SINGAPORE: An online petition calls for the suspension of the Singapore Parliament until the ninth President, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, resigns from all his foreign appointments, aligning with the current Constitution’s directives.
Initiated by Iris Koh, the founder of Healing the Divide group, the petition, which commenced on 22 August this year, has amassed 1635 signatures thus far, with approximately over 800 signatures needed to achieve the targeted goal.
Koh’s concerns are primarily centred around potential conflicts of interest arising from the President’s authority to grant permission to Parliament, especially considering Tharman’s current incompatibility withholding foreign positions as dictated by the Constitution.
She emphasizes the critical need for adherence to constitutional guidelines in this regard.
In a recent update, Iris Koh conveyed profound concerns and raised pivotal questions regarding the “Constitution Amendment No. 3 Act 2023,” which was presented in Parliament on 6 November.
The constitution change, if passed, will allow the President and ministers to accept appointments within foreign and international organizations in their personal capacities.
The bill addresses the current constitutional constraints that prohibit the President from participating in public roles in a private capacity.
The changes seek to empower the President to take up such roles based on the Cabinet’s advice, aligning with the national interest.
Even before his presidency, Mr Tharman, a former senior minister from the ruling People’s Action Party, held esteemed positions in global organizations.
These included chairing the G30’s board of trustees, co-chairing the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, serving on the advisory board for the UN Human Development Report, and participating in the board of trustees for the World Economic Forum.
He currently holds these positions despite the constraints in the constitution.
Iris Koh highlights concerns over bill’s implications for Singapore’s governance
In the petition, Iris Koh underscored the significant debate and serious apprehensions sparked by the bill, emphasizing the crucial need for Parliament to thoroughly evaluate its potential implications before enacting it into law.
Koh highlighted the perplexing aspect of the bill, which, despite being introduced on 6 November, aims to retroactively apply from 14 Sept, coinciding with Mr Tharman’s assumption of the presidency.
“The absurdity of this retrospective application must be addressed, as it defies the principles of good governance and transparency. “she said.
“Since Tharman cannot technically hold any foreign positions and is currently incompatible with our Constitution, it is only right that until this bill is passed, I believe Tharman actually needs to resign from his foreign appointments first to be compatible with the Constitution before he can give any assent to any bill,” the petition wrote.
“Until he puts himself back in compatibility, should he be allowed to perform any duties at all?”
Koh further urged Tharman’s resignation if he cannot prioritize Singapore over his foreign roles, emphasizing the need to protect the Constitution’s sanctity.
Lack of clarity in the bill’s distinction between private and national interests
The petition delved into several concerns regarding the proposed bill, notably the lack of clarity in distinguishing private capacities from national interests.
It raised alarms about potential conflicts of interest and their implications for Singapore’s sovereignty and security.
Additionally, questions were raised about how the bill ensures that the involvement of leaders in international organizations doesn’t compromise the nation’s sovereignty.
The petition emphasized the need to establish clear boundaries between Cabinet and Presidential roles to prevent potential abuses and conflicts of interest.
Moreover, it called for transparency regarding private activities in organizations beyond Singapore’s jurisdiction, citing concerns about undisclosed agreements that could affect sovereignty.
The petition proposed that the public should have access to information about the President’s activities in his private capacity, especially when they have the potential to impact national interests.
It also criticised that Tharman did not declare his potential conflict of interest by holding on to his foreign appointments “represent a very real concern that future potential conflicts of interest may arise and no one will be there to flag them out”.
Human rights lawyer M Ravi files for Tharman’s disqualification in PE 2023
On PE2023 Nomination Day, 22 August, Iris Koh visited the Elections Department to formally object to Tharman’s candidacy.
However, she alleged that the Returning Officer, Tan Meng Dui, did not acknowledge or receive her objection notice, allowing Tharman’s participation despite her timely intervention.
Later, on 29 August, Ms Koh participated in a legal application by a Singaporean human rights lawyer M Ravi to disqualify Mr Tharman as a presidential candidate.
In his application, M Ravi stated that Mr Tharman has been previously fined for “disclosing state secrets”, a circumstance that, in Ravi’s view, should disqualify him from participating in the presidential race.
Article 45(1)(e) of the Constitution stipulates that an individual who has been convicted of a crime by a court of law in Singapore or Malaysia and has received a prison sentence of at least one year, or a fine of at least S$2,000, and has not been granted a pardon, is ineligible to compete in the General Election or hold a seat in Parliament.
Ravi proceeded to reference Article 27, which pertains to the oath of allegiance to Singapore.
Mr Tharman had been found guilty under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) in 1994 for his role in allowing sensitive governmental information to be shared with the media.
Mr Ravi said these matters should have been referred to the Constitutional Court properly by the cabinet of Constitutional Court by Ms Halimah Yacob, or the cabinet, whichever the case may be.
“Under Article 100, it is stated that “the President may refer to a tribunal consisting of not less than 3 Supreme Court Judges for its opinion [on] any question as to the effect of any provision of this Constitution which has arisen or appears to him likely to arise.”
Ravi further argued that Tharman had not renounced his international commitments and had expressed his determination not to do so. He seemed to be alluding to Tharman’s involvement with the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) board of trustees.
Emphasizing that this was an “urgent motion to suspend the election,” Ravi submitted the application on his own behalf and on behalf of “all concerned citizens.”
Supreme Court on 31 August rejected M. Ravi’s attempt to disqualify Tharman Shanmugaratnam from PE 2023
However, on 31 August, the Court rejected M. Ravi’s application, subsequently, Mr Tharman emerged victorious in the election, securing 70.41 per cent of the vote and becoming Singapore’s ninth President.
According to a statement issued by another lawyer Joseph Chen who acting on behalf of Mr Ravi, the rejection appears to be based on a previous ruling that labeled M Ravi as a “vexatious litigant”.
“This is unprecedented, especially in the rest of the Commonwealth Common Law Jurisdiction. It must be highlighted that M Ravi has through judicial review saved the life of Gobi Avedian who was initially tried and convicted of drug trafficking and on appeal, his conviction and death sentence was upheld.”
Singapore’s ELD filed police reports against Iris Koh and M Ravi for alleged cooling-off rules breach
On 2 October, ELD filed the police reports against Ms Koh and M Ravi for potential offences under the Presidential Elections Act (PrEA) during the cooling-off period for the 2023 Presidential Election.
Significantly, recently on Tuesday (14 Nov), Iris Koh lodged a police report concerning the 2023 Presidential Election.
She has again raised concerns about Mr Tharman’s eligibility as a candidate and questioned the actions of the Elections Department following the election.
Koh criticized the Elections Department for not addressing or evaluating Tharman’s ongoing involvement in foreign political roles during his candidacy, citing a potential security risk to Singapore’s sovereignty.
Additionally, Ms Koh reported an incident where the Assisting Returning Officer filed a police report against her and publicized it in the media.
She seeks clarification on these actions, as they appear to “obstruct justice, legitimate whistleblowing and hinder public discourse.”