Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Presidential election set for September 2017

Campaign won't clash with National Day festivities; new rules to avoid divisive electioneering
Parliament passes changes to Presidential Elections Act
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 7 Feb 2017

The presidential election this year will be pushed back to September to avoid the campaigning period coinciding with National Day celebrations in August.

Campaign rules will also be changed to discourage divisive electioneering. These two main changes to the way the presidential election will be run were announced in Parliament yesterday during the debate on the Presidential Elections (Amendment) Bill.

The Bill gives the nuts and bolts of the presidential election, right down to the number of days for would-be candidates to submit their papers, and the size of the committees that assess if they are eligible to contest the election.

But the changes to the election date and campaign rules are not part of the Bill, said Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing, when he presented the legislation for debate.

This is because the law does not need to be amended to introduce the changes, he said.

The Bill was passed by Parliament after almost three hours of debate involving eight MPs.

The Workers' Party (WP) and Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun voted against the changes.

The three WP MPs who spoke argued that there were better ways to ensure minority representation in the elected presidency, and questioned the timing of the changes.

But, Mr Chan said, the tweaks will ensure that the office of the president reflects Singapore's multiracial society, and that the elected presidency continues to be a unifying symbol for all Singaporeans.

The Bill puts into effect broader changes made for this reason to the Constitution last November.

As a result, the September election will be reserved for Malay candidates as there has been no president from the community in the past five presidential terms.

Mr Chan said yesterday: "We are drawing closer to our first reserved election for our president.

"The changes to the system have taken more than a year to be discussed and fleshed out since they were publicly mooted."

Mr Chan also explained why the campaign rules were changed: "Campaign methods for the presidential elections must not inflame emotions and must be in keeping with the decorum and dignity of the office of the president."

In its report last year, the Constitutional Commission that reviewed the elected presidency said campaigning should be consistent with the president's position as a symbol of national unity.

For instance, rallies may not be necessary for a presidential contest, and may even be divisive.

For this reason, Mr Chan said, the authorities will no longer designate election rally sites. Candidates can pick their preferred sites, but they must apply to the police for a rally permit. Also, TV airtime will be increased, he said, adding that this could include at least two televised debates. Candidates can use social media as well, and have indoor private meetings with specific groups of voters.

A presidential hopeful must also make a statutory declaration that he understands the role of the president under the Constitution.

"It will then be inexcusable if he deliberately chooses to disregard the limits of the Constitution and makes promises or statements exceeding this role," said Mr Chan.

He also gave the Government's reasons for pushing back the presidential poll date.

One, to avoid campaigning being carried out during the month-long National Day celebration period in August.

Two, more time is needed between the issuing of the Writ of Election and Polling Day because of the changes to the format of presidential election.

Polling Day typically fell in the last week of August. In 2011, the writ was issued on Aug 3, and voters went to the polls on Aug 27.

Now, the Government will issue the writ later in August, so that if there is a contest, Polling Day will occur in September, not August.

This means campaigning will also likely take place outside the National Day period. If a new president is not elected by the time Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam's term expires on Aug 31, the Constitution provides for an acting president, who will either be the chairman of the Council of Presidential Advisers or the Speaker of Parliament.

The Government will not ask the acting president to draw on the reserves during this interim period unless absolutely necessary, Mr Chan said.

Parliament continues today.


1 September election: The presidential election for this year and in the future will be held in September, to avoid the campaign period coinciding with National Day celebrations.

2 Less divisive campaigning: There will no longer be specific sites designated for candidates to hold their election rallies.

They just have to secure their preferred sites and apply to the police for a permit, which will be assessed according to public order considerations.

Candidates will get more television airtime, can use social media and have indoor private meetings with specific groups of voters.

3 More time for everyone: Presidential hopefuls will get more time to submit their papers.

The deadline for applying for a certificate of eligibility will be extended to five days after the Writ of Election is issued, up from three days.

Also, there will be at least 10 days between the issue of the writ and Nomination Day, up from five days. This gives the Presidential Elections Committee more time to go through applications.

4 New committee: A Community Committee will be set up to assess, at every presidential election, which racial group the candidates belong to.

The 16-member committee will consist of a chairman and three sub-committees for the Chinese, Malay, and Indian and other minority groups.

All potential candidates must declare to the committee which of the three main communities they consider themselves a part of. They will be issued a certificate if the five-member sub-committee is satisfied they belong to that community.

5 More efficient elections: Singaporeans living abroad will get two more days to register as an overseas voter. The deadline will be extended to two calendar days after the Writ of Election is issued, instead of up until the writ is issued.

