Thursday, 8 September 2016

Elected Presidency Constitutional Commission Report 2016

Elected Presidency: Report of the Constitutional Commission 2016

Panel proposes key changes to elected presidency
It suggests raising eligibility criteria and introducing way to ensure minority president
By Zakir Hussain, Political Editor, The Straits Times, 8 Sep 2016

Significant changes are set to be made to the elected presidency to ensure candidates are amply qualified and representative of Singapore's multiracial society.

A Constitutional Commission has suggested that the bar to contest presidential elections be updated to reflect the growth of the economy and the national reserves.

Candidates from the private sector should have been the top executive of a company with at least $500 million in shareholders' equity, a change from the current rule requiring the person to have been chairman or chief executive of a company with paid-up capital of at least $100 million.

A special provision has also been recommended to guarantee that the highest office is accessible - and attainable - by members of the country's minority communities.

If someone from any of three racial groups - Chinese, Malay, or Indian and Others - has not been president for five terms, the next election should be reserved for members of that race.

This means that if the proposed provision takes effect immediately, the next election would be reserved for only Malay candidates. And if there are no presidents from the Indian and Others group elected after that, the 2041 election would be reserved for a candidate from that group.

The size and structure of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) should be strengthened too, and it should be consulted on all fiscal matters on the reserves and all key public service appointments.

Details of the recommendations by the nine-member panel are set out in a 154-page report that the Government released yesterday.

The commission was set up seven months ago to review three aspects of the 25-year-old elected presidency: the qualifying process, ensuring minority representation, and the framework by which the president exercises his custodial powers, in particular the CPA's role.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is in Laos for Asean meetings, said in a letter to the commission chairman, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, that the Government accepted in principle the main recommendations. Acting Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said the commission had produced a "comprehensive and thoughtful report, after an extensive process to solicit views from the public".

The Government will give a detailed response in a White Paper next Thursday. It will then table constitutional amendments and have a full debate in Parliament.

The panel also gave its views on some matters beyond its terms of reference, and PM Lee said the Government will study them seriously. In particular, it suggested the Government consider a return to a president appointed by Parliament if and when it was fit and timely to do so.

PM Lee said: "While I appreciate the commission's reasons for this suggestion, as the Government has pointed out even when the scheme was first conceived, it would be difficult for a president to exercise custodial powers over the reserves and public service appointments, and veto proposals by the Government, without an electoral mandate."

Likewise, the panel noted that founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had said the president must be elected to have the moral authority to say no to a Government that might wish to spend past reserves.

Though the custodial role has been in focus in recent years, the panel stressed the president's historical role as a unifying symbol of the nation was equally important.

The next presidential election is due in August next year. The previous election in 2011 was hotly contested and saw four candidates deemed eligible. The commission noted that some of them did not seem to understand the role and remit of the president, and made campaign promises they could not keep if elected.

To avoid misleading voters, the panel called for rules to make sure candidates know what the president can and cannot do.

The commission also sought the views of President Tony Tan Keng Yam, and former president S R Nathan before he died last month.

Dr Tan said yesterday the amendments "will be a milestone for Singapore in ensuring the elected presidency scheme stays relevant with time and in our local context".

He also said he would study the report and give his views when Parliament debates the changes this year.

Several contributors had also suggested deferring the changes so candidates who meet existing rules would not be excluded next year.

Under the proposed eligibility criteria, only two of the candidates in the 2011 election would qualify if the 2017 election is open: Dr Tony Tan and Mr Tan Kin Lian. The other two, Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Mr Tan Jee Say, would not qualify.

The commission said when the changes take effect "was a political matter for Parliament to determine". "Moreover, the Commission observes that it would be incongruous for it to conclude that changes are called for to safeguard the nation's vital interests, but for it then also to propose... that these be deferred for at least seven years."

Govt broadly accepts panel's main proposals
By Royston Sim, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 8 Sep 2016

The Government has accepted in principle the main recommendations laid out by a panel that reviewed the elected presidency.

In a statement yesterday, Acting Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said the Government will also provide a detailed response to the Constitutional Commission's report in a White Paper next Thursday.

A Constitutional Amendment Bill will subsequently be tabled in Parliament, and the issue debated.

In its report, the commission recommended, among other things, that a presidential election be set aside for candidates of a particular race, if no one of that race has been elected president after five continuous terms.

In his statement, Mr Teo, the Deputy Prime Minister, said every community in Singapore "must feel that a member of their community has a chance to become president".

He was heartened that some people, including those from minority races, argued for a meritocratic approach in which the best person is elected regardless of race.

Even so, the Government has always ensured that "even as we practise meritocracy, all races in Singapore feel that they have a place and equal opportunities". Citing the group representation constituency system which ensures a minimum number of minority-race MPs, he said it has "contributed to maintaining our harmonious multiracial society, though some had objected when it was first introduced".

Mr Teo, who is Acting Prime Minister as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is in Laos for the Asean summit, stressed that minority representation does not mean the qualifying criteria will be lowered.

"Every potential candidate, no matter his race, must still meet the same stringent eligibility criteria to qualify for elections," he said.

The commission also proposed changes to tighten eligibility criteria for potential candidates from the public and private sectors. One key change is that a candidate must have had experience running large, complex companies with $500 million in shareholders' equity, up from the current benchmark of $100 million in paid-up capital.

Mr Teo said it is timely to update the criteria now, as the "scale and complexity" of the president's responsibilities have grown.

"The commission has struck a balance in its recommendations on the eligibility criteria," he said.

The panel also proposed that the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) be expanded and its views be given greater weight when the president and Government disagree. While the Government agrees in principle with the proposals on the CPA, Mr Teo said the details must be studied carefully to ensure the council is not politicised.

The commission also made several suggestions outside its terms of reference, such as having laws to ensure presidential candidates do not mislead voters. In his letter to commission chairman Sundaresh Menon, PM Lee said the Government will "study these views seriously".

Elected presidency report: Panel floats idea of returning to an appointed president
Specialist body could take on custodial role, it says; PM reiterates need for elected president
By Royston Sim, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 8 Sep 2016

To resolve the tension between the symbolic and custodial roles of the president, a panel tasked with reviewing the elected presidency has suggested that the Government consider "unbundling" those functions at some point.

In its report published yesterday, the Constitutional Commission also floated the idea of doing away with elections and having Parliament appoint a head of state who will focus on the historic role of being a symbolic, unifying figure for the nation.

The president's custodial role of safeguarding the reserves and the integrity of the public service could be assumed by a group of appointed experts instead.

As the person holding the second key to past reserves - a role introduced when the office was transformed into an elected one in 1991 - the president could potentially have to confront the Government.

"While the prospect for confrontation necessitates that the president hold the legitimacy and authority that comes from having an elected mandate, it seems out of place for persons seeking a non-partisan unifying office to have to go through a national election, which will likely be politicised and divisive," the commission said.

