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The art of doing nothing

She Knew how to Do Nothing with Style

The death of Queen Elizabeth has stirred quite a few emotions. Many have talked about her devotion of duty and her work ethic and how she provided leadership that kept Britain Great throughout her rein. Then there were those who lambasted her for being part of an evil system that exploited people around the world and there were calls to return “stolen” items in the crown jewels.

While I am sympathetic towards those who make the point that colonialism was an evil system that screwed the natives, the truth is the Queen personally had very little to do with the creation of colonialism. In fact, the Queen had very little to do with pretty much anything that went on in her 70-years on the throne. The “action” was done pretty much by her 15 Prime Ministers and the politicians in Whitehall.

The role of the Queen is best summed up by her character in the Crown who says that it is to “Shut up and do nothing,” and “that is the hardest job in the world.” In 70-years, the Queen has had to read a speech written for her at the opening of parliament, inviting the politician who won an election to form a government and meeting the Prime Minister of the day for a tea on a weekly basis.

I mention this not to denigrate the role of the British monarch but to make the point that the British monarch does pretty much what Singapore’s Presidents have done – nothing at all. Singapore’s Presidents like the British monarch are required to read a speech written for them by the government and to wave on National Day every year. Like the British Monarch, Singapore’s President’s are well remunerated.

So, the question is given that the British Monarchs and Singapore’s Presidents do pretty much the same thing, why is it such that so many Britons feel the loss of their monarch, while Singaporeans seem so unsatisfied with their presidents?

OK, in fairness, the British monarchy over a thousand years old whilst Singapore’s presidency is significantly younger. The British monarch’s role has evolved into what it is today whilst the Singaporean Presidency is still being tinkered with. Then there’s the fact that the monarchy unlike the presidency isn’t a job that you do for a certain period – it is a life. A King or Queen does not have a term but serves until he or she dies.

Then there’s the fact that Elizabeth was Queen for over 70 years. Prime Ministers have come and gone but she has remained and while it is not her job to govern the country, all reports have stated that the Queen until the day she died read the red boxes sent to her by the government and knew exactly what was going on and all her living Prime Ministers have confirmed in public that she offered them invaluable advice. Elizabeth II made the monarchy hers in a way that no other holder of public office in the world could.

Having said that, the question remains. How did the late English Queen generate so much emotion for effectively “doing nothing, whereas the fact that our presidents seem to p** off the general public for doing the same thing?

Well, let’s start with the fact that the British monarch is supposed to do “nothing.” Monarchs do not get involved with politics or the grubby business of running the country because they are not elected and as the years have understood that they are not supposed to do anything. In her 70-years the Queen might have told her Prime Ministers if she thought they were f** up in private but she has signed everything they’ve presented to her. In her 70-years the Queen has only stepped in to make sure that there was a Prime Minister (A scene best portrayed in the Crown when she dresses down Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden for being on their sick beds at the same time without telling her.) As her Crown portrayal says, “My job is not governance but to ensure there is governance.”

Elizabeth II “doing nothing” was not an act of laziness but an act of being “apolitical,” and nobody could accuse her of interfering or trying to change the “people’s choice.” As long as they stay away from “political” stuff that brings them in the political sphere, the royals have had the freedom to champion social causes, which was most effectively seen by the late Princess Dianna who hugged HIV positive patients in public and was seen in fields with landmines (admittedly she always looked glamorous when doing so).

By contrast, our presidents have had the misfortune of being politicized even before they’ve set foot in the Istana and somehow, they never get the chance to make the office theirs.

Let’s start with the fact that unlike the UK, the Head of State is not a constant. The constant is the PAP government. In our 57-year-old nation, it is only those who over 58 who have known Singapore to have a government that was not led by the PAP. Whilst the British monarch nominally invites the politicians to form a government, in Singapore it is the government who “selects” the president.

This is not so much of an issue in itself in as much as plenty of other republics have “selected” presidents who are effectively paid to be expensive cutlery. India and Germany have presidents who nobody outside the respective nations have heard of. They are there for symbolism.

However, Singapore’s president is supposed to be more than symbolic. Under the constitution the President is the only elected official chosen by every individual of voting age. While Singapore system does make the president a check on the government the way the US Congress checks the US President, the Singapore system does allow the President to say “Think about it,” in a public way. The idea was that Singapore would need someone who could tell a rogue government not to touch the reserves.

