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Head of State for Life?

Many heads of state only stay in office for a short period of time. This makes it difficult for them to carry out their role as symbolic uniters of their people.

Written by johnleemk on 1:55:50 pm Apr 27, 2007.

I think it is imperative that the positions of head of government and head of state be separated. The obvious benefit is that the head of state, who represents the state, now becomes apolitical; you cannot accuse someone of being disloyal to his country if he does not support his Prime Minister, but fully supports his head of state.

There is another advantage, however. The head of state is better able to serve the people through symbolic functions, and also by playing a role in the country's traditions and public life.

The idea is that he or she will come to be seen as a symbol of the country, its culture, and its traditions, and be as revered as these abstract concepts. He or she will be the human embodiment of the state.

Fostering such a relationship between the people and the head of state is difficult, however, if the head of state is rotated every few years. In my home country of Malaysia, the King is replaced every five years by another ruler from one of the country's nine royal families, meaning that often virtually no bond is formed between him and his people. This has led me to propose making the Malaysian King reign for life.

Typically, though, this lack of attachment is something that afflicts republics, which have Presidents as the head of state (for instance, the Republic of Ireland and Singapore), or constitutional monarchies which have a Governor-General (e.g. Canada and Australia).

A bit surprisingly, this is not so in countries where the roles of head of state and head of government are merged. The President of the United States, for example, is well loved by many Americans.

The problem, though, is that because the head of state becomes more than a symbolic political role, the head of state also ends up being hated by many people. In the US, the President is always one of the most polarising figures, when the head of state is supposed to unite the people of the state, not divide them.

So how do we resolve this impasse? How can we foster an attachment between the people and their head of state? I think one possible solution is to make the head of state hold that job for life, unless he or she resigns it, is impeached, or is recalled by the people.

Through constancy in the head of state, the people will be able to form a deeper bond with a defining symbol of their country. After the head of state is elected (or appointed in some cases), the people can be sure that he or she will be there to unite them for years to come, barring a tragic mishap.

To ensure accountability and prevent the head of state from abusing his or her role to dabble in politics and divide the country, there must naturally be checks and balances.

In most republics, it would be a good idea to leave the head of state open to recall by the people. In countries like Canada and Australia, where the de facto head of state is actually the Governor-General, the Governor-General should be impeachable by Parliament.

A capable head of state, even if he or she only holds symbolic powers, can do a lot for a nation. Elder statesmen can do the country a favour by uniting it, by acting as a symbol of solidarity, and by protecting the traditions of the state.

In the face of a national crisis, people may only be grudgingly united by the naturally polarising head of government, but they can very well be united in unbreakable bonds by a capable head of state.

To foster such a close respect for the head of state, it is necessary that the head of state hold office for a long enough period for the people to get to know him or her, and to love and cherish the head of state as a symbol of themselves and their country. It is also crucial that the head of state remain accountable, so as to avoid letting the symbolic powers go to his or her head.

Both the head of government and head of state have important roles to play. But without the right constitutional framework in place, having a head of state who cannot really unite the people is as good as not having a head of state at all.