Saturday 17 September 2016

Elected Presidency White Paper: Government's Response to the Constitutional Commission’s Report

Govt broadly accepts changes to elected presidency
It accepts recommendation on minority president, modifies eligibility, CPA proposals
By Royston Sim, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 16 Sep 2016

Key changes to the elected presidency proposed by a Constitutional Commission have been broadly accepted, but with some modifications that the Government spelt out in a White Paper yesterday.

The qualifying criteria for private sector candidates will be updated - they must have been the top executive of a company with $500 million in shareholders' equity, to reflect the growth of the economy and the reserves.

But the Government rejected the commission's proposal that candidates, whether from top public or private sector posts, should have served for at least six years, up from three.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam told reporters last night: "We think that might narrow down the field too much, might be too drastic."

He added that someone who has been a top executive for three years would have substantial experience.

The Government also modified the proposal that candidates' qualifying tenure fall entirely within 15 years before the election, saying it is okay if it falls at least partly within 20 years before the polls.

The White Paper - a policy document to explain or discuss matters - said a "cautious approach" was preferred, given other changes to the eligibility criteria.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Facebook that the Government will table a Bill to amend the Constitution in Parliament next month.

There will be a full debate at the sitting after that, in November. Most of the changes should be in place before the next presidential election to be held by next August.

The White Paper sets out the Government's response to the 154-page report of the nine-member commission headed by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, which was made public last week.

The panel had been set up by PM Lee to review three aspects of the elected presidency: eligibility criteria, minority representation and the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA).

Among other things, it recommended that an election be reserved for candidates from a particular race, if no one from that racial group has been president for five terms in a row before that election.

The Government has accepted this recommendation, a key change.

This approach "strikes an appropriate balance" between the long-term goal of multiracialism, and ensuring a president from minority races, the Government said.

The White Paper also addressed concerns that a minority candidate in a reserved election might be a "token" president, saying he or she will have to be eligible and elected.

The Government also outlined other ways it will revise the scheme in the 49-page document.

A six-man council that advises the president will be strengthened.

The CPA will have eight members, and the president will have to consult it on all fiscal matters on the use of past reserves and all key public service appointments.

But a proposal to adjust the threshold needed for Parliament to override a veto based on how much support the president has from the CPA was rejected.

The Government said this approach is more "calibrated" but may unintentionally politicise the council.

It will stick to the present arrangement where Parliament can override a veto with a two-thirds majority if a simple majority of the CPA disagrees with the president.

The commission had also made several suggestions outside its terms of reference, such as urging that the Government decide whether to invoke or repeal a suspended provision of the Constitution to "entrench" or permanently safeguard the powers of the president.

This rule lets the president veto any law that aims to curtail his powers, and a national referendum has to be called to overturn the veto.

The Government will revise the entrenchment framework, but continue to suspend the provision.

The commission also suggested a return to an appointed president, and hiving off the president's custodial powers to a body of experts.

Rejecting this, the Government said the president needs a direct mandate to have the moral authority to veto an elected government's decision.

While there may be tension between the president's custodial role and his historical one as a unifying figure, all elected presidents to date "have been able to perform these two roles with distinction", it said.

"A custodial president democratically elected in a national election remains the most workable and effective solution for Singapore."

Higher thresholds for eligibility, but 'no' to longer qualifying term
Govt adopts 'cautious approach' even as criteria are tightened
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 16 Sep 2016

The eligibility criteria for presidential candidates will be made more stringent, but they will not be tightened to the extent proposed by the Constitutional Commission.

One key suggestion that the Government accepted in its White Paper yesterday will require potential private-sector candidates to have had experience running large, complex companies that have $500 million in shareholders' equity.

The current criterion - set 25 years ago - puts the amount at $100 million in paid-up capital, but the commission had said that shareholders' equity is a better reflection of a company's size and complexity.

The Government agreed that in terms of requiring that the company be listed on the Singapore Exchange, this need not be introduced at present.

The Government also agreed with the commission that only the person holding the most senior executive position in a company should qualify to run for president.

Current rules allow the chairman or chief executive of a qualifying company to stand, but the commission had noted that a non-executive chairman not actively running a company would not have the necessary expertise.

Also, a profitability requirement will be adopted to show that a potential candidate performed acceptably while helming a company.

Under this requirement, the firm should have recorded a net profit during the candidate's time heading it. It must also not go into liquidation or insolvency within three years of the candidate's departure.