However, practice has been different. Both our fifth and seventh presidents who fought elections ended up being hobbled. The fifth, Ong Teng Cheong called a press conference to say that there were “teething problems.” His reward was to be kicked into retirement and denied a state funeral. The seventh, Tony Tan fought a close election and the Prime Minister spent the inauguration subtly reminding him who was boss. The only thing he was allowed to do beyond the usual was to go on a state visit to the UK where he was photographed with William and Kate who towered over him and the British press called him the “Prime-Miniature” [LINK]

So much for “democratic” legitimacy. Things got different for our sixth and eight presidents, who are both from ethnic minorities. In theory both were supposed to be “elected.” In reality, they were selected. In both cases, everyone else who thought of running against them was conveniently disqualified. In the case of the current president, an act of parliament was passed to ensure that only “Malays” could run and somehow the current president got selected even though it turns out that she is from the “Indian Muslim” rather than the Malay community (the minister of education proceeded to show off his “education” when he argued that “An Indian Muslim is a Malay.”)

So, the sixth and eight presidents entered their terms tarred. These are the only presidents who have officially granted the government permission to draw on the reserves. What makes this tarring of these two characters before entering the Istana so sad is the fact that they were relatively popular with the people. People who have known SR Nathan, have described him as a warm and caring person (As a matter of disclosure, I have interacted with the late President, who was from that experience very warm). Former journalists have mentioned that Halimah Yacob is a lovely person and she was accessible until she got elevated to the Speakership (the stepping stone to the presidency) Both characters could have, if they were allowed to, won the office fairly.

To be fair to SR Nathan, he did try to support charities and created the “Presidents Star Charity.” However, in the scope of things, he was never allowed to make the office his. What else could he or Madam Halimah do except collect the generous salary and not do anything that might jeopardise that?

None of our presidents have been what you could call “radical.” Ong Teng Cheong and Tony Tan were deputy prime ministers. Halimah was the speaker of parliament and SR Nathan was a spy for the government. Yet each got hobbled.

So, here’s the thing. If the government wants the presidency to be respected, it has to allow presidents to make the office their own. The presidency is not designed to do very much but its occupants can make it work for the nation if the government allows it. If the government really feels that it cannot live with a president with a democratic legitimacy to tell it to “think it over,” it might as well stop wasting tax payers’ money with the façade of presidential elections and return to “selecting” presidents.

 

Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.

 

 

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READER COMMENTS BELOW

22 Responses to “The art of doing nothing”

  • myfirstscrew:

    Some articles make sense, but some dont, but I think you are pro CCP.
    Singapore President is nothing compared to the Queen, if you research what are her duties and what she was doing.

    Our P was ceremonial until the white party wanted it to have executive power. But when OTC rebelled and tried to exercise, they suddenly realise if their installed puppy is not loyal, then it means trouble. So they tighten up the race to ensure only a few can contest but when TCB became a rebel, they decided to change the rule by appointing an Indian.

    The next EP is up soon, of course they need to ensure TCB does not contest, they worry they will lose. So well see what game they are playing.

    The EP is an useless role, it is just kissing axx, saying yes and signing whatever the master say. It is damn well paid for drinking milo. Most people dont see the value or agree, especially the person is an ex party member who resigned to be appointed.

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  • xoxo:

    The Queen was not ELECTed,she was ERECTed by order of lineage.
    So too Charlie as King.
    Our president is called an ELECTED PRESIDENT but ,in truth,ALL ,thus far,have been ERECTed.
    Is our PRESIDENT linked to any DYNASTY?

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  • Temusik Patriot:

    When absolute POWER was removed after “Magna Charter” the Monarchy is just a monochrome…in Liz’s case she ascended the throne through her father an accidental King…and did a pretty good job

    good job for 70 years

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  • Sooh:

    Human r really doing something.

    Otherwise pakistan won’t flood.

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  • Crazy:

    Look, it’s still a tiny nutshell on someone’s head who manages massive power and influence on people which could set an entire nation on fire with an “unruly tongue”. One can never be too sure how sane such a person is or what idiosyncrasies he or she may have leading to ill motivated decisions with long term damages to nation or world.

    Such a system, or elected to sit on the throne(vested with immense power and authority, is unsustainable without grave consequences to people,environment and planet.

