My Thoughts on Reviewing the Elected Presidency

Last month, a Constitutional Commission was appointed to review the Elected Presidency scheme. As part of the ongoing process of evaluation and deliberation, members of the public have been invited to provide written submissions to the Secretariat.
There were three areas of particular interest:

(i)       The qualifying process for candidacy for the Elected President, particularly the eligibility criteria for such candidates, and whether the existing provisions in these areas are adequate;

(ii)       What provisions should be made to safeguard minority representation in the Presidency; and

(iii)       The framework governing the exercise of the President’s custodial powers, particularly the role and composition of the Council of Presidential Advisers (“the CPA”), and whether the existing provisions in these areas are adequate.

I shared my thoughts regarding points (i) and (ii), and also re-iterated my belief that the President should continue to be elected by his or her people. Didn’t have much to say regarding (iii). My submission is appended below.

Minority Representation and the Elected Presidency

Since the introduction of the elected presidency, we have had three Elected Presidents – two of whom are Chinese, and one Indian. Given the nascence of this scheme, it seems very premature to assume that minorities will be systematically under-represented in the status quo. One should at least wait one or two more election cycles before reaching any conclusions.

However, it is also true that every eligible candidate thus far (with the exception of former President S R Nathan) has been Chinese. Rather than a problem inherent to the Elected Presidency, I instead believe that this is symptomatic of underlying social inequities. It is an unfortunate reality that Chinese (and, to a smaller extent, Indian) Singaporeans are disproportionately represented in top civil service, political, and private sector appointments. To quote the NUS Business School Singapore Board Diversity Report (2014), “Ethnic diversity on SGX boards is limited as 59% of boards are composed of directors of one ethnic group. In all but one of the cases this was an all-Chinese board. Ethnic Chinese directors made up 85.7% of all the directors of SGX-listed companies. The percentage of Malay and Indian directors is 3.5% and 2.8% respectively.” Minorities could similarly be better represented in top civil service positions, especially for pinnacle appointments like the CEO of a Statutory Board, Permanent Secretary, or Accountant-General.

This context, coupled with the extremely stringent conditions for eligibility in the status quo suggests that the pool of potentially eligible Presidents is already tilted in favour of the Chinese majority. Given this, there might be an inherent contradiction between (a) making the eligibility criteria for the Presidency even tighter; and (b) ensuring more minority representation. It would instead appear that there are two short-run solutions to guarantee minority representation: First, loosen the criteria for eligibility. This would, in theory, allow more ethnic minorities to become eligible for the Presidency, and increase the pool of potential minority candidates. Second, one could scrap the entire system of elections, and have Parliament appoint the President. The office would then be held by someone of a different ethnic background every cycle.

I am not in favour of either proposal, as they are too easily dismissed as tokenism by minority communities in Singapore. It would be an implicit slight on the ability of minority candidates if they were only able to become President on the basis of more forgiving eligibility criteria, or due to a rotational quota. Artificially engineering minority representation could be counter-productive, as minority candidates are perceived as beneficiaries of state largesse rather than stellar individuals on their own merits. However, one caveat would be that if minority groups are genuinely in favour of having a system of Appointed Presidency governed by racial quotas, or lowering the standards for electoral eligibility, then these arguments become irrelevant.

Perhaps a better approach would be to continue our existing efforts to uplift disadvantaged minorities, bringing the socio-economic status of underprivileged ethnic groups on par with the rest of Singapore. While I recognise this is outside the remit of the Constitutional Commission, one should still consider that the frequency of minority representation is less important than the perceived legitimacy of minority representation. Focusing on grassroots problems regarding racial inequalities will have profound run-on effects on issues like minority representation at the highest levels of office. Crucially, such an approach would allow the institution of an Elected Presidency to survive, contributing to a more politically aware and participatory Singaporean electorate.

Expanding on my view that the Elected Presidency is important, we are unlike other Westminster-style democracies like India and Israel where nominal heads of state are elected by the legislature. Singapore has been governed by a single political party for the past 50 years. There is little evidence to suggest that this will change in the near future. As demonstrated in the 2011 Presidential Elections, the PAP leadership’s preferred candidate may not necessarily be the preferred candidate of a majority of Singaporeans. Without a handover of political power, there will be no reliable way to correct for this if we abolish the Elected Presidency. We are unique in that we allow for the citizenry to elect their symbolic head of state, and it should be kept that way.

Eligibility Criteria for Potential Candidates

Given the significant reserve powers wielded by the President, it is only appropriate for the eligibility criteria to be discerning and restrictive. Those with inadequate experience, or who see the role of President as agitator-in-chief, must be filtered out.

I further note that the role of President is to be a unifier, and hence should not be unnecessarily politicised. I propose that an adjustment be made to the eligibility criteria, such that any current or former member of a political party is ineligible for the office of President. As seen in the 2011 Presidential Elections, merely renouncing one’s party affiliations is inadequate – Mr Tan Jee Say’s insistence on campaigning for the Presidency as if it is an autonomous, alternate centre of power is a very pertinent example.

By the same vein, it would also be better if former PAP MPs or Ministers are prevented from running for President. If the President is truly to be seen as an independent entity divorced from the country’s political leadership but simultaneously passive in decision-making, then we should not let prominent political figures run for such an office. One plausible reason why Dr Tony Tan failed to gain more electoral support in 2011 was because of the public perception that he was an extension of the party political leadership, rather than a genuinely non-partisan figurehead who represented the interests of all Singaporeans.

Hence, in order to prevent the politicisation of the Presidency, Singaporeans with any prior party affiliations should be barred from competing in the elections. This segues into my broader point: That an attempt to convert the Elected Presidency into a Parliamentary Appointed Presidency will be interpreted by Singaporeans as a severe politicisation of the position, regardless of the government’s actual intentions. It is important that the President be chosen directly by Singaporeans, because this confers substantial democratic legitimacy to the eventual appointment-holder. A President intended to be of the people and for the people should be elected by the people.


2 Replies to “My Thoughts on Reviewing the Elected Presidency”

  1. ‘Gifting’ minorities with the elected presidency can only work against them as it could lead to a sense of entitlement and complacency in them. It obviously contradicts all that the govt wants to be seen as its overarching consideration in the governance of Singapore. It can also be interpreted as a means to hold back the social, political and economic development of the minorities thereby increasing their dependencies and by the same token diminishing their abilities to learn to’ fish’ ( read, think) for themselves.
    Yet another Machiavellian stroke of the govt.


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