SINGAPORE: A mechanism to safeguard minority representation in the Elected Presidency recommended by the Constitutional Commission should not compromise the quality of presidential candidates, Members of Parliament told Channel NewsAsia on Wednesday (Sep 7).
The Commission proposed in its 154-page report that if a member from one racial group has not occupied the President’s office after five continuous terms, the next Presidential election should be be reserved for a candidate from that racial group.
MP for Chua Chu Kang GRC Zaqy Mohamad said such a move would be a good gesture towards minority communities in Singapore, but this does not mean the bar will be set any lower for them.
“The President as a qualified person will be able to perform the role and it’s neither a token symbol nor a role just given out based on the fact that the person is of a certain minority race … I think most of the minority communities recognise that whichever candidate we decide on or gets nominated must fulfil the criteria and the bar must not be set lower than normal,” he said.
However, he said he hopes the "reserved election" would not have to be triggered. “What we should aspire and strive to have is the situation in which we do have a minority President elected and not have to invoke this clause if need be. I see this clause as a safeguard rather than a clause trying to provide some preferential treatment towards a minority,” he added.
MP for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC Alex Yam said he did not think the clause would limit the presidential election to a small pool of candidates, but urged those eligible to step forth.
“The ideal scenario would be - let’s not wait for every five terms as suggested by the Commission before a minority steps forward. I think for every single election, any Singaporean who qualifies regardless of race, should step forward, rather than if you’re Malay, Indian, Chinese, you wait this out until the time comes for me,” said Mr Yam.
The Commission has also recommended stricter qualifying criteria for private sector candidates. It suggested that candidates must be a chairman or chief executive officer of a company with at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity. Currently, the threshold is at least S$100 million in paid-up capital.
As the criteria for presidential candidates was laid out more than 20 years ago, MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC Darryl David said the review was timely.
“It’s not just the case of the economy developing since then, but the fact that things have gotten a lot more developed and complex as well," he said. "Ultimately, what we're looking for are individuals who have had significant hands-on experience successfully managing a large, complex organisation with responsibilities as well, and have managed it successfully."
MP for MacPherson SMC Tin Pei Ling said it is important that the criteria be applied fairly to all candidates regardless of their background or race. "With the enhancing of the criteria, making them more stringent, of course, it will constrain the number of candidates who may qualify. But I think it is a balance that we must strike. It's important that our President has good standing, so this person, this man or woman must have the competence and experience," she said.
Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang said his party's position on the Elected Presidency remains unchanged. The party has said repeatedly that it does not see the need to have an Elected President.
"There are many other mechanisms which the Government could have considered. Our biggest worry is that the elected president with an elected Government may one day end up with a Constitutional crisis,” said Mr Low who is also the MP for Aljunied GRC.
“The assumption has been that the Elected President is to prevent a rogue Government from squandering away the reserves and they always assume that perhaps one day an opposition Government will squander away the reserves. But on the contrary, what is likely to happen is that you have a PAP Government with an Elected President which is from the establishment - both squandering away the national reserves. That to me is the real risk," he added.
Mr Low said WP MPs will be participating in the debate when the issue is aired in Parliament.
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) meantime criticised the Government's move to review the Constitution to pave the way for a minority race President. "Only the very naive will fail to see the move for what it is - to ensure that the PAP's candidate ascends to the office. The EP scheme degenerates into a deeper and bigger political farce," it said in a statement on its website on Thursday.
The Government has said it will publish a White Paper setting out a detailed response to the Commission's report on Sep 15 and Acting Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said there will be "ample opportunity for a full debate" when the Bill to amend the Constitution is tabled for a second reading.
Additional reporting by Liyana Othman.