There will also be automatic recounting of votes when the vote margin between the top candidate and any other is 2 per cent or less of the total valid votes. This avoids unnecessary delays while waiting for candidates to ask for a recount.

No by-election if minority MP leaves GRC, says Chun Sing
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 7 Feb 2017

If a minority candidate leaves his group representation constituency (GRC), a by-election will not be called, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing said yesterday.

He was replying to the opposition Workers' Party's Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC), who wanted to know what would happen if a minority member of a GRC stepped down to run for president.

Mr Singh used Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob as an example. Madam Halimah, the minority member of Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, has been tipped as a potential candidate for the upcoming election, which is reserved for Malays.

What then, Mr Singh asked, would happen to "the very existence of Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, which by law requires a Malay MP as one of its political representatives in Parliament"?

Mr Chan said a by-election would not be called if a member of a GRC resigns or is incapacitated in any way.

"This is totally unrelated to the Bill today but since it was raised, I will deal with it," he said.

The GRC system has been in place since 1988, and requires each team to include at least one member of a minority race.

Mr Chan said that when Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong explained the GRC system in Parliament decades back, he said its intent was to achieve two purposes.

One, to ensure enough minority members in the House. This, Mr Chan said, had been achieved over the years.

Two, to ensure no political campaign on issues of race and religion, "that we will all, regardless of party lines, campaign on the basis that we are all Singaporeans, that we will not use race, language or religion for political reasons", Mr Chan said.

Elected members are expected to serve all residents, regardless of race, language and religion as well.

These key goals would not be affected if one member of the GRC left, Mr Chan added.

He noted there are 25 minority MPs out of 89, "more than what you'd expect proportionately from adding up the percentage of Malays, Indians and other minorities".

"Even if we have one less, that is 24 out of 89, which is 27 per cent of Parliament," he said.

Near the end of the debate, Mr Chan accidentally called Madam Halimah "Madam President" instead of "Madam Speaker", to loud laughter from the House.

He did it twice, before he corrected himself.

Debate on timing of reserved election
Sylvia Lim asks if there is a political motive; Govt planning for long term, says Chun Sing
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 7 Feb 2017

The issue of timing came up for debate yesterday during the parliamentary debate on the Presidential Elections (Amendment) Bill.

The Workers' Party (WP) questioned the decision to reserve this year's presidential election for Malay candidates, with its chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) saying she was not convinced by the Government's reasoning.

Meanwhile, Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) noted that the move to push back the upcoming presidential election to September could give rise to talk that the Government has other motives.

In making her point, Ms Lim reiterated the same arguments she raised last November, when the Constitution was amended to reserve a presidential election for a specified racial group if no one from that group has been elected president in the past five terms.

The Government then said the next election will be reserved for Malay candidates, as the five continuous terms started from that of former president Wee Kim Wee.

The late Mr Wee was in office when the elected presidency took effect in 1991.

But Ms Lim noted that Mr Wee was not elected to office. His successor, the late president Ong Teng Cheong, was the first to assume the nation's highest office via a poll.

"Why not count from the first elected president, Mr Ong Teng Cheong? Is it because if President Ong was the first one to be counted, we would have to go through this year's election as an open election and risk the contest by Chinese or Indian candidates who may not be to the Government's liking?" she said.

In response, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing said Mr Wee was the first president to exercise the powers under the elected presidency, introduced in 1991. He added that the Government took advice from the Attorney-General on the matter.

He said Ms Lim was suggesting the Government has "all sorts of short-term political objectives to amend the Constitution and put in place this system", though this was far from the case.

Rather, the Government was planning for the long term, so that the system can overcome potential difficulties over sensitive issues such as race, language and religion.

He also noted the changes carried high political risk and cost. "If this Government led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is for short-term political advantage, would we do it? Would we expend our political capital to do this?" he said.

He also said the changes had been debated for more than a year in a transparent process that involved the setting up of a Constitutional Commission to review the elected presidency.

He also noted that the WP had declined to present its position before the commission, despite being invited to do so.

Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera was later drawn into the debate when Mr Chan referred to his parliamentary speech last November, and said it showed support to depoliticise the presidency.

Mr Perera said he does not support the elected presidency and was speaking in the context of having an appointed, not elected, president.

But Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean rose to read from the Hansard, saying it shows Mr Perera was with him on the need to depoliticise the presidential election.

Mr Perera did not clarify his position then, Mr Teo added.

Mr Ang welcomed having the election in September, and the move not to designate sites for rallies.

But he wondered if having an acting president after President Tony Tan Keng Yam's term ends on Aug 31 would be seen by some as a move to install an interim president who would let the Government dip into the reserves.

