The decisiveness in his response would have surprised some political watchers. After all, George had just become jobless. Furthermore he has the right sort of background to be President. One would have expected George to at least reserve his position and say something along the lines of "I don't know yet. I'll think about it and decide later."
But a more recent TODAY article (that is not even about George Yeo) gives us a clue as to why George Yeo had been adamant about not running for President. The background to this article is that ex-PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock had just expressed his interest in running for President. And this is what his ex-fellow PAP MPs had to say about it:
PAP MPs surprised Dr Tan might run for PresidentWhat do these lines tell you? Firstly, that the PAP had already decided who should run for President. Secondly, that George Yeo was not the guy. Thirdly, that the PAP groupthink is so strong that George absolutely would not consider rocking the boat. George does not dare to be the President, if the PAP has already decided that someone else should be.
04:47 AM May 28, 2011
by Teo Xuanwei
SINGAPORE - News that his former comrade-in-arms Tan Cheng Bock, 71, has declared his intention to run for President caught veteran backbencher Inderjit Singh off guard.
The Ang Mo Kio Group Representation Constituency Member of Parliament (MP) told Today: "For Presidential Elections, there's always been a candidate that the Government supports ... it's quite clear that we will be fully behind this person so it will be very awkward (to have Dr Tan in the contest)."
This brings to mind George Yeo's parting words, when he spoke to the media and said that he would not run for President. He said something like this, "I'm too much of a free spirit to run for President". This was a somewhat curious choice of phrase - and in fact, it attracted a degree of speculative twitterings among Singaporeans. One can't help but wonder - why would being a free spirit obstruct a person from being the President, any more than, say, being the Foreign Affairs Minister?
Perhaps I'm reading too much between the lines. But my instinctive feel is as follows. As mentioned earlier, the PAP has already decided who should be the President - and the PAP has decided to give him its full support (note Inderjit Singh's words - "we will be fully behind this person"). Whoever he is, this person himself would no doubt have been heavily involved in the discussions.
And if he does become President, it may well transpire that he feels beholden to the PAP (which selected him, and endorsed him, and gave him its full support). The expectation may arise that he is obliged to lend his support to the PAP. In other words, the President would not be a "free spirit". He can't do what he really wants. He can only do what the PAP wants. The favour has to be repaid.
This is pretty scary - especially if you understand what the President's role is all about. Let me explain. One of the President's main functions is to preside over the the appointment and dismissal of very senior civil servants and public officers. Specifically, the President has veto powers to stop the government from dismissing these people:
(1) the Chief Justice, Judges and Judicial Commissioners of the Supreme Court;
(2) the Attorney-General;
(3) members of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights;
(4) members of the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony;
(5) a member of the Legal Service Commission;
(6) the Chief Valuer;
(7) the Auditor-General;
(8) the Accountant-General;
(9) the Chief of Defence Force;
(10) the Chiefs of the Air Force, Army and Navy;
(11) a member of the Armed Forces Council;
(12) the Commissioner of Police; and
(13) the Director of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.
What's the idea here? Well, the President is supposed to protect these senior civil servants / public officers so that they can perform their duties without fear of political reprisal. This is a very important check & balance.
Just for example, suppose one day, a PAP minister is suspected of criminal wrongdoing - let's say that it's something to do with misuse of government funds. The Auditor-General discovers this while performing an audit, and would want to make a police report. The Commissioner of Police would want to launch a full-scale investigation against that PAP minister. If there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, the Attorney-General of Singapore would want to prosecute the case, and the District Judge would want to hear it.
But at the same time, all these persons - the Auditor General; the Commissioner of Police; the Attorney-General; the District Judge - could be afraid to do the right thing. After all, they might get sacked (it's the government that employs them, after all). This is where the President comes in. The President has the power to protect these people. Unless the President agrees, none of these people can be sacked or otherwise removed from their posts.
That's why it is important to have a truly independent President. A free spirit, if you want to call it that. A President who didn't receive any favours from the PAP, and who doesn't feel obliged to return any.