So it has suggested returning to the pre-1991 system of having an appointed president.

A specialist body could then be appointed to take over the president's functional role.

This suggestion was first mooted by Raffles Medical Group executive chairman Loo Choon Yong and his brother Choon Chiaw, a lawyer, during a public hearing held by the commission in May.

While acknowledging that the matter was clearly beyond its terms of reference and a political question, the commission said that in the course of its review, it considered how any weakness in the elected presidency could be overcome by an alternative design.

In laying out its proposals on decoupling the roles and returning to an appointed presidency, the commission said its views provide context for further debate on the issue, "if the Government deems it fit and profitable".

In a letter to commission chair Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he appreciates the commission's reasons for this suggestion, but reiterated the need for an elected president.

In its report, the commission said the presidency should remain an elected office if it retains its custodial functions. Yet this key role as a "check" on the Government might incentivise presidential candidates to campaign on an anti-government platform, and clash with the authorities over policies after being elected, it said.

The commission also noted that individuals who have the qualifications and expertise to exercise the president's custodial powers may not also possess the traits required for the symbolic role - namely the ability to connect with and represent the general populace.

It proposed separating the president's custodial role by having an appointed council of experts that could delay government measures, force a debate on them and require a super-majority in Parliament to override its objections.

However, such a council would lack the powers to absolutely block or veto government initiatives.

There should be strict eligibility criteria for members, to ensure the council functions independently and has the necessary expertise to carry out its supervisory role, the commission said.

It said it took guidance from the Westminster system, where the House of Lords - the second chamber of the British Parliament where members are mainly appointed - has the power to delay, but not block, the vast majority of Bills passed.

As for whether an appointed president could function as a check on the Government, the commission said it is critical that someone in this role be independent.

It said: "With the appointed body taking over the elected president's custodial role, the president can then focus on his historical role of being a symbolic unifying figure."


We have thought out some blocking mechanisms so that no government can spend previously built-up reserves... And I think we should have a president with a moral authority to block it. The thing has to be thought out very carefully because... there's bound to be a row when a president says 'no' to a newly elected prime minister. Flush with victory, he wants to fulfil his election promises... How do we do this? I think the president has to be elected.

- THEN PRIME MINISTER LEE KUAN YEW, introducing the idea of an elected presidency at the National Day Rally in 1984.

Commission's terms of reference
The Straits Times, 8 Sep 2016

In January, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that he would appoint a Constitutional Commission to study and recommend improvements to the elected presidency.

The nine-member panel's terms of reference spanned three areas.

First, review the eligibility criteria for presidential candidates. It had to consider the president's custodial role over the reserves and public service, and ensure individuals had the character, experience and ability to do the job with "dignity and distinction".

Second, recommend provisions to ensure minority candidates have "fair and adequate opportunity" to be elected, given the president's status as a unifying figure who represents a multiracial Singapore.

Third, consider refinements to the role and composition of the Council of Presidential Advisers. This is to ensure that key decisions are made after careful consideration by people with substantial and suitable experience in the public and private sectors.

Formally appointed on Feb 10, the panel was chaired by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon. The remaining eight members are:

• Public Service Commission chairman Eddie Teo;

• Supreme Court Judge Tay Yong Kwang;

• Former Speaker of Parliament Abdullah Tarmugi;

• Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee;

• Mr Chua Thian Poh, chairman and CEO of Ho Bee Land;

•  Mr Philip Ng, CEO of Far East Organization;

• Mr Peter Seah, chairman of DBS Bank; and

• Mr Wong Ngit Liong, chairman and CEO of Venture Corporation. The commission invited people to submit their views from Feb 18 to March 21, and received more than 100 written submissions.

It heard oral representations from 19 individuals and groups at public hearings that took place over four days in April and May.

It gave the report to PM Lee on Aug 17, six months after its appointment.

Raising bar on eligibility to ensure experience, expertise for the job
Elected president has to deal with complex issues as guardian of national reserves
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 8 Sep 2016

Broad changes to tighten the eligibility criteria for presidential candidates from the public and private sectors have been recommended by the Constitutional Commission.

The changes are to ensure that whoever is elected has the expertise and experience to carry out the president's duties as guardian of the national reserves, which will involve complex and highly technical issues, the commission said in its report made public yesterday.

The commission, chaired by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, was appointed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in February to review the institution of the elected presidency. It submitted its report to Mr Lee last month.

One key proposal is that potential candidates must have served six years in a public or private sector position which qualifies them to stand for election. This is double the current requirement of three years.

To ensure that a candidate's experience is current, the commission recommended that the entire period of the candidate's qualifying tenure must be within 15 years before the nomination day of the presidential election.

This means if the presidential election takes place in August next year, a potential candidate must have held his qualifying position for at least six years since 2002.

Another significant proposed change is to the current criterion that a candidate must have had experience running large, complex companies that have a paid-up capital of $100 million.

The commission suggests revising the amount to $500 million in shareholders' equity, as it is a better indicator of a company's size and complexity. "Unlike paid-up capital, shareholders' equity reflects the company's current (and not just its historical) recorded worth," the report explained.

The $500 million figure was derived after considering the magnitude of the decisions that a president may have to make, and the confidence he must have in making decisions involving very large sums of money, including from the reserves.

The $500 million figure should also be reviewed periodically. This could be done a year before every alternate presidential election, the commission proposed.

"Quantitative thresholds cannot remain fixed in perpetuity for the self-evident reason that the economic situation in a country, or, for that matter, even the value of money in real terms, does not remain static," the report said.

The commission also said that only the person holding the most senior executive position who "bears the ultimate weight of responsibility for the fate of a company" should be eligible. Current rules allow the chairman or chief executive of a qualifying company to stand.

But this places "undue emphasis on form rather than substance", the commission said, noting that a non-executive chairman not actively running a company would not have the necessary expertise.

The commission also proposed a profitability requirement to show that a potential candidate performed acceptably while helming a company. The firm should have recorded a net profit during the candidate's time heading it. The company must also not go into liquidation or insolvency within three years of the candidate's departure.

The commission said public sector candidates should not be subject to a similar performance assessment, as it is harder to measure the performance of a public sector entity whose task is to advance the public interest and whose policies may bear fruit only in the long run.

But the commission said its proposal to double the duration which applicants must have served in the qualifying office will be an "indirect indication" of performance for public sector candidates, as it will "filter out those who were either removed or not reappointed because they had been found wanting".

Key public service appointment holders who qualify include ministers, the Chief Justice, Speaker of Parliament, Attorney-General and permanent secretaries.

The commission said the Accountant-General and Auditor-General should be removed from the list for automatic qualification as they do not deal with the pressures of government decision-making, and "play an indispensable but ultimately ancillary (and comparatively narrow) role" in public service.