"Let me quickly put such rumours to bed," said Mr Chan, adding that the Government would "respect that the rationale of the elected presidency is for an elected president to be the second key to the reserves and to key appointments".

At the end of the debate, the WP MPs and Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun voted against the Bill.

Debate on Bill prompts questions on ethnicity and identity
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 7 Feb 2017

The introduction of a Community Committee for presidential elections sparked a flurry of questions on ethnicity and identity in Parliament yesterday.

This 16-member committee will be set up before each election to assess which racial group candidates belong to, and will comprise a chairman and three sub-committees for the Chinese, Malay, and Indian and other minority groups.

During the three-hour debate on amendments to the Presidential Elections Act, MPs dug deep into what defines a person's race.

Presidential hopefuls must declare which community they consider themselves a part of, and the relevant sub-committee will issue a certificate if it agrees. This follows changes to the Constitution last year to provide for elections to be reserved for a particular racial group that has not been represented in the office for a period of time.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) and Nominated MP Thomas Chua asked how this would apply to candidates of mixed race, who may identify with more than one community.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing responded that if such a citizen decides to apply for a particular community certificate, the relevant sub-committee "should adopt an inclusive attitude towards his application".

He said this was "different from the approach suggested by some other members", who wanted the lines between the different communities to be more clearly drawn.

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) had asked if an applicant's proficiency in his mother tongue should be a factor the committee considers. "Should a presidential candidate who sees himself as part of the Indian community pass muster if he or she can barely get by in Tamil or the other MOE (Ministry of Education) recognised Indian languages?" he said.

Mr Chan said it was up to the committee to assess a candidate "holistically, and not home in on one factor". He said this was not new, it having worked well in the context of the group representation constituency, which ensures minority representation in parliamentary polls.

Mr Singh also asked if the background of an aspiring president's spouse would matter, pointing to how portraits of both president and "first lady" are prominently displayed in government buildings.

What would happen, he asked, if the aspiring president's spouse had converted to Islam to marry, but does not follow the faith?

Mr Chan noted in his wrap-up of the debate that the Constitution does not enshrine the position of first lady, adding that it is a courtesy term customarily used for the wife of the president.

Mr Nair, meanwhile, sought to clarify that the "other minority communities" would not be a catch-all for those who do not fit into the Chinese, Indian and Malay ethnicities.

Mr Chan said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean had made clear in Parliament last November that this referred to groups with some degree of history, permanence and established presence in Singapore, such as the Eurasian community.

Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC) said the discussion on minority representation in the presidency has led to an openness to talk about race, a topic that used to be seen as sensitive. "It made us a bit uncomfortable to think about the current state of affairs, but it has pushed us to think about issues a bit more," she said.

Mr Chan said: "We will continue to work hard to ensure that each Singaporean feels cherished in our society, regardless of which community they are from."

Taking a broader view of race
By Zakir Hussain, Political Editor, The Straits Times, 7 Feb 2017

Recent developments in this region and around the world highlight how race and religion have become stark markers of identity, divisive forces that could split society if left unchecked.

So it was heartening to hear several MPs during the debate on changes to the Presidential Elections Act speak of how Singapore should take the opportunity afforded by the amendments to adopt an inclusive approach to race.

Yesterday's debate follows changes to the Constitution passed in November last year that aimed to entrench Singapore's commitment to multiracialism, and ensure that the presidency reflects the country's multiracial society.

This year will see the first reserved election - for candidates from the Malay community - while the election which follows will be open to all. And elections thereafter will be reserved for a community if it has not been represented for five terms.

But one key issue is how race is defined.

As Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) put it yesterday, race is "part ethnicity and part identity".

"A Chinese person adopted at infancy by an Indian family may grow up identifying themselves as part of the Indian community despite their ethnicity. Indeed, interracial adoptions were common particularly during the baby-boom years when parents were unable to care for all their children," he said.

Several MPs also raised the example of individuals of mixed heritage, as inter-ethnic marriages become more common.

Speaking in Mandarin, Nominated MP and Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Thomas Chua said: "Singapore is a multiracial society; interracial marriages and new immigrants will create the interchanging and integration of ethnicity, which is a positive development.

"If there is an outstanding individual with superlative abilities who is willing to serve society, and whose parents belong to different ethnic groups, both ethnic groups would be proud of him or her."

These examples may well surface as the latest amendments to the Presidential Elections Act put in place a mechanism for ensuring that representatives of the main communities here are periodically represented in the highest office.

One key structure elaborated on yesterday by Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing is a Community Committee - made up of a chairman and three sub-committees for the Chinese, Malay, and Indian and Other Minority Communities.

