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Commentary: The roles and reality of Singapore’s Elected Presidency

Do Singaporeans really understand the role of the Elected President? Ahead of the Constitutional Commission’s recommendations upon its review of the scheme, Kevin Tan recaps the basics. Catch ‘Electing a President’, Aug 16, at 8pm.

Commentary: The roles and reality of Singapore’s Elected Presidency

The Constitutional Commission held a series of public hearings in April and May 2016, as part of its review of the Elected Presidency. (Photo: TODAY)

Do Singaporeans really understand the role of the Elected President? Ahead of the Constitutional Commission’s recommendations upon its review of the scheme, Kevin Tan recaps the basics. Catch ‘Electing a President’, Aug 16, at 8pm.

SINGAPORE: If you find Singapore’s elected presidency system complicated and confusing, don’t despair. It is.

Before Parliament passed amendments to create this office in 1991, the Constitution was a good one-third thinner than it now is. Traditionally, Singapore operated a Westminster system of government where real power resides with the head of government, while the head of state performs a largely ceremonial role and has very limited real powers.

Prior to 1991, the President could exercise his or her discretion on three matters only: The appointment of the Prime Minister; declaring the office of the Prime Minister vacant; and refusing a request to dissolve Parliament.

In all other matters, the President would only act upon the advice of the Cabinet.

All this changed when the office was transformed into an elected one.

The moves for such a transformation came in the aftermath of the 1984 general election, when then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew voiced his concern that if a “rogue government” were voted into office, there were no safeguards to protect Singapore’s financial reserves and the integrity of its public service.

As Mr Lee explained in 2011, “if you change all the permanent secretaries, military chiefs, commissioner of police, heads of statutory boards, then you’ll ruin the system. For five years, the President can prevent that. And our past reserves cannot be raided.”

HEIGHTENED POWERS - BUT STILL LIMITED

Thus, constitutional amendments were made to strengthen the President’s office and give him or her additional discretionary powers with respect to four specific areas: One, the drawing down of Singapore’s reserves. Two, appointment of key civil servants. Three, detention or further detention of persons under Singapore’s preventive detention laws. And four, issuing of prohibition orders under the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.

The President is obliged to consult (but not necessarily follow) the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) before exercising his functions with respect to the first two additional responsibilities. The CPA comprises six members, two appointed by the President, two by the Prime Minister, and one each by the Chief Justice and the Chairman of the Public Service Commission.

While the President’s role was clearly heightened, his powers are still very limited.

Thus, when two candidates in the 2011 Presidential election suggested enlarging the role of the Presidency, they received a stiff rebuff from Law Minister K Shanmugam.

Mr Tan Kin Lian had stated that if elected, he would issue an annual report on the country’s reserves, while Mr Tan Jee Say suggested that the President be “the conscience of the nation” so that he could “provide real and effective checks and balances on the excesses of the PAP government”.

Since its inception in 1993, Singapore’s Elected President has only once been called upon to exercise his discretionary powers. This occurred in February 2009 in the midst of the international financial crisis, when President SR Nathan agreed to approve a S$4.5 billion drawdown on Singapore’s reserves to enable the Government to proceed with its S$20.5 billion Resilience Package.

WHO QUALIFIES?

Significantly, the office was made an elected, rather than an appointed, one. Election of the President would, so the logic went, give the elected person the “mandate” and legitimacy to check the elected Government. Yet, to maintain neutrality and objectivity, all candidates for the presidency could not be members of any political party.

(Interestingly, the Presidential Elections Act provided that if there is only one candidate, that candidate would be declared “elected” as President. Thus, in 1999 and 2005, when Mr SR Nathan was the sole candidate, he was declared Singapore’s Elected President.)

To ensure that only the most highly-qualified persons are eligible to contest the presidential office, stringent requirements have been included in the Constitution.

A candidate has to be a Singapore citizen, at least 45 years old, and have held high office for at least 3 years in a number of capacities listed in Article 19(2)(g) of the Constitution.

These capacities are Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker, Attorney-General, Chairman of the Public Service Commission, Auditor-General, Permanent Secretary, chairman or chief executive officer of one of the following: Board of Commissioners of Currency, the Central Provident Fund Board, the Housing and Development Board, Jurong Town Corporation, Monetary Authority of Singapore and the Post Office Savings Bank.

A person may also be a candidate if he or she is the chairman of the board of directors or CEO of a company with a paid-up capital of at least S$100 million.

In addition to these onerous qualification criteria, all candidates must satisfy the Presidential Elections Committee that they are persons “of integrity, good character and reputation.”

DON’T EXPECT MAJOR CHANGES

It has been 25 years since the Elected Presidency scheme was created. In February this year, the Government appointed a nine-member Constitutional Commission to review three aspects of the scheme.

These are whether the eligibility criteria needs to be updated; whether the views of the CPA should be given greater weight; and how to ensure that ethnic minorities have the chance to be “periodically elected to Presidential office”.

The Commission - which received more than 100 written submissions from the public - is expected to release its reports in the next month or so. The Commission’s recommendations will be presented to Parliament, which will no doubt debate them and consider them for implementation before next year’s Presidential elections.

Can we expect major changes in the scheme? No. This is a limited exercise in fine-tuning the system rather than a comprehensive review of the system.

The limited role of the President - already pared down since its 1991 iteration - may well be pared down further, if the Commission recommends enlarging the role of the CPA. At the same time, the eligibility criteria could be tightened further to reduce the pool of presidential candidates.

ETHNICALLY ENGINEERED?

The most difficult recommendation for the Commission would be in respect of how to ensure that ethnic minority candidates are periodically elected into office.

By turning the office of the President into a competitive one, nothing short of an ethnically-engineered electoral process - such as we have with the Group Representation Constituency system - can guarantee the election of minority candidates into office.

And what about the election system? Will a run-off system be instituted to ensure that if no candidate is elected with a majority - which happened in 2011 - a second round of voting, pitting the top two candidates against each other, produces a President with a clear majoritarian mandate?

Whatever the Commission’s recommendations, and Parliament’s decision thereon, the Elected Presidency system looks set to be a key part of our political landscape for the foreseeable future.

Dr Kevin Tan, an Adjunct Professor with the Faculty of Law at the National University of Singapore, was among the 19 groups and individuals who gave their views at the public hearings before the Constitutional Commission in April and May this year. He appears on the Channel NewsAsia special, Electing the President, premiering on Tuesday, Aug 16, at 8pm.

Source: CNA/yv

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