The commission also noted that it received feedback that raising the eligibility criteria will shrink the pool of potential candidates.

But it said that "an undue focus on the size of the pool is a distraction from the real task at hand, which is to ensure that candidates possess the requisite qualifications to satisfactorily discharge the responsibilities of the office".


Quantitative thresholds cannot remain fixed in perpetuity for the self-evident reason that the economic situation in a country, or, for that matter, even the value of money in real terms, does not remain static. A quantitative threshold set some decades ago is simply not likely to be meaningful today.

- THE CONSTITUTIONAL COMMISSION, on the need for thresholds to remain relevant and be updated periodically.

Key recommendations on eligibility
The Straits Times, 8 Sep 2016

Key recommendations of the Constitutional Commission on the eligibility criteria:

• Potential candidates must have served six years in a public or private sector position which qualifies them to stand for election.

• To ensure a candidate's experience is current, the entire period of the candidate's qualifying tenure must fall within 15 years before nomination day of the presidential election.

• A candidate must have experience running large, complex companies with at least $500 million in shareholders' equity.

• Only the person holding the most senior executive position who "bears the ultimate weight of responsibility for the fate of a company" should be eligible.

• The company should have recorded a net profit during the time the candidate was heading it. The company must also not go into liquidation or insolvency within three years of the candidate's departure.

• Remove the Accountant-General and Auditor-General from the list of key public service appointment holders who automatically qualify to run for president. This is because they "play an indispensable but ultimately ancillary (and comparatively narrow) role" in public service.

PM Lee on elected presidency: Enough qualified candidates even with more stringent qualifying criteria
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 9 Sep 2016

There are enough qualified Singaporeans of all races to vie for the post of elected president, even with the qualifying criteria looking set to become more stringent, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

"There are qualified Malays, there are qualified Singaporeans of all races," he told Singapore reporters in an interview in Laos after the Asean summits. Mr Lee was asked if there were enough qualified Malay candidates for the elected presidency (EP), after the Government accepted in principle on Wednesday the main recommendations of a Constitutional Commissionto review aspects of the institution.

Its key proposals included a requirement that a private-sector candidate should have led a company with $500 million in shareholders' equity, a change from the current $100 million in paid-up capital. Mr Lee said the Government wants the criteria strengthened to ensure the elected president is well qualified.

And the commission proposed an election be reserved for one of the three racial groups (Chinese, Malay, or Indian and Others) if no one of that race has held the post for five terms. "We minimise the risk that we will not have minorities become president from time to time. That is very important, I've explained this multiple times," said Mr Lee, adding: "They've made a good proposal."

The Government will respond in a White Paper next Thursday.

Change to company size threshold will not shrink candidate pool
By Chia Yan Min, Economics Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 Sep 2016

Singapore's economic growth over the years has produced a large number of big companies, so much so that changing the threshold of a company's size will not shrink the pool of eligible candidates, said the report on the elected presidency review.

It was addressing a key concern raised by people who made submissions to it. They said too high a bar may limit the pool of candidates.

But the Constitutional Commission has proposed that private-sector candidates should have experience in running a company with at least $500 million in shareholders' equity, which refers to a company's total assets less its total liabilities. It said this threshold "is not so high as to dramatically shrink the pool of potentially qualified persons".

The current threshold is $100 million in paid-up capital, which is the amount of money a company had received from investors who bought its shares.

The report, released yesterday, noted that more companies today can meet the proposed threshold of $500 million in shareholders' equity than the number that met the current requirement established in 1993, shortly after elected presidency was introduced.

Explaining why the current threshold may no longer be appropriate, the report said the Singapore economy has grown significantly since 1993.

"Not all the companies with a paid-up capital of $100 million would have the size or complexity that companies which satisfied the threshold in 1991 did,'' it added.

An estimated 158 Singapore-incorporated companies met the $100 million paid-up capital criterion in 1993. These were the top 0.2 per cent of the 80,000 Singapore companies then.

In comparison, there were 691 Singapore companies with share- holders' equity of or exceeding $500 million in March this year, according to Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (Acra) figures. This is about 0.23 per cent of all Singapore-incorporated companies. The actual number is likely to be higher since about 80 per cent of companies do not file their financial statements with Acra.

Also, there may be companies that do not meet the existing threshold because their paid-up capital is below $100 million, but they may satisfy the proposed $500 million shareholders' equity cut-off, particularly if the company has grown significantly.

In March this year, there were 94 public-listed companies that met or exceeded the proposed $500 million shareholders' equity threshold. They include Singapore Post, property developers Frasers Centrepoint, City Developments Limited and CapitaLand, and local banks DBS, UOB and OCBC.

Shareholders' equity 'is a better measure'
By Chia Yan Min, Economics Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 Sep 2016

Shareholders' equity should replace paid-up capital as a measure of the size and complexity of companies, said the panel reviewing the elected presidency.

Unlike paid-up capital, share- holders' equity reflects more clearly a company's current value, the report added.

Shareholders' equity refers to a company's total assets minus its total liabilities, while paid-up capital is the amount of money a company has received from investors buying its shares.

There are several advantages in using paid-up capital as a criterion, the report said.

First, it is a convenient measure because the paid-up capital of all Singapore companies, including private firms, is known.

Second, paid-up capital is more stable than other measures, such as net assets or net revenue, which tend to fluctuate.

But it may not give an accurate measure of a company's current size, or the value and complexity of its operations, because paid-up capital is a historical measure that may not reflect the growth or decline of a company's assets over time, the report said.

For instance, a company with significant paid-up capital at its inception may see its reserves deplete over time if growth stagnates and debts build up.

On the flip side, a company with modest beginnings can grow over time by investing in its assets or accumulating funds. It may not necessarily raise money by issuing shares.

In both cases, paid-up capital would not reflect accurately the company's size.

Shareholders' equity would be a better measure, the report said.

Other possible indicators, such as a company's net tangible assets and its market capitalisation, were considered by the commission.

Net tangible assets, however, are not as comprehensive a measure as shareholders' equity, which takes into account both tangible and intangible assets.

Market capitalisation applies only to public-listed companies and is subject to significant volatility generated by the trading of their shares in the stock market.

Safeguard to ensure minority president from time to time
Pressing need to make sure no racial group is shut out of presidency but eligibility criteria must not be lowered
By Tham Yuen-C, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 8 Sep 2016

If Singapore has not had a president from a particular racial group for five continuous terms, the next presidential election should be reserved for candidates from that group, a high-level panel tasked to review the elected presidency proposed.

This ensures that the highest office in the land can be held periodically by someone from a minority community, which is crucial as the president symbolises the nation and should reflect its multiracialism, said the Constitutional Commission.

But it made clear that the eligibility criteria for candidates must not be lowered for anyone from particular racial groups to qualify.