A prospective election candidate will have to declare the community of which he or she considers himself or herself to be a member, and the sub-committee will then decide if it agrees.

Mr Chua noted that "besides ethnicity, character and capability are even more important". Hence his call on the committee to be big-hearted in assessing applicants.

"Should there be any candidates originating from interracial backgrounds participating in the next presidential election, I hope the Community Committee could make the correct decision based on the criterion of ethnicity, to avoid losing talent," he said.

Mr Chan welcomed these suggestions, adding that should there be candidates of mixed parentage, the Community Committee is encouraged to adopt an inclusive approach.

"In fact, by adopting an inclusive approach, we are allowing more people to be identified with a certain community," he said. "Our approach is quite different from the approach suggested by some other members who want to be even more clearly defined as to who forms what community."

Indeed, the call for openness and inclusivity was not roundly felt.

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) reiterated the Workers' Party's opposition to the elected presidency and raised questions on the workings of the Community Committee that reflected less-than-inclusive sentiments.

Mr Singh cited, for example, an Indian candidate whose spouse may not feel part of that community, or a Malay candidate whose spouse may have converted to Islam "but does not partake in the practices of the faith".

"Should there be residual doubts about how the Community Committee makes its decisions, the presidency could be anything but a unifying office not just for Singaporeans in general, but the respective minority race in particular," he said.

Mr Singh also pressed Mr Chan on language: "If a presidential election is to be reserved for the Malay community, would it not be practical for the Government to agree that Malay as a language would be the expectation of any candidate... up to the level expected of students at schools through the educational system?"

Mr Chan, in reply, pointed to the nearly 30-year history of the two minority community committees which have certified candidates for general elections since the group representation constituency system began.

"We have established precedents," he said. "On the issue of language, I would say that the Community Committee and the respective sub-committees will need to assess the person holistically. Yes, language will be one of the criteria but we are also keenly aware that all of us, regardless of our race, language, religion, we practise our religions slightly differently. We live our lifestyle differently.

"The philosophy has never changed... As a package, do you believe that this person belongs to your community?" he added.

Questions like those Mr Singh raised may surface again among a vocal few. But it would be a pity if they did. For it would detract from the presidency as a unifying symbol, and the fact that a president, regardless of which community he is from, is, above all, a president for all Singaporeans.

Give elected presidency chance to develop: Yaacob Ibrahim
He urges Malay community and youth to recognise need to evolve and learn from experiences on the ground
By Melody Zaccheus, The Straits Times, 7 Feb 2017

Give the elected presidency (EP) a chance to develop and allow it to evolve, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim yesterday urged the Malay community, in particular, its youth.

He made the appeal in response to a question during a dialogue with tertiary students on whether the upcoming presidential election, which has been reserved for Malay candidates, is "mere tokenism".

"I think, let's give it a chance and see how it works because no policy is cast in stone. One day, the Government might change its mind and decide that this reserved election doesn't work. You never know," he added.

"You've to sort of recognise the fact that we must continue to evolve and learn from the experiences on the ground."

Dr Yaacob was speaking publicly on the EP for the first time since the Presidential Elections (Amendment) Bill was passed last week.

The Bill provided details such as the election period and the size of the committees to assess whether candidates are eligible to contest. It follows broader constitutional changes passed last November that spell out how a presidential election will be reserved for a particular racial group if no one from that group has been president for five terms in a row.

The upcoming election is reserved for the Malay community, which has not seen a Malay president for 46 years since Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak, who died in office on Nov 23, 1970.

Dr Yaacob, who is also Minister for Communications and Information, also answered a range of questions from cyber security and youth employment to the birth rate in the dialogue, held as part of an inaugural Singapore Model Cabinet event.

Organised by REACH, the agency that facilitates the Government's engagement with citizens, the event saw over 100 students learning about policymaking and participating in simulated Cabinet meetings.

In his reply, Dr Yaacob, who reiterated that he will not contest the election, said his preference "would have been clearly an open election, where a Malay could actually win the EP on his or her own merit".

"But I think we also have to ask ourselves whether or not we are able to achieve that if we take that risk," he added.

He said tribal tendencies "are still very strong" and "run deep", not just among the miniorities, but even among the majorities.

"So how you ensure that the imbalance doesn't become a burden on the minority is something which the Government has to think about all the time," he added.

He said the Malay community is concerned "not just about the president, but also Malay permanent secretary, Malay general... because we want to see representation across the entire Singaporean life".

"But we believe it must come about because of meritocracy. Even for the elected president, you don't just pick up somebody from Geylang Serai - the person must qualify, the person must earn the respect of all Singaporeans," he added.

No comments:

Post a Comment