SINGAPORE: A bigger role for the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA), tightening the qualifying criteria for Presidential candidates from the private sector, and holding reserved elections for a particular racial group - these were among key issues several Members of Parliament were looking out for when the Government responded to the Constitutional Commission’s report on the Elected Presidency on Thursday (Sep 15).
“The enhancement of the CPA, with the right balance - in terms of when they can veto and so on - is something I welcome,” said Marine Parade GRC MP Edwin Tong, who had spoken on the issue in Parliament, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong first mooted the proposed changes to the Elected Presidency.
Given that the Government is seeking to uphold the notion of the second key, the President’s responsibility is not to be taken lightly, and it therefore makes sense that the CPA “plays a bigger role”, he elaborated.
ON CHANGES TO THE QUALIFYING CRITERIA
Sembawang GRC MP Vikram Nair thought that the recommendation to update the qualifying criteria for presidential candidates was an important one which the Government accepted.
“The (qualifying) criteria for the private sector was getting dated so that was obviously an important change,” said Mr Vikram Nair, noting that while the Government accepted limiting eligibility to individuals in the most senior executive positions in companies with shareholders’ equity of S$500 million, it is retaining the existing tenure requirements for all candidates, across the private and public sector.
“Basically (it’s) saying that we’ll raise the bar, but not too fast, too suddenly,” he noted.
When asked about the perception among some members of the public that the change favours public servants, including the Speaker of Parliament, the Chief Justice, and Permanent Secretaries, Mr Tong said: “I don’t see it that way. I think it’s just seeking a relative balance. For this, as well as the other criteria for qualification, there’ll be some view as to whether it’s meant for (certain) individuals - (to keep them) either in or out.”
Under the updated criteria, 2011 Presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock, who lost to current President Tony Tan by 7,382 votes - or 0.35 percentage point - would not qualify. He held a non-executive position at a company which did not meet the minimum threshold of having S$500 million in shareholders’ equity.
Mr Tong, who is also the deputy chairperson for the Government Parliamentary Committee for Law and Home Affairs added: “I suppose there’ll be all this debate but you have got to look at it objectively and see whether or not, these criteria taken as a whole, really raise the benchmark and gives you the best possible chance of good candidates coming forward.”
ON RESERVED ELECTIONS
Jurong GRC MP Rahayu Mahzam told Channel NewsAsia she had wanted to know whether there would be safeguards ensuring minority representation in the Presidency.
“Honestly, when this issue was first raised, as a minority, I was concerned about the issue of tokenism,” said Ms Rahayu, adding that she accepts such concerns need to be balanced out with the significance of the President's symbolic role in Singapore’s multiracial context.
“While we aspire to be race blind, we are not quite there yet. We are acknowledging some weaknesses in the existing system and doing something about it,” said Ms Rahayu.
In its White Paper, the Government agreed with the Constitutional Commission’s view that there is a need for such a safeguard. It also accepted the Commission’s proposal of holding a reserved election, if a particular racial group has not held the office of President for 30 years (five terms) or more.
Speaking from his experience at dialogue sessions, Mr Nair said that people did have reservations about "whether affirmative action.. should be given to minority candidates", but they became a lot less resistant to the idea of the reserved election once they understood the framework.
"By and large, if people are right, that minorities are not disadvantaged and minorities do get elected, then the reserve provision doesn't kick in... In the ideal world when we’ve moved beyond race issues, then this reserve provision will never kick in," he said.
Another issue that caught MPs' attention was the Commission’s recommendation to institute rules governing campaign methods and preventing misinformation. The recommendation, which is aimed at addressing the politicisation of the Presidential elections, does not fall within the scope of the review and is being studied by the Government.
“(This is) important because elections can be quite divisive and not good for our country if there is misinformation,” said Ms Rahayu.
When contacted by Channel NewsAsia, Workers' Party (WP) Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh said the party’s MPs will reserve individual comments and wait for the Bill to be debated in Parliament. The WP, which has been against the concept of the Elected Presidency since it was mooted, has called for it to be abolished.