The recommendation addresses a much-debated aspect which the commission was asked to look at by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong: whether there should be a special provision in the law to ensure that Singapore has minority presidents from time to time.

The commission, chaired by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, concluded that it is necessary as Singapore is still working towards the ideal of being race-blind, but is not there yet.

In the meantime, there is a pressing need to ensure that no racial group is shut out of the presidency, said the commission.

The country has not had a Malay president since Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak held the post from 1965 to 1970. Before independence, he had been Yang di-Pertuan Negara of the State of Singapore, the precursor to the presidency, from 1959 until 1965.

In its report to PM Lee, the commission said it is vital that minority candidates do not see the presidency as unattainable. So there are "strong justifications" for introducing safeguards that make sure the office "is not only accessible, but is seen to be accessible, to persons from all the major racial communities in Singapore", it added.

To achieve this, it proposed a safeguard that kicks in only when there has been no president from any racial group for five terms, which works out to 30 years.

But if no qualified candidate of the particular race emerges, then that election will be opened to candidates of all races. The subsequent election will then be reserved again for candidates of the particular race.

Asked about this proposal, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said the Government is asking the Attorney-General (A-G) for advice on aspects of the commission's recommendations to ensure representation of all the major races in the office of the president.

"The Government will announce its position once the A-G has given his advice and the Government has considered it," he said.

The commission, in recommending the model, said it is the least intrusive way of ensuring minority representation.

For one thing, the provision is race-neutral and does not single out any one racial group for protection. It also has a "natural sunset" as it may never be triggered if presidents from various racial groups are elected during open elections.

Said the commission: "It enables the representation of all racial groups in the presidency in a meaningful way while being minimally prescriptive."

There is also no danger of undermining meritocracy, as long as candidates are held to the same stringent qualifying standards for all elections, it added.

This was an area of concern raised during the commission's hearings in April and May, by some groups and individuals who felt that reserving elections for particular racial groups would result in a president being elected by virtue of his race and not his abilities.

Some others had been against having a special provision, saying it may lead to calls for similar safeguards for other public offices.

But this argument, the commission said, failed to recognise the unique symbolic function that the president plays. "No other public office - not that of the prime minister, the chief justice or the Speaker of Parliament - is intended to be a personification of the state and a symbol of the nation's unity in the way that the presidency is."

The commission also said that "placing undue focus on the custodial role, to the exclusion of the symbolic, would oversimplify what is in truth a multifaceted institution".

While a key role of the president, after the elected presidency was introduced in 1991, is to safeguard Singapore's reserves, this did not diminish the office's symbolic role.

Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, in a 1999 interview with The Straits Times, said that "the convention of rotating the presidency among the races was important to remind Singaporeans that their country was multiracial", the commission pointed out. After Mr Yusof, Singapore's next presidents were Dr Benjamin Sheares, a Eurasian, then Mr Devan Nair, an Indian, followed by Mr Wee Kim Wee, a Chinese.

The elected presidency came into effect in 1991, and Mr Ong Teng Cheong, a Chinese, was the first Singapore president to be elected at the polls. He was followed by Mr S R Nathan, an Indian, who served for two terms, and current President Tony Tan Keng Yam, a Chinese.

Said the commission: "It is because of the crucial symbolic role performed by the president that the office should periodically be held by persons from minority races."


The ultimate destination for our 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. Equally, it seems to be common ground that Singapore as a society cannot affirmatively say that she has already 'arrived'.

- THE CONSTITUTIONAL COMMISSION, on why there is a need for a provision to ensure all the major races are represented in the presidency.

Move 'is neither tokenism nor racial discrimination'
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 8 Sep 2016

There is a pressing need to introduce a safeguard to ensure Singapore's minority races are not shut out of the highest office in the land, said the report of the panel reviewing the elected presidency.

Even experts who did not like the idea of a safeguard agreed that Singaporeans are not yet able to look past race, it added.

"Singapore cannot yet be considered a post-racial society: This is a reality that must be faced, even if it is one that is not to be endorsed," said the report released yesterday.

The point was the panel's response to a sentiment expressed by five of the 19 individuals and groups that gave feedback at public hearings held in April and May this year to get people's views for the review.

The concerned individuals and groups gave various reasons for opposing a safeguard. These included worries that doing so may undermine meritocracy, or constitute racial discrimination. But the panel pointed out that race matters to Singaporeans at the ballot box and, for this reason, argued for the need to ensure minority representation.

Its preferred way of achieving it is to reserve a presidential election for candidates of a particular race, should Singapore fail to elect a president of that race for 30 years.

The recommendation was one of the biggest changes to the elected presidency, and also the most contentious at the public hearings.

The panel took pains to address the concerns raised at the hearings, saying that as Singapore journeys towards being race-blind, the minorities must in the interim be guaranteed the chance to be president from time to time. It also said the practice of reserving elections for a particular race is neither tokenism nor racial discrimination.

Some law dons and political scientists were concerned that a president chosen in an election reserved for his or her race may be viewed as a token president who lacks legitimacy. The commission acknowledges the concern is legitimate.

But perceptions of tokenism may persist to varying degrees, regardless of how the election is structured, it said. Ultimately, it boils down to the president conducting himself with dignity and gravitas, and earning the respect of Singaporeans, the report added.

The report also said reserving elections for particular races does not fall foul of an international treaty that bans racial discrimination, which Singapore has signed.

It pointed out that the treaty, known as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, permits measures taken to advance the position of certain races.

The practice of reserving elections for particular races encourages members of minority races to run for president, the report added.

The commission also rebutted three broad arguments against having a safeguard at all.

The first argument is that minority candidates have done well in general elections, showing minorities do not need a special provision for presidential polls. Second, reserving elections for minorities may undermine meritocracy.

Third, introducing a provision to ensure minority representation for the presidential office may lead to calls for similar provisions for other offices, such as that of the prime minister or chief justice.

The commission, in its response, said parliamentary elections are different from presidential ones. Voters choose MPs partly because of the plans of the candidates' political parties, but assess presidential hopefuls purely on their individual merits.

Also, the meritocracy argument loses much of its force if the eligibility criteria is not lowered for minority candidates, the report said.

"The commission firmly believes that the eligibility criteria should not be compromised."

The office of the president is also unique and not comparable to that of the prime minister, chief justice or Speaker of Parliament, it said. None of these is a personification of the state, or a symbol of national unity, in the way the president is.

Therefore, a safeguard is justified for the elected presidency but not for any other office, the report said.

Greater weight urged for council of advisers
Panel also recommends expanding council, among other suggestions
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 8 Sep 2016

The Constitutional Commission wants the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) to be expanded and for its views to be given greater weight in a clash between the president and government.

The commission's report, released yesterday, also recommended that for all fiscal matters and public service appointments, the president must consult the council before exercising his veto.

Currently, the president needs to do it only for some matters.