But the Government rejected another significant recommendation, that potential candidates must have served six years - double the current requirement of three years - in a public- or private-sector position which qualifies them to stand for election.

While it recognised the importance of applicants spending adequate time in a qualifying office, the Government said the minimum duration was ultimately a question of balance.

"Given the concurrent changes to other aspects of the eligibility criteria, the Government prefers to adopt a cautious approach, and retain the qualifying tenure at three years at this time," it said.

Similarly, the Government preferred to "proceed cautiously" on a recommendation that the entire period of the candidate's qualifying tenure must be within 15 years before Nomination Day.

While it agreed that a candidate's experience must remain sufficiently relevant, it said: "As long as an applicant's qualifying tenure falls wholly or partly within 20 years of the relevant presidential election, his experience may be considered suitably current."

The commission had also proposed that should a candidate have held two or more qualifying positions, the time spent in those offices can be added up to meet the required length of tenure, which the commission had suggested be set at six years.

But the time spent in private-sector qualifying offices cannot be added with public-sector ones as the commission felt that "the experience derived from one route is likely to be different in nature from that derived from the other".

The Government agreed with this proposal. But in the light of its position to retain the current requirement of three years, it said there should be a maximum of two separate periods during which a candidate has held qualifying offices. Each qualifying period of office should also not be less than one year.

On the proposal that the Accountant-General and Auditor-General be removed from the list of key public service appointments that automatically qualify, the Government said it will need to consider such a move more carefully.

The commission had said that both offices 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 Government responded that these were valid points, but added: "The Government will retain the existing position for now, and reconsider whether the two offices should be removed at a future point in time."

Proposal on minority president strikes 'appropriate balance'
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 16 Sep 2016

The Constitutional Commission's proposal to guarantee a minority president from time to time strikes an "appropriate balance" between working towards the ideal of multiracialism and ensuring minorities are represented in the meantime, the Government said yesterday.

The "hiatus-triggered" framework - in which an election is reserved for a particular race if no one from that group has been president for five continuous terms - also gels with Singapore's meritocratic ideals.

This is because the qualifying criteria for presidential candidates remain the same. "This should negate any perceptions of him being a 'token' president," the Government said in its White Paper response to the panel's report.

The Government also said that, in accepting the recommendations, it agreed with the commission's reasons for ensuring multiracial representation in the presidency.

The panel had said that the "ultimate destination" was one where no safeguards are needed to ensure the representation of different ethnic groups.

Singapore has not "arrived" at such a destination yet, it said.

Agreeing, the Government said multiracialism is "fundamental to Singapore's cohesion and survival".

It featured prominently in the first Parliament session in 1965 and formed the terms of reference for the first Constitutional Commission a year later, said the White Paper.

The ideal is also entrenched in other social policies, such as education, housing and politics.

For example, the group representation constituencies scheme was introduced in 1988 to ensure minorities are suitably represented in Parliament. "This has encouraged all political parties to engage in multiracial rather than sectarian politics," said the Government.

Noting that countries such as Switzerland and Canada also ensure multiracial representation for their head of state posts, the Government said the nation would "lose an important element of multiracialism" if particular minority groups are never represented in the office.

"Every Singaporean has to be able to identify with the president, and to know that a member of his community can and will become president from time to time."

The Government also cautioned against taking Singapore's multiracial and meritocratic society for granted, as the world is "seeing a trend of explicitly race-based politics which works up and exploits populist sentiments".

It added: "Decencies and sensibilities built up over the years can easily come undone in an age where populism and appeals to racial impulses are increasingly common."

The White Paper cited Britain's Brexit referendum in June, when debates on immigration policies were widely intertwined with racial arguments.

But at the same time, Singapore has yet to become a "post-racial" society, it said, pointing to a recent study that shows that a significant number have a strong preference for presidents or prime ministers to be of their own race.

But the proposed mechanism is race-neutral as it guarantees the representation of all racial groups, the Government said.

It was "most unlikely" that the Chinese community would experience a five-term hiatus.

But the move to make sure there is minority representation is "significant at a symbolic level, as it underscores the importance of ensuring that all races are represented in the presidency", said the White Paper.

More stringent checks on character, integrity
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 16 Sep 2016

Potential presidential candidates will have their reputation, character and integrity assessed more stringently by the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC), which will also double in size and be given more powers.