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  • Sun will still rise tomorrow:

    From the empire over which sun never sets to everything started to break apart by just doing nothing, it is truly the mother of all accomplishments!

    To be fair, Singapore President will not be that ambitious but has been very dutifully and successfully maintaining the peace and prosperity of a tiny city state.

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  • I don't understand SG system:

    How come president elected by all Singaporeans’ votes has so little power, compare to PM which has only one GRC people vote? People vote should be power in democracy. I also don’t understand how come to become president candidate has so many requirements? Equality is in the pledge, everyone should have equal chance to be president. The requirement is so high, only the rich and elite can be president is so unfair and unjust.

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  • Dive Eagle:

    Although I felt the President of Singapore is getting too much for the things he or she do. But it is still better than giving to a monarch.

    Please look at this article
    https://britishheritage.com/royals/royal-family-cost-british-taxpayer

    The Britons are paying too much for the royal family every year. Imagine giving to the princes and dukes for their lifetime, without thinking they might not getting their worth back and the burden being accumulated on the commoners.
    In a republic,everyone works but not so in the privilleges in the monarchy system. We can clearly see the systems resulted in our next door neighbour.

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  • SS:

    The author certainly does seem to have a bias against the institution of the British monarchy and the symbolism it provides. It’s too easy to look at the British monarchy and see only the tabloid dramas, the photo ops and the mostly invented family conflicts. Britain has an entire industry devoted to maintaining the myth of their monarchy. In the 60′s Singapore serfs had to get up from their seats the moment the Union Jack appears and “God Saves the queen” is played.

    The Brits were savage colonizers, brutal imperialists, presided over by the Queen. The fact that the current royal members stay out of politics is a current (the 1900s or so on) phenomenon. Prior to Queen Victoria, the monarchy had quite a finger on the politics of the country and stated those opinions quite loudly. One should remember that the Declaration of Independence was written directly to King George and not Parliament or the Prime Minister.

    I guess now with Brexit that’s going to render the UK irrelevant, nostalgia for something that was rotten to the core is all they’ve got now.

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  • theforgottongeneration:

    What the British system does is their business. Singaporeans should be more concerned with our own system and less kapo into other peoples’ systems.

    Remember our current reserved president is a Kelong case. Whether she has real authority or not, whether she is doing lots or doing fuxk, the fact remains she is there by Kelong means, so her appointment already has no credibility. Without credibility, there can be no real Trust with the people.

    Recall during the runup to the PE, all the balloting arrangements were in place. Even if the pappies eventually played the system until there is only ONE qualified candidate (which happened to be their preferred one), they should call for a national referendum, instead of quickly declaring a walkover. It would have been an easy matter to reprint referendum forms, and use the election arrangements already in place.

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  • Lawrence Wong talking cock:

    High level of trust in S’pore due to culture of honouring one’s word and one another: DPM Lawrence Wong

    Lawrence Wong is playing “fast-and-lose” with the facts on “trust” in the public sector.

    (1) There is a big difference between “trust” and “having no choice”. The PAP-run government us “opaque”, i.e., not open and transparent, so the public can not easily question or criticize the government and its agencies.

    (2) “Trust” is a “two-way street” so it is “trust to be trusted”. Does the government trust Singaporeans? If it does then why is it not open and transparent and, inter alia, tell Singaporeans the size of government reserves, the actual cash cost to the government as a whole for building public housing, the amount if taxpayer’s money spent on foreigners studying in Singapore, etc.

    (3) It is not appropriate to use “trust” in the public sector of a country is not a real democracy with basic freedom and a free press. Singapore is not a democracy. Silence because of fear of speaking out is not “trust”. Singaporeans do not want to be sued “until their pants drop” or into bankruptcy.

    (4) “Trust” is passe. It has been replaced by “trust but verify”. For verification openness and transparency is required to know the whole truth, not just “spin” and for real accountability.

    (5) The fact that support for the PAP has been steadily declining indicates an increasing lack of trust in the ruling party. Regime change is in the cards.

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  • theforgottongeneration:

    How can Singaporeans Trust someone who hijacked parliament for 2 days to air his own personal/family issues? (Oxley case)

    Would you trust someone who is highest paid, took 18+ years to name the leadership succession, and then only to produce a quickly-clobbered together “B” Team, with lots of Clowns?

