SINGAPORE: Former presidential hopeful Tan Cheng Bock has called on the Government to make the upcoming Presidential Election an open election.
Speaking to reporters at a press conference on Friday (Mar 31), he asked if it was correct to make the upcoming election a reserved one.
Under changes to the Constitution passed in November, if there is not a President from a particular racial community for five consecutive terms, then the next term will be reserved for a President from that community. Last March, Dr Tan announced that he would again contest the next Presidential Election. But the announcement in November that the next election - to be held in September this year - would be reserved for Malay candidates precluded him from running.
On Friday, Dr Tan said that the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) had advised the Prime Minister to start counting the five terms from President Wee Kim Wee - who served one term from 1985 to 1993 - in looking at the new electoral process.
Since Dr Wee, there have been three elected Presidents who served four terms between them: Mr Ong Teng Cheong, Mr S R Nathan and incumbent Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam. As none of them were Malay, the next Presidential Election should be reserved for a Malay candidate under the new rules, if Dr Wee's term was the first one counted.
However, Dr Tan argued that the counting should begin from Mr Ong's term from 1993 to 1999, instead of Dr Wee's.
"In all my 26 years in Parliament, we have always referred to Mr Ong Teng Cheong as the first elected President," he said. "Even the commission's report contains a statement referring to President Ong as the first elected President."
Dr Wee exercised the powers of the Elected Presidency for almost two years - from November 1991 to September 1993. The Constitution says the then incumbent president - namely, President Wee - “shall exercise, perform and discharge all the functions, powers and duties conferred or imposed upon the office of President ... as if he had been elected to the office of President by the citizens of Singapore”.
Dr Tan invited the Government to explain whether the AGC's interpretation is correct, or to check with the courts to verify its accuracy.
"I am concerned that our EP (Elected Presidency) will always be tainted with the suspicion that the reserved election of 2017 was introduced to prevent my candidacy."
PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES "TRIGGERED" SOMETHING IN MY MIND: DR TAN
After the report was submitted last August, Dr Tan wrote in a Facebook post that members of the public should not “jump to conclusions” that the proposed changes were intended to prevent him from contesting.
Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam had also said the changes to the Elected Presidency were not targeted at any individuals.
Asked why he did not voice out his views earlier, Dr Tan said he "did not want to interfere" during the Parliamentary debates and was initially quite "resigned" to not being able to stand for the election.
"But it triggered in my mind that it was something that I had missed," he said on Friday.
"I know some of you were wondering why I stayed silent so long, and on my Facebook. When I stay silent, always remember that I'm thinking. That's important."
"IF I DON'T BECOME YOUR PRESIDENT, NEVER MIND"
In response to a question as to whether an open election would give him a chance to stand, given that he may not qualify under the revised criteria for private sector companies office holders who must have been the chief executive of a company with S$500 million shareholders’ equity, Dr Tan said that he was speaking up not for himself, but for “Singaporeans at large”.
“If I don’t become your president, never mind. I want you all to understand that you must speak and do what you believe in.”
Nonetheless, Dr Tan added that if the next Presidential Election was an open one, he would present his credentials to the selection committee and let them decide.
Dr Tan, 76, ran for the last Presidential Election in 2011. He received 738,311 (34.85 per cent) of a total of 2,156,389 valid votes, losing to incumbent President Tony Tan Keng Yam by 7,382 votes. The other two candidates were Mr Tan Jee Say and Mr Tan Kin Lian.
MATTER HAS BEEN DEBATED EXTENSIVELY FOR A YEAR: GOVERNMENT
Speaking on behalf of the Government, a spokesman from the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) said Dr Tan "has not raised any new points that require response".
The MCI spokesman added that for more than a year, the matter has been considered and debated extensively, including the forming of a Constitutional Commission chaired by the Chief Justice which undertook extensive consultations and public hearings on the Elected Presidency.
"Dr Tan did not participate in those hearings or give his views to the Commission. The Government gave its response to the Commission’s report in a White Paper, and Parliament debated the matter over three days, before passing amendments to the Constitution," said the spokesman.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong first announced that there would be a review of the Elected Presidency system covering the qualifying criteria for candidacy in January last year.
The Constitutional Commission, chaired by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, was tasked to study if the qualifying criteria for candidacy should be updated as well as the framework governing the exercise of the President’s custodial powers.
From Feb 18 to Mar 21 last year, the commission's secretariat sought public feedback on the qualifying process for candidacy for the Elected President. It received more than 100 written submissions and also conducted public hearings in April and May, where contributors of 20 written submissions on specific aspects of the Elected Presidency were invited to make oral representations and provide clarifications.
Before the Bill to amend the constitution was finally passed on Nov 9 last year, there was an intense three-day debate in Parliament where several Members of Parliament (MPs) and Nominated MPs raised issues such as the need for a more holistic qualifying criteria and concerns over race.