The commission also suggested simplifying the current system on when Parliament can or cannot override a presidential veto.

There is "no ready explanation" why a parliamentary override is available in some cases now but not others, the report noted.

So, it recommended that the president be required to consult the council before exercising his veto in all fiscal matters relating to Singapore's reserves, and all public service appointments.

When the council disagrees with the president, Parliament can override the veto.

But how large a parliamentary majority is needed to override a veto?

In coming to a decision, the commission wants the council's views to be given more weight.

"Put simply, the stronger the CPA's support for the president's decision, the more difficult it should be for Parliament to undo that decision," it said.

Currently, Parliament cannot override a veto if a majority of CPA members agrees with the president.

This includes situations where the chairman casts a tie-breaking vote.

The commission has proposed that in such tie-breakers, Parliament can override the veto with a two-thirds majority.

However, when a majority of council members disagrees with the president, Parliament can override a veto more easily.

Instead of the current two-thirds majority, a simple majority should suffice, said the commission.

It also suggested that the council be expanded from six to eight members, in line with its prospective bigger role.

Their length of service should be increased as well.

Now, members are appointed for six years and can be reappointed for four-year terms.

The commission recommended that on re-appointment, the term should also be for six years.

It also called for guidelines on who qualifies to sit on the council.

They must be persons of "integrity, good character and reputation", with expertise in fields relevant to the president's powers, such as in senior government positions, law or accounting, it said.

Each member should add to the council's diversity of experience as a collective body, it added.

There is no need to set out more prescriptive criteria, said the panel.

The reason: council members are not elected but appointed by the president, prime minister, chief justice or chairman of the Public Service Commission, "all of whom can be expected to exercise the requisite judgment as to the appointee's suitability and experience".

For greater accountability, in all situations where the president must consult the council and his veto is open to a parliamentary override, the council should have to disclose to the president the votes of each member and the grounds for the council's advice, said the report.

The president should also have to make public his opinion if he vetoes government action and the veto is open to a parliamentary override.

To remove uncertainty, the commission set a six-week deadline for the president to indicate whether he agrees or disagrees with a government proposal, or to perform a required task.

But the deadline applies only to cases where his refusal is open to a parliamentary override.

After the deadline, he is deemed to have agreed or performed the task.

Call for laws to ensure voters are not misled
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 8 Sep 2016

In the 2011 presidential election, some candidates made promises to Singaporeans that were beyond the constitutional functions of a president.

In particular, there was the tendency to view the office, mistakenly, "as an alternative source of executive policymaking power", said the elected presidency review commission.

It made the point when proposing that laws be introduced to ensure candidates do not mislead voters. The response falls outside its terms of reference, but the commission felt the issue was "sufficiently significant to warrant discussion or at least a brief mention".

While laws exist to stop those who wilfully interfere with free elections, they do not address the misinformation of the sort seen at the last election, it said.

Such misstatements "may have stemmed from a failure to understand the proper remit of the presidency and in particular, the tendency to see it, mistakenly, as an alternative source of executive policy- making power", it added.

To address this, the commission suggested enacting several laws.

One, requiring candidates to explicitly declare - for example, in their application form - that they understand the constitutional role of the president, before they would be issued a certificate of eligibility.

Two, the act of making promises incompatible with the office of president would be an offence.

For example, candidates who promise better public transport or wider healthcare coverage, or who pledge to oppose spending for such programmes, would be breaking the law.

The commission did not name anyone but a couple of 2011 candidates would have run foul of the proposed rules.

Former civil servant Tan Jee Say pitched a $60 billion National Regeneration Plan to build more hospitals and schools, while former NTUC Income chief executive Tan Kin Lian said he would introduce state pensions for the elderly.

Should its suggestions be accepted, "it would be difficult for candidates to claim that any breach was borne out of ignorance", the commission said.

It also wants a regime of sanctions to be imposed for breaching election rules.

These should include criminal sanctions, which the commission did not specify. In extreme cases, a candidate's certificate of eligibility would be revoked.

The commission also called for rules to temper the "divisiveness of the election process" and ensure campaigning "remains consistent with the role of the president as a symbol of national unity and which preserves the dignity associated with the highest office of the land".

To achieve the goal, it proposed restricting or excluding acts that may "inflame emotions, cause divisiveness or encourage invective".

It also suggested a prescribed "white list" of approved campaign methods, such as televised debates or speeches.

"It is not clear to the commission if the holding of rallies, for instance, is either necessary or helpful in this context," the report said.

MP and lawyer Vikram Nair welcomed the suggestions: "It's important for candidates to campaign responsibly, and not win votes on false promises."

Idea of having run-off elections rejected
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 8 Sep 2016

Different voting methods, public education and protecting the president's veto powers were some of the issues addressed by the Constitutional Commission reviewing the elected presidency, although these were not strictly in its ambit.

Some people who gave views to the commission had argued that if a president's margin of victory is small or he does not get over half of the popular vote, he cannot be said to have a sufficient mandate.

In such an event, they proposed "run-off voting": multiple rounds of voting with the weakest candidates eliminated each time, until a winner emerges.

The commission rejected it, saying legitimacy does not rely on getting an absolute majority.

"In the Westminster tradition, the first-past-the-post system is a widely accepted mode of conferring a legitimate democratic mandate on the candidate who emerges victorious at the polls," it said.

The president's legitimacy comes from a process "which is free, open and fair, and which binds all citizens". In short, getting the most votes in a nationwide election.

Insisting on an absolute majority is not warranted, the report said.

Further, holding run-off elections "is likely to be unnecessarily complex and cumbersome", takes more time and could also worsen obstacles faced by minority candidates.

These concerns are not outweighed "by any clear or principled benefit" that run-off elections could confer, the commission concluded.

Another issue raised by people was the need for greater education on the role and powers of the elected president.

The commission strongly endorsed this, saying such education should focus on the president's role and powers, the functions of the Council of Presidential Advisers, the interaction between the president and the council, and the "interplay of powers" between the president and the Government.

It noted that presidential elections may have been contested without a correct understanding of the office's role - something the commission "views with grave concern".

Questions were also raised about two Articles in the Constitution which aim to safeguard the president's discretionary powers - but are not actually in force.

Under Article 5(2A), the president can essentially veto any proposed amendment to certain core constitutional provisions, like those which relate to fundamental liberties or the presidency itself.

Parliament can override this veto only if it has the support of two-thirds of the electorate in a national referendum.

Article 5A also gives the president discretion to veto proposed amendments to other constitutional provisions, if the changes would curtail the president's own powers. Neither of the Articles are in force. Parliament suspended them "so that constitutional amendments could be made to fine-tune... the elected presidency without the hurdle of having to convene a national referendum each time", the commission noted.

Some of those who gave their views to the commission want the two Articles to be brought into force.