    Can Singaporeans Trust someone who is so lousy that voters didn’t give him a strong mandate, and so he blames us as Free Riders? Hasn’t he free rode on daddy all his life?

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  • I_am_Mike:

    I call this is : The ignorant of Common — in hope for a leader to rule over us and be responsible for that. Which, how you gonna hold them responsible they failed you? By sticking their head to the end of the spike?

    Believing in a single man or woman can do wonders is simply a slavery code build in the DNA.

    When will we asian really ‘get rid’ this ‘hope’ that someone, a leader, or an emperor, who is responsible for all the glory and failure, shall bring about making a ‘wonderful life’ for us all.

    Tangli, just move and go beyond.

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  • I_am_Mike:

    Oh, btw, the only win forus as people is get the G constantly changed. Not based on what they can do, but on what they had done.

    In that why, the G will ‘fear’ you. In that why true people’s power can be maximized.

    I care little about whether it’s MIW or useless WP or another bs PSP. Or a president that cut ribbons and kiss babies.

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  • I_am_Mike:

    SG PE revamping in late 80s and 90s was failed in the process. From the 60s to the 80s SG was moving towards democracy in the similar direction as TW did. Due to the close political connections between SG and TW.

    Yet 1989 does have an impact on SG and some where in mid 90s, the action of OTC bring about a cold breeze to the ruling king who had yield absolute power for 3 decades.

    The rest is history. It’s power and politics.

    I don't understand SG system: How come president elected by all Singaporeans’ votes has so little power, compare to PM which has only one GRC people vote? People vote should be power in democracy.

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  • SS:

    Ironically enough, this article, while not well written and thought-provoking, ultimately creates a straw man argument for some (may be author himself). Unfortunately, in our political system, I believe advocates of reason are swimming upstream; although, I hope the internet and social media may act as a leveling system. As someone ever mentioned; all are free to express their opinions. But I found few ready for debates on its’ narritives. Still waiting :)

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  • Temusik Patriot:

    Give your views and await a response if it deserving reply if not ignore…debate will be long drawn with more nonsense than sense…tio bo???

    SS:
    Ironically enough, this article, while not well written and thought-provoking, ultimately creates a straw man argument for some (may be author himself). Unfortunately, in our political system, I believe advocates of reason are swimming upstream; although, I hope the internet and social media may act as a leveling system. As someone ever mentioned; all are free to express their opinions. But I found few ready for debates on its’ narritives. Still waiting :)

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  • SS:

    Temusik Patriot:
    Give your views and await a response if it deserving reply if not ignore…debate will be long drawn with more nonsense than sense…tio bo???

    Whether my opponents or anyone else’s, are nonsense or not depends on the definition of nonsense. Everyone struggles with a workable definition. Tio bo :)

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  • SINGAROAR:

    @TangLi
    Everyone has a choice. The Queen could have abdicated. Nathan and HY could have resigned. Are you saying
    that the Queen, Nathan and HY were forced to retain their positions? Who would have refused to allow the Queen to return the jewels,art works, properties,land etc stolen from colonized countries? Nathan and HY were unpopular as Presidents. They were both not elected by the people but paid by taxpayers. Nathan collected in total about $27million. HY would have collected $9million by the time her term ends.Nathan started the President Star Charity but it is the people who donate the monies. So shouldn’t it be called People’s Star Charity? These are people who were greedy and have no qualms about taking Public monies.

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  • P Against People:

    The President pay was $6 million a year, not counting bonus.
    Over 12 years, easily $60 millions.

    That guy was drunk with so much dollars he got to wonder why he’s here.

    SINGAROAR: Nathan collected in total about $27million.

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  • Temusik Patriot:

    TIO!!!…maybe I should switch to sense n sensibilty can or cannot leh!

    SS: Whether my opponents or anyone else’s, are nonsense or not depends on the definition of nonsense. Everyone struggles with a workable definition. Tio bo :)

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  • SS:

    Temusik Patriot:
    TIO!!!…maybe I should switch to sense n sensibilty can or cannot leh!

    We are Darwinian creatures and it is a rare twist of fate that turns a person on to the values of philosophical inquiry and exchange. What’s missing here is the real elephant in the room. Before you can get to thinking about issues — either by “intuition” or “reason” — you have to know the facts!

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