage across high-level government roles, ensuring that Singapore’s engagement on the international front is both effective and transparent.
“Any acceptance or relinquishment of an office under this framework by the President or a Minister, must be published in the Gazette,” added the PMO statement.
Mr Tharman’s preeminent global leadership roles beyond Singapore’s Presidency
Since assuming the presidency on September 14th after a decisive victory in the elections, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam has been an exemplary figure of Singaporean leadership within global organizations.
Even before his presidency, he held esteemed positions, such as the chairmanship of the G30’s board of trustees, co-chairing the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, membership on the advisory board for the UN Human Development Report, and involvement with the World Economic Forum’s board of trustees.
He currently holds these positions despite the constraints in the constitution.
There’s criticism regarding the potential conflicts of interest arising from President Tharman’s foreign appointments, which were previously raised before the Presidential Election.
Constitutional amendments prompt concerns of double standards in Singapore’s leadership roles
The legality of amending the constitution to accommodate roles for President Tharman, who was internationally recognized prior to assuming office, has sparked questions among Singaporean netizens.
Notably, observing the discussion on a Reddit thread, questioned the necessity of these amendments since Mr Tharman held these appointments before being sworn in as President.
Some have raised concerns about potential double standards, in which higher political holders can be seen holding multiple portfolios, meanwhile, full-time national servicemen (NSF) and civil servants, were explicitly advised against moonlighting.
The thread shared an opinion piece from the online media outlet Redwire, which delves into the implications of the proposed constitutional changes.
The opinion posted by a netizen “Elson”, suggested that these changes are seen as an attempt to legitimize President Tharman’s existing appointments in organizations like the World Economic Forum and G30.
Elson’s viewpoint reflects a belief that the sudden push to amend the Constitution appears to sidestep concerns about potential conflicts of interest, not only for the President but also for ministers who might hold comparable foreign positions.
The post also highlighted recent incidents like MP Tin Pei Ling’s appointment by Grab, which stirred controversy among Singaporeans.
Elson’s opinion also raises the issue of a perceived double standard, wherein leaders can occupy multiple roles and earn from diverse sources while lower-ranking individuals, like civil servants and national servicemen, face stringent constraints on additional employment opportunities.
In the comments section, several individuals pointed out a clear double standard. Regulars and National Servicemen (NSFs) face severe repercussions for engaging in moonlighting activities, yet our ministers seemingly do so without consequence.
Confessions of moonlighting during NS, “carrying the family burden”
Interestingly, some Redditors in the discussion confessed to moonlighting during their NS.
One Redditor emphasized the challenge of surviving the high cost of living with a three-digit monthly pay.
When questioned about how he managed to partake in part-time work without getting caught, the Redditor shared that he was tutoring students during that period. Additionally, he mentioned that many of his peers were also engaged in similar activities.
Another Redditor recollected working as a pallbearer on weekends and receiving cash payments for the service.
A comment painted a scenario where individuals forced to moonlight during NS possibly faced financial difficulties, ‘Sir, I carry the heavy burden of my family on my shoulders’
Potential indirect benefits in additional roles without financial gain
A Redditor argued that Ministers and MPs can undertake any international role, as long as they refrain from deriving financial benefits, such as receiving salaries or allowances for fulfilling these roles.
However, this opinion faced immediate opposition from others who pointed out that even if they avoid direct financial gains, there’s a possibility of indirect benefits.
These could come in various forms, making it challenging to determine if they gain from such appointments.
Furthermore, a comment emphasized that appointments are more about wielding power and influence rather than solely about monetary gains.
Discrepancy on moonlighting restrictions
A Redditor highlighted that prohibiting moonlighting isn’t solely about additional jobs but aims to prevent past officeholders from taking positions after leaving office, where their insider knowledge might pose a threat to national security.
The comment cited an example of a former ISD chief who was employed by Malaysia’s Genting Group after retirement, suggesting a potential risk regarding sensitive information.
However, a subsequent comment challenged the viewpoint and argued that if these individuals compromise national secrets, intelligence agencies would take appropriate action.
Tthe Redditor highlighted the inconsistency of disallowing moonlighting while retired officers can still become ‘consultants’ for the highest bidder, potentially raising similar concerns.
Additionally, he criticized specific incidents like MP Tin Pei Ling‘s hiring at Grab, emphasizing perceived contradictions in employment practices.
Previously, Tin had originally joined Grab Singapore as its director of Public Affairs and Policy, in Feb this year.
This decision was said to be largely influenced by her comprehensive grasp of the digital economy and smart nation policy from a grassroots perspective, as well as her strong connections with the local community.
However, shortly after that, she was redeployed to a different department by Grab Singapore due to public opinion over potential conflicts of interest that could arise from her dual roles as a Member of Parliament and as the Director of Public Affairs and Policy at Grab.
Alternative roles for unelected incumbent party politicians
A comment argued that high salaries for ministers are intended to compensate for “job insecurity”, since, under the Westminster system, elected officials could be replaced after the election.
He claimed that “job insecurity ” discourages many talented individuals from pursuing political roles, favoring more secure professions like law or medicine.
Contrastingly, a Redditor refuted the notion and highlighted that even defeated politicians from the incumbent party can secure positions like ambassadors or union secretaries, suggesting a perceived lack of genuine job insecurity.
The Redditor questioned the fairness of expecting politicians to accept uncertain job conditions while offering lucrative opportunities post-politics.
Moreover, one Redditor pointed out a double standard in expectations between high-ranking politicians and other public servants, particularly civil servants and national servicemen (NSFs), who earn significantly less and face stricter limitations on additional employment
Redditor recalls PAP Ex-MP’s extensive 64 appointments
Meanwhile, a Redditor reminded others of a past instance involving PAP former MP Yeo Guat Guang, who held a staggering 64 appointments alongside his role as an MP, a situation described as “excessive” but perhaps inadequately so given the enormity of his portfolio.