"Indefinite suspension may not be appropriate," the commission said, adding that the Government should decide whether to bring them into force or repeal them.

What proposals might mean for 2011 contenders
Two candidates who ran in last polls will not qualify for next election if bar is raised
By Chia Yan Min, Economics Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 Sep 2016

Two of the three candidates who ran and lost in the last presidential election - Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Mr Tan Jee Say - will not make the cut for the next presidential polls under changes to the eligibility criteria proposed by the Constitutional Commission.

The other losing candidate, Mr Tan Kin Lian, will likely qualify, along with President Tony Tan Keng Yam, who won in 2011.

The commission recommended raising the bar to ensure candidates have the necessary experience and expertise to safeguard the country's reserves.

Among other things, they must have been, for at least six years, the most senior executive of a company with up to $500 million in shareholders' equity.

Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who said this year that he would make another presidential bid, will not qualify on both counts.

The former People's Action Party MP qualified in 2011 as he had been non-executive chairman of investment holding company Chuan Hup since 1991.

But the proposed "most senior executive position" requirement excludes non-executive chairmen, who usually lead the board but do not actively run the company. Candidates must have been chief executive officer, managing director or executive chairmen, for instance, to meet this criterion.

As at June 30, Chuan Hup did not meet the proposed shareholders' equity threshold as the company had $300.7 million in shareholders' equity then.

Dr Tan Cheng Bock declined to comment last night when The Straits Times visited his home.

As for Mr Tan Jee Say, he was regional managing director of asset management company AIB Govett Asia from 1997 to 2001, where he managed funds in excess of $100 million. But by the next presidential election, due next year, he would have left the post for more than 15 years. This means he will not meet another proposed criterion for a candidate's qualifying tenure to be within 15 years before nomination day of the election.

Contacted yesterday, Mr Tan Jee Say, the Singaporeans First party chief, said raising the threshold of a company's size to "$200 or $300 million" would be more reasonable. He had not ruled out contesting again, saying his options will become clearer after the Government decides which of the commission's proposals to accept.

Mr Tan Kin Lian, who also ran and lost in 2011, is likely to meet the proposed new criteria. He was head of insurance cooperative NTUC Income from 1977 to 2007. According to its 2015 annual report, it had some $2.6 billion in equity as at Dec 31 last year. Mr Tan Kin Lian, who now runs his own consultancy, could not be reached for comment.

As for President Tan, he is the incumbent.

After he left the Cabinet in 2005, he held key corporate posts, including deputy chairman and executive director of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation.

Additional reporting by Charissa Yong and Rachel Au-Yong

Unintended consequences?
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 8 Sep 2016

Analysts and MPs yesterday welcomed a panel's proposed changes for the elected presidency, but cautioned that some might lead to negative consequences if enacted.

They point to three possible changes that worry them. One, the more stringent eligibility criteria could reduce the number of minority candidates from the private sector, especially among Malays.

Two, the higher financial threshold for those in the private sector means more of them would be kept out of the contest. And with the greater likelihood of a public-sector candidate being elected, some say such a president would find it harder to be a check on the Government.

Three, reserving elections for minority candidates from time to time may cause some Chinese to vote only for Chinese candidates.

The reason: They feel that since minority races are already guaranteed a president of their own race, there is no need to vote for them in normal elections.

The reaction was most robust on the eligibility criteria of candidates.

The Constitutional Commission proposed in its report yesterday that private-sector candidates must have run large companies whose shareholders' equity is at least $500 million. This is a change from the current threshold of $100 million in paid-up capital.

The panel also recommended that if there was no president from a particular race for five terms, the next election should be reserved for candidates of that race.

Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Norshahril Saat said the Malay community may find it hard to produce a private-sector candidate as there are relatively fewer of them compared with the other main races. Hence, its candidates would very likely be former ministers or Speakers of Parliament, unless the scheme is expanded to include junior ministers, he said.

But Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad said there are "a number" of Malays in top positions in business. "It has always been about whether they want to step forward."

But since reserved elections would occur once every 30 years, he did not think it would be "that difficult to find such a candidate".

Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang said last night that he foresees a president with a public-sector background struggling to act as a check on the Government.

"At the end of the day, who is qualified to stand as a candidate? It has to be from the Government, right? So who are they checking? Who is checking whom?" Mr Low said, adding that WP MPs would respond to the proposals in Parliament.

Institute of Policy Studies' Dr Gillian Koh and law don Eugene Tan think some Chinese voters may deliberately vote only for a Chinese when previously they may not have given much thought to a candidate's race.

Analysts welcomed the call against any easing of the eligibility criteria. Dr Koh said this effectively counters any perception of tokenism, or that a race may need a handicap for its candidate to successfully become president.

A major upgrade to the elected presidency
By Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor, The Straits Times, 8 Sep 2016

The recommendations of the Constitutional Commission on the elected presidency (EP) represent a major upgrade to a 25-year-old institution.

They tighten criteria on who can stand and raise the bar for candidates. They help entrench minority representation so minority races don't get left out.

They strengthen the check-and-balance role of the presidency. They give Parliament a bigger role as a forum that debates the balance between the Government and the president.

In spirit, the recommendations are remarkable for the consistent manner in which they seek to advance transparency of what has sometimes been criticised as an opaque institution.


First, eligibility. For candidates from the private sector, the commission proposes limiting candidates to those who have been the most senior executives of companies (which would rule out people who are non-executive chairmen) with at least $500 million in shareholder equity (instead of $100 million in paid-up capital as in the past). There is a new recency requirement - executives must have served within the last 15 years; and performance criteria - they must have left the company in good shape.

Candidates must also sign a declaration that they understand the constitutional role of the EP. It will be an offence for candidates to "make promises or to take positions that are incompatible with the office of president" - such as promising wider healthcare or public transport - and those who do so can be subject to criminal and other sanctions.

Making candidates declare that they understand the role of the EP and will not make empty promises can help reduce the kind of political posturing seen in the 2011 presidential election by some candidates.

To be sure, such declarations may not hold back candidates. In the recent Hong Kong legislature elections, candidates had to sign pledges to uphold the Basic Law rule that Hong Kong is an "inalienable part" of China. This did not stop some from campaigning on independence for Hong Kong - and winning seats.

China says they face possible criminal penalties if they did not uphold the pledge.

Still, such declarations should give candidates with a secret political agenda pause before they enter the presidential contest. They might figure the more appropriate arena for their ideas is the general election, not the limited, circumscribed presidential one.

The proposed tightening of criteria for candidates, and preventing them from making empty promises, help raise the bar for entry to the contest.


Second, minority representation. The commission went for a model of a "hiatus-triggered safeguard", where a contest is reserved for candidates of a certain race if no candidate from that race has been elected for five terms. This helps ensure that the president, as the symbolic head of state, remains a multiracial institution.

