Democracy and the Elected Presidency

Rumour has it that the government could soon review the elected presidential system. Various adjustments and alternatives have been touted by political observers and legislators alike – from tightening the already-stringent nomination criteria, to bypassing the electorate altogether and having Parliament directly appoint a President.

This wouldn’t surprise me. Ever since gaining power, the PAP has harboured a deep mistrust of the average voter. In his memoirs, the late Lee Kuan Yew quipped, “I ignore polling as a method of government. I think that shows a certain weakness of mind – an inability to chart a course whichever way the wind blows”. This is a party which prides itself on valuing pragmatism over populism; on using democracy merely as a means toward greater national utility.

But, if it were true that the PAP prefers governance over politicking, one wonders why it sought to introduce Presidential Elections in the late 1980s. Why not stick to the previous system, in which the President was appointed by Parliament? That would eliminate the possibility of voters choosing the ‘wrong’ candidate, and ensure that Parliament could go about its legislative business unhindered.

Actually, history suggests that the elected presidency was itself designed to check on the supposed dangers of populism and reckless governance.  In the event of a freak electoral result where the Opposition somehow gained a slim majority in Parliament, the PAP wanted the President to act as an apolitical “second key” within Singapore’s democratic system so legislators did not have carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. Hence, the PAP sought to widen the scope of the President’s powers: Alongside his pre-existing duties, the President could now veto attempts to draw down Singapore’s past reserves and block appointments to key civil service appointments. In order to justify these sweeping changes in the eyes of Singaporeans, the PAP decided to implement Presidential Elections. Of course, to avoid the process becoming too democratic, extremely selective conditions were put in place to stop demagogues and non-establishment candidates from running for President. In 2005, it was estimated by the Prime Minister’s press secretary that only 700 to 800 individuals could satisfy the requirements.

I hypothesize that this idea of an elected President could have been triggered by the results of the 1984 General Election. This election was the first time since 1963 that the PAP failed to win all the seats in Parliament, and also the first time its vote share dipped below 70%. In light of the Opposition potentially gaining more ground in 1988 and beyond, the President’s roles and responsibilities might have been expanded in order to function as an emergency failsafe; a circuit breaker of sorts in case the Opposition gained more momentum in the near future.

So why the recent debate regarding the elected presidency? In an uncanny reversal, we see the converse of 1984 being true today. The 2015 General Election saw the PAP romp home to victory, defying many pundits to mark its best performance at the ballot box since 2001. The 2011 Presidential Election, in contrast, was a nerve-racking affair for the government, as Dr Tony Tan barely scraped past his opponents to win. Worryingly, had either Tan Jee Say or Tan Kin Lian not competed, it was likely that most of their vote share would have gone to Dr Tan Cheng Bock, as Dr Tony Tan was overwhelmingly perceived by the electorate as the establishment candidate.

For a PAP leadership obsessed with predictability and stability, the thought of having yet another aggressively independent President in the mould of Mr Ong Teng Cheong must surely be unpleasant. In his capacity as Singapore’s first elected President, Mr Ong famously requested for a detailed breakdown of the Singapore government’s financial reserves, and was brusquely rebuffed by the civil service who informed him that it would take 56 man-years to produce such a report. Clearly, the PAP would rather have an impartial but non-interventionist head of state – someone who excels in a largely ceremonial role without interfering with the daily processes of governance.

Given that the next Presidential Election is due soon in 2017, any projected changes will likely take effect only in 2023 or beyond. But if the government does re-open discussion on this issue, it would suggest that the PAP believes it stands a good chance at the General Elections, but is deeply unsure about the outcomes of future Presidential Elections. This makes sense from an individual voter’s perspective – most Singaporeans would like to see some diversity in government but at the same time no one wants to be disadvantaged by voting for the Opposition.

A substantial number of people support the PAP because it usually means swifter lift-upgrading, better facility upkeep, and more infrastructure budget for their estate. These are exclusionary and concrete benefits which appeal to our baser instincts. When the “harms” of voting for a non-establishment candidate are (1) indirect and intangible and (2) diffused across the entire country, people become more inclined to do so. This, alongside the fact that Dr Tan Cheng Bock was perceived as a competent nonpartisan, was probably why Dr Tony Tan nearly lost the 2011 Presidential Election.

It would be deliciously ironic if the PAP scraps the elected presidency because it has become too democratic and unpredictable. I worry that, despite its best intentions, the government has a tendency to infantilize the electorate – in its belief that we do not know best for ourselves, the PAP has intelligently engineered a political system which protects itself from the people it was meant to empower. This in turn reveals a bias toward internal regulatory processes within the bureaucracy, with external checking mechanisms seen as unnecessarily cumbersome or politicised. I feel that it would hardly have been the end of the world had Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a respected figure and passionate former backbencher, become President in 2011. We might even have seen more speeches in Parliament exhorting the government to set aside partisan politics and allow for a broader spectrum of views!

Incidentally, this is why a strong Opposition presence in Parliament is crucial for Singapore’s future. If the PAP were to go ahead and amend the constitution such that we return the presidency to its pre-1993 state, there would be no way to stop them. I mostly trust the PAP to make the right decisions for our continued success and progress, but not enough to hand them all the keys to power.

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