SINGAPORE: The next Presidential Election due next year will be reserved for Malay candidates, based on the hiatus-triggered model, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Parliament on Tuesday (Nov 8).
Mr Lee also said that as the Constitutional Amendment Bill states that the Government should legislate on when the racial provision should start, it intends to do so when amending the Presidential Elections Act in January next year. It will start counting from the first President who exercised the powers of the Elected Presidency, who was Dr Wee Kim Wee.
So for the Presidential Election next year, if a qualified Malay candidate steps up to run, Singapore will have a Malay President again, the Prime Minister said.
“As Minister Yaacob (Ibrahim) noted yesterday, this would be our first after more than 46 years, since our first President Encik Yusof Ishak,” Mr Lee said. “I look forward to this.”
The hiatus-triggered model means that while presidential elections will generally be open to candidates of all races, but if there is not a President from a particular community for five consecutive terms, then the next term will be reserved for a President from that community. This means that in the course of six terms, there should be at least one President from the Chinese, Malay, Indian and other minority communities, provided qualified candidates appear, he explained.
ENSURING MINORITY REPRESENTATION "MOST DIFFICULT QUESTION"
Mr Lee also noted that amongst all the proposed changes in this complicated Bill, the one hardest thought about and where the most is at stake is the question of ensuring multiracial representation in the Elected Presidency.
He said as the Head of State for Singapore, the candidate must represent all Singaporeans and the office must be multiracial. If the President always comes from the same race, not only will the President cease to be a credible symbol of our nation, the very multiracial character of the nation will come into question, the Prime Minister said.
“Every citizen, Chinese, Malay, Indian or some other race, should know that someone of his community can become President, and in fact from time to time, does become President,” Mr Lee said.
He pointed out that Singapore is building a “radically different society”: Multiracial, equal and harmonious, gradually enlarging the shared Singaporean identity while celebrating different cultures and faiths. It is also allowing minority communities ample space to live their own ways of life, and not forcing everybody to conform to a single norm set by a single majority group.
“We have to work consciously and systematically at this,” Mr Lee explained. “It will not happen by itself, nor will we get there if we blithely assume that we have already arrived."
ELECTED PRESIDENT AN "IMPORTANT STABILISER"
The Prime Minister reiterated why the Elected President is an important stabiliser for Singapore, noting that founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew proposed the idea of the office because he was worried that there would be a freak election result one day, and the nest egg of reserves would be “squandered by a profligate Government”.
He added that Singapore’s system is unique and “very difficult to get right because the balance is a delicate one”. This is because the President is a symbolic Head of State but elected through a national ballot, and as such has a popular mandate but not a mandate to govern. The President can also use his mandate to say no in certain specified areas, but not push for policies or to initiate action.
The Prime Minister also argued against vesting the powers of safeguarding Singapore's reserves in the Parliament instead of a separate institution. He said that while it may help, the pressure in Parliament is to do more rather than spend less. Making everything depend on just one institution - the Parliament - "creates a single point of failure", he added.
Doing so will mean everything hinges on the outcome of a single general election, and on the Government elected into Parliament with that one vote every five years, he said.
Mr Lee said the Presidential Election itself presents difficulties, particularly in a fiercely contested campaign where “emotions and sentiments can build up and issues that have nothing to do with the role of the President can become hot”.
He cited the 2011 Presidential Election, when one candidate championed a S$60 billion economic plan supposedly to create jobs and enterprise, while another made proposals such as better recognition for national servicemen and more help for the poor and unemployed.
These, Mr Lee noted, are the Government’s responsibility, and for the Prime Minister and Cabinet to decide. “But in 2011, some candidates’ attitude was: Never mind, just say it. Get elected first, worry about the Constitution later on.”
The Prime Minister referenced the US presidential election, saying that while the two candidates – Mr Donald Trump and Mrs Hillary Clinton – represent radically different world views, people can take some comfort in the strong checks and balances in the US political system.
He cited James Madison, one of the country’s founding fathers, who wrote in the Federalist Papers: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.
“A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
“That is wisdom,” noted Mr Lee, adding that while a system like the US one cannot work for Singapore, the city-state needs some stabiliser besides the primary control of the Government, and that is the Elected President.
CHANGES ARE "MY RESPONSIBILITY": PM
As for the timing of the changes, the Prime Minister reiterated that he has been involved with the Elected Presidency almost from the beginning and knows the system – from the intent and design to how conditions have changed and ideas evolved.
“These changes are my responsibility,” he said, “I am doing it now because it would be irresponsible of me to kick this can down the road and leave the problem to my successors.
“They have not had this long experience with the system, and will find it much harder to deal with.”
In an exclusive interview with Mediacorp in September, Mr Lee said he believed this is something which needs to be done, and if it is not done, this would mean trouble for Singapore – “not today, not tomorrow, but 10 to 15 years’, 20 years’ time definitely”.