It is to be welcomed from that point of view, although I agree with the commission that a "race-blind society is the only legitimate aspiration for Singapore" and look forward to a time when minorities don't need such protection, and a minority candidate has an equal chance of winning at the polls.


Third, checks and balance.

The idea for the EP is that the president can act as a check on the Government in specific areas such as the country's financial reserves and public service appointments.

The Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) advises the president. If he acts in accord with their advice, his veto is final and the Government has to abide by it.

If the president goes against the CPA's advice, the Government can bring the matter up to Parliament, which can override the president's decision.

Under current rules, Parliament can shoot down a presidential veto only if it has a two-third majority.

The commission wants to reduce this to a simple majority, if the president's veto is not supported by a majority of the CPA.

If the CPA is evenly split on supporting the presidential veto, and the CPA chairman exercises his casting vote in support of the president, then Parliament will still need a two-third majority to veto him.

In other words, "the stronger the CPA's support for the president's decision, the more difficult it should be for Parliament to undo that decision".

Making it easier for Parliament to override a presidential veto in some circumstances is a clear sign that the commission is preparing for a time when Parliament is not dominated by a single political party, as it is today.


Fourth, several suggested changes would strengthen the role of Parliament in the elected presidency.

A clause has been on the books for 25 years but not entrenched - it is not yet in force.

This is a rule that lets the president veto any law that seeks to curtail his powers, and which requires a national referendum to be called to override that veto with a two-third majority.

This means having to call a national referendum each time changes are made to the presidency's powers, if the president disagrees with the changes and vetoes them.

The commission noted: "After 25 years, the Government should decide whether to bring these provisions into force or to repeal them in whole or in part."

Without taking a position, the commission said indefinite suspension of the clause may not be appropriate and suggested that the Government suspend the entrenchment for a fixed period of, say, five years, "after which they would be brought into force unless the suspension is expressly extended for further fixed periods by Parliament".

This gives the Government flexibility in fine-tuning the presidential system without having to call a national referendum to do so, while ensuring there is open parliamentary debate and scrutiny of the issue of entrenching those provisions.

The commission affirmed several times that Parliament is the best forum to debate issues in a "transparent and robust manner" when there is a difference between the Government and president, as parliamentary proceedings are "publicly accessible".


This suggestion, and several others in the report, cheered the democrat in me for advancing transparency in the presidency.

For example, it suggests that successful presidential candidates' declarations on their candidacy be made public.

It wants the president to publish his decisions on any veto he makes, going beyond publishing his assent to Budget Bills as now.

It wants the CPA to declare its members' individual votes and grounds of decision to the president, so the latter has a better basis on which to decide whether to assent or veto a government decision.

The president should then convey the CPA's position to the prime minister and Speaker of Parliament if he wants to veto a Bill.

If the commission's recommendations are accepted, the elected presidency will be strengthened. It will be harder for a rogue president to emerge, with the bar set higher, and criminal sanctions for anyone who oversteps the limits of campaigning.

An overzealous president who is too veto-happy will find himself hemmed in by a stronger CPA and Parliament. The president's decisions will be subject to more scrutiny as his veto decisions are made public.

Over time, as presidents start to exercise their custodial powers more, the operations of the EP will be more visible to the public. The feeling that the presidential system with its CPA is a closed system of a few wise men making decisions among themselves should then abate.

Constitutional Commission report on elected presidency: Reactions

To wield real power, President must be elected: Shanmugam
Presidential elections are unlikely to be abolished, Shanmugam tells grassroots leaders at dialogue
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 9 Sep 2016

The president must himself have a popular mandate to say no to certain actions by an elected government, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

A panel that reviewed the elected presidency had floated the idea of reverting to an appointed president in its report. It suggested having a group of appointed experts assume the custodial role of safeguarding the reserves and the integrity of the public service.

But Mr Shanmugam pointed out that the Constitutional Commission had also acknowledged that the head of state cannot veto government initiatives if he is not elected.

This is why its proposed group of appointed experts can only delay, but not block, government action - unlike the elected president.

"You have to ask yourself, do you want to give real power to an individual or a group. If you want to give real power then they have to be elected," he told reporters on the sidelines of a dialogue on proposed changes to the elected presidency with 600 grassroots leaders from the North West District.

Reporters were allowed into the session for the first hour but the second half was closed-door.

During the dialogue, one participant cited the commission's suggestion of an appointed presidency, and asked if the Government would consider doing away with the presidential election.

Mr Shanmugam made clear the Government has not stated its view on the commission's recommendations, but it was unlikely that presidential elections will be abolished.

Singaporeans will also likely be displeased to lose their right to vote for their president, he added.

"Every single one of you probably voted in the 2011 Presidential Election. If I now come and tell you, you cannot vote any more, would you be happy? You will think the Government is trying to be funny," he said.

A show of hands by the audience later to a question posed by Mr Shanmugam showed that most believed that the president should continue to be elected.

There was also broad agreement from the audience that potential candidates have to meet a set of eligibility criteria, and that the criteria must remain relevant and should be reviewed periodically.

But participants were split on the need for a proposal to ensure a minority president from time to time.

The commission had recommended that if there is no president from a particular racial group for five continuous terms, the next presidential election should be reserved for candidates from that group.

Asked by reporters about this reaction from the audience, Mr Shanmugam noted that the commission's report was just released to the public on Wednesday , and people will need time to understand its nuances and clear up misunderstandings.

"Some people were saying it will affect meritocracy. As the commission made clear, whichever race the candidate is from, they have got to fulfil the same criteria. So there is no question of lowering the criteria for a particular race," he said.

Also, if people of all races are elected from time to time, the provision to reserve an election for a particular race will never be invoked, he added.

Meanwhile, in a separate interview with Channel NewsAsia's Talking Point broadcast last night, Mr Shanmugam also highlighted the symbolic role of the nation's highest office.

"The president represents the entire nation... If you accept that, then I think it's only right that we have presidents from the different races at certain frequencies," he said.

Provision for minority president protects our social fabric: Chan Chun Sing
By Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 9 Sep 2016

The Government has a responsibility to draw up a system that anticipates future challenges, even if there are no major issues now, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing said yesterday.

This is why it cannot take a short-term view just to preserve its political capital, but must look at the long-term future of the country, he said at a dialogue in Mandarin in reply to questions on the proposed changes to the elected presidency.

"Being a young country, as we evolve, we have to continually think about whether our systems can meet our present needs and, more importantly, whether they can meet our future needs," he said.

He was explaining why changes to the elected presidency, including to make sure minorities get a chance to be elected from time to time, were necessary, to 120 participants at a dialogue on the National Day Rally by government feedback unit REACH and Lianhe Zaobao.

A Constitutional Commission, in its report released on Wednesday, recommended that a presidential election be reserved for a particular race if there has been no president from that racial group for five continuous terms, as the head of state is a symbol of Singapore and its multiracial society.

