Review of Elected Presidency: Commission proposes mechanism to safeguard racial representation

Review of Elected Presidency: Commission proposes mechanism to safeguard racial representation

When a member of any racial group has not occupied the President’s office after five continuous terms, the next Presidential election will be reserved for a candidate from that racial group, the Constitutional Commission suggests.

SINGAPORE: The Constitutional Commission tasked with reviewing the Elected Presidency has proposed a mechanism to safeguard representation from minority racial groups.

Contributors at the constitutional hearings had proposed a number of different models for this mechanism, according to the Commission in its report released to the public on Wednesday (Sep 7).

For example, some had proposed a group-representation model similar to the GRC model in parliamentary elections, where teams comprising members of different ethnic groups run for Presidential office on the same ticket. Another alternative was to have pre-assigned cycles, where Presidential elections would proceed in a pre-determined order, with particular elections reserved for persons from a specific ethnic group.

A "RESERVED" ELECTION

But the Commission proposed a hiatus-triggered model instead. This means that when a member from any racial group has not occupied the President’s office after five continuous terms, the next Presidential election will be reserved for a candidate from that racial group. For this purpose, the Commission categorised the relevant racial groups into three: Chinese, Malay and Indian and other communities.

On this basis, a reserved election would be triggered if no candidate from a particular racial group has held the office of President for 30 years or more, said the Commission. It added that the holding of a reserved election triggered by the absence of any Presidents from a specific racial group, will “likely encourage candidates from that group to step forward and contest the next election.”


(Infographic: MCI)

The Commission also noted that under this model, a scenario could possibly arise where more than one racial group are eligible for reserved elections at a given point in time.

This is how it could pan out:

  • A particular election is reserved for racial group A because no candidate from that racial group has been elected for five consecutive terms. If no candidate from racial group A steps forward to contest in that reserved election, the election will be opened to all races.
  • A candidate from racial group B gets elected.
  • By the next election, a candidate from racial group A would not have been elected for six terms. But by then, no candidate from racial group C would have been elected for five terms. Both racial groups would then be eligible for reserved elections.

The Commission said this situation “should be recognised and catered for by prioritising among the groups that have not been represented in the Presidency.” One solution to this would be to reserve the election in question by prioritising the racial group with the longer hiatus. Based on the above example, the election would be reserved for racial group A, while the election after that would be reserved for racial group C.

This approach "enables the representation of all racial groups in the Presidency in a meaningful way while being minimally prescriptive", the Commission said, adding that the process would be "race-neutral as it does not single out any one ethnic group protection".

RACE HAS AN IMPACT ON ‘AT LEAST A PORTION OF THE ELECTORATE’

In explaining the rationale for ensuring representation from all races, the Commission said there is a “pressing need” to ensure that “no ethnic group is shut out of the Presidency…lest the office of President lose its vitality as a symbol of the nation’s unity.”

It added that there are “strong justifications” for introducing some safeguards to ensure that the office is not only accessible, but is seen to be accessible to persons from all the major racial communities in Singapore.

The Commission also highlighted the “crucial symbolic role” performed by the President, who "symbolizes and embodies the nation itself,” it said.

Many contributors have emphasized that the ultimate destination for society should be a “race-blind community where no safeguards are required to ensure that candidates from different ethnic groups are periodically elected into Presidential office,” said the Commission. But it seems to be “common ground” that Singapore as a society “cannot affirmatively say that she has already ‘arrived’,” it added.

Citing empirical data provided by several contributors, the Commission said even those opposed to the introduction of any safeguard mechanisms “did not go so far as to suggest that the race of a candidate was wholly irrelevant to the electorate’s voting behaviour.”

For example, a pair of contributors who were against the imposition of any mechanism directed at ensuring minority representation cited an Institute of Policy Studies survey conducted after the 2011 Presidential Election. One of the survey questions elicited from respondents their reaction to the statement “I believe a person of an ethnic minority group can be elected as president through the current system.”

While the Commission noted the “extremely encouraging result”, where 85 per cent Chinese, 87 per cent Malay, 89 per cent Indian and 75 per cent of respondents from other racial groups saying they either agreed or agreed strongly with the statement, this also means that a “substantial proportion of respondents” of between 11 and 25 per cent of each community either disagreed, disagreed strongly, or failed to voice agreement with that statement.

It added that a margin even of 11 per cent is “very substantial”, and will often be sufficient to decisively swing an election in a moderately close contest between candidates from different racial groups.

NO LOWERING OF ELIGIBILITY STANDARDS

The Commission also reiterated that the eligibility criteria for candidates would not be lowered to accommodate candidates from any particular racial group. It therefore rejected the argument that the introduction of safeguards in this area would undermine meritocracy.

It said that the qualifying criteria are there to ensure only candidates who are likely to have the requisite attributes may run for office. “So long as these criteria remain sufficiently stringent, they will continue to serve their critical function of allowing only persons with the necessary experience and expertise for the job to qualify for the office of President,” it added.

In the report, the Commission also said that the most meritorious candidate may not always be the most electable. “This is especially so in the light of the earlier discussion which suggests that race – a factor which ideally should not impede or encourage a voter to vote for a particular candidate – has an impact on at least a portion of the electorate,” it said.

In a statement, Law Minister K Shanmugam said: “The Government is asking the Attorney-General for advice on certain aspects of the Commission’s proposals to ensure representation of all the major races in the office of the President.
"The Government will announce its position once the AG has given his advice and the Government has considered it.”

Source: CNA/lc