These were among the Constitutional Commission recommendations the Government accepted in its White Paper yesterday.

With the change, applicants will have to detail their work experience and accomplishments before they are given a Certificate of Eligibility enabling them to run.

The commission had suggested, for example, that relevant information could include their involvement in community activities or initiatives demonstrating engagement with ethnic groups other than their own.

Applicants would also be required to list any "negative incidents", such as disciplinary proceedings by professional bodies and market regulators in and out of Singapore, bankruptcy orders, personal protection orders for family violence and whether they have been the subject of legal proceedings of any sort.

In its report, the Constitutional Commission said that applicants should disclose "matters pertaining to both the requirements of character and integrity, as well as to any other question of eligibility that the PEC may have to consider or decide upon".

This is a step up from the current laws where a potential candidate need only declare his employment history, any previous convictions, and a description of his occupation and company.

The Government also agreed with the commission that the PEC be strengthened too, to allow it to assess applicants more critically.

The PEC, which has the final say on whether an applicant has satisfied the eligibility criteria, will be expanded from three to six members.

It will be given more powers to ask for additional information from candidates, or revoke a candidate's Certificate of Eligibility if the person is found to have made false declarations, even after the person is elected president.

The three members in the PEC now are the chairmen of the Public Service Commission and the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority, and a member from the Presidential Council for Minority Rights, nominated by the council's chairman.

The commission recommended these three additional members:

• A retired Supreme Court judge, or another legal expert nominated by the Chief Justice, as the PEC's work requires some constitutional interpretation, and to ensure decisions are reached in a way that is procedurally fair.

• A past or present member of the Council of Presidential Advisers, nominated by the council's chairman, to provide insights into what the president's job entails.

• Someone from the private sector nominated by the Prime Minister, to look at a private- sector applicant's position in an organisation, and the size and complexity of the organisation.

The private-sector nominee will assess the applications of individuals who have not held a qualifying office in the private sector, but is hoping to persuade the PEC that his experience and expertise are comparable.

The Government also accepted the commission's suggestion that the PEC decide on issues by a simple majority, with the chairman casting a vote if there is a tie.

Stronger voice for council, more members
But panel's proposal concerning parliamentary overrides rejected
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 16 Sep 2016

The Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) will be given a stronger voice as the president will have to consult it on more issues and its size will be increased from six to eight members.

But the Government has rejected a proposal that the CPA's degree of support for a president's veto should affect how easy it is for Parliament to override the veto.

It set out its position on these recommendations of a Constitutional Commission in a White Paper released yesterday.

The commission's proposals last week included some related to the president's custodial powers. It suggested that in all fiscal matters relating to the national reserves and public service appointments, the president must consult the CPA before exercising his veto.

Currently, the president needs to do it only for some, not all, of these matters. The Government accepted the change.

It also gave the nod to the proposal that when the CPA disagrees with a presidential veto, Parliament should be able to override the veto on all such issues - not just some.

But it rejected another idea: that the stronger the CPA's support for a veto, the harder it should be for Parliament to override it.

Currently, if a majority of CPA members agree with a presidential veto, Parliament cannot override it.

This includes cases where the chairman casts a tie-breaking vote. The panel proposed that in such tie- breakers, Parliament can override the veto with a two-thirds majority.

If a majority of CPA members disagree with a veto, Parliament should be able to override it more easily: with a simple majority, not the current two-thirds majority.

The Government said this "provides a more finely calibrated approach", but still rejected the idea.

"The calibrated approach may unintentionally emphasise or even politicise how individual members of the council, particularly its chairman, have voted, instead of the collective judgment of the council as a whole," it said.

As for letting Parliament override a veto with a simple majority if the CPA disagrees with the president, the Government said "a reasonable argument can be made" for this.

But as the law is being changed to allow parliamentary overrides on more issues, further changes on the required majority are best deferred to a future review, it added.

As the proposed changes will increase the CPA's scope of work, the commission suggested expanding it from six to eight members.

The Government accepted this, as well as proposals to set guidelines in appointing members and make both new terms and reappointments last for six years.

On proposals to make the CPA's decision-making more transparent, the Government agreed with some but not all the suggestions.

The proposals concerned when and what information has to be disclosed to the president, prime minister and Speaker of Parliament, and when the president's opinion should be made public.

On whether the individual votes of CPA members should be made known, the Government said it prefers the current system of revealing