REACH chairman and Minister of State for Manpower Sam Tan, who was also at the dialogue, said Chinese people may not have considered how their friends of other races might feel if there is no president from their community for some time. He noted that there has not been a Malay president since Mr Yusof Ishak, who died in office in 1970.

Mr Chan said Singaporeans who are Chinese, as the majority, have a responsibility to bring to the fore issues that those in minority races may feel uncomfortable raising.

He recalled a conversation with a fellow soldier of a minority race during his time in the army. The soldier told Mr Chan "because you are the majority race, you are Chinese, you won't understand this feeling".

This blunt statement was probably made only because they knew each other well, said Mr Chan.

"If we can one day be better than other countries and reach a race- and language-blind society, and we don't need these rules, that's good.

"But before we reach that goal, what can we do to make our systems more robust, protect our social fabric, and not let people divide our society?" he added.

The need for changes to the elected presidency was discussed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the National Day Rally. It was also among the topics that drew interest during online and face-to-face public engagement sessions REACH held in the two weeks after the Rally.

REACH said in a statement yesterday that among the 1,600 pieces of feedback it received were views for and against having safeguards to ensure minority representation.

Some people also felt that raising the minimum yardstick for the value of a private sector company would narrow the pool of potential candidates.

REACH will be organising a series of forums on the elected presidency scheme over the next two months.

Businessmen's take on panel's proposals
By Olivia Ho, The Straits Times, 9 Sep 2016

Waiting five terms, or 30 years, before reserving the presidential election for minority candidates may be too long, said a Chinese businessman at a dialogue yesterday.

Mr Desmond Peh, executive chairman of escape game company Freeing Group International, suggested the period be shortened to, say, three terms.

He noted that Singapore has not had a Malay president for nearly 50 years, since Mr Yusof Ishak died in office in 1970. "That is very long," he added.

Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo said she was heartened by his remark but explained that the proposed five-term duration was calculated to be reflective of Singapore's racial demographic.

The Constitutional Commission reviewing the elected presidency has suggested that if nobody from a particular race had been elected president for 30 years, the next election should be reserved for that race.

Mr Peh was among 30 businessmen who attended the dialogue in Chinese organised by Bosses Network, which gathers head honchos of small and medium-sized enterprises for talks and sharing sessions.

Another issue raised was the more stringent qualifying criteria for presidential hopefuls. The worry is that it may narrow the field further for minority candidates from the private sector.

But Mrs Teo said the threshold should not be lowered just to admit a minority candidate.

"Would people accept it if we had a $500 million threshold for a Chinese candidate and we gave a minority candidate a discount, say, $250 million? None of you would accept it."

The commission recommended that candidates from the private sector must have led a company with at least $500 million in shareholders' equity.

Mrs Teo also assured the businessmen that there are eligible candidates in the minority racial groups.

The new requirement is needed as Singapore's economy is bigger, more complex and worth more.

"If a candidate has been responsible for too small an amount, he or she will not be able to make the right decisions on a national level," she said.

Elected presidency: Why minority provision deserves support
The Straits Times, 9 Sep 2016

The Constitutional Commission's long-awaited report on the elected presidency is an important development in efforts to maintain and strengthen Singapore's unity, racial harmony and stability, and, in the long run, to portray the multiracialism that has become part of Singapore's national identity.

Among the main components of the report is the recommendation to introduce safeguards in the elected presidency to ensure that the highest office in this land "is not only accessible, but is seen to be accessible" by the minority Malay and Indian races.

The implementation of the elected presidency in 1993 was supported by the Malay community because of its good intentions - to protect the nation's reserves and assets from a government that spends as it pleases, and to maintain the meritocracy and equality of the public service as well as to prevent nepotism and politically motivated appointments to high offices.

But at the same time, it raised questions in the Malay community about whether or not there would be a Malay president after the late Mr Yusof Ishak. This was not because of the difficulty in finding a Malay candidate who met the qualifying criteria that had been set, but due to the "effect of race" that can influence the results of an election.

The fact is that Singapore has not achieved its goal of becoming a race-blind society.

In this matter, credit should be given to the founding prime minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew. As the President is "a symbol of national unity", he emphasised the importance of rotating the office among the main races in Singapore. He said that "the convention of rotating the presidency among the races was important to remind Singaporeans that their country was multiracial".

In fact, after two Chinese became president consecutively (the late Mr Wee Kim Wee and the first elected President, the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong), Mr Lee said that it was important for the next president to be from a minority race.

"It is time to remind Singaporeans to have a symbol as a multiracial society, an expression of our national identity," he said.

Emphasising the importance of having a provision for minority races to hold the position of President, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that it was so that "the people can see that yes, this is my country... people like me can become the head of state, can represent the country".

The commission also acknowledged that because of the importance of the symbolic role played by the President, the minority races cannot be regarded or regard themselves as unable to attain this position. The commission also said this is important for the policy of multiracialism.

Certainly, there were concerns raised over the pros and cons of having a special provision for the position of the President to be held by members of minority races from time to time. The Malay community itself does not want the position to be "given" to a Malay as a token to show equality. This concern can be understood and is welcomed as this shows that the principle of meritocracy is accepted by Singaporeans, and in fact is firmly embedded in the minds as well as the belief of Singaporeans.

In this matter, the commission emphasised that the qualifying criteria will not be compromised even if the presidency is held by a minority and this shows that there is no issue of tokenism.

The same qualifying criteria apply to all candidates, which means that whether Singapore has a Chinese, Indian or Malay president, all of them are selected because they are the best person for the position.

This also means that not everyone can meet the high qualifying criteria. Certainly this is so, if we want the best candidate. Therefore, our minds should not be disturbed by other matters, including the fact that some people may not be able to run for this position as they do not meet the stringent requirements.

The Malay community should not worry about whether or not there are Malays who meet the high qualifying criteria. In fact, PM Lee is confident that there are members of the minority communities who are eligible to be elected as the President of Singapore, although he admitted that the number is not as big as that of Chinese candidates. And, he is confident that the number will increase in the future with great progress achieved by the minority communities, including the Malays.

Therefore, what is more important is that the Malays should make greater efforts to achieve greater progress which will help increase the number of eligible Malays to be elected as President even without a special provision set for the minority communities.

This clearly shows that the Constitutional Commission is taking care of the interests of the Malays, as far as the post of President is concerned, through its recommendations. It is of great relief that the Government is concerned about all the races in Singapore and strives to ensure that every Singaporean has a place in Singapore, including to hold the highest office in the land.

However, the proposed changes need the full support not only from the minority ethnic groups but also the majority ethnic group. This is important to maintain harmony, stability and unity in Singapore.

This is a translation of Malay newspaper Berita Harian's editorial published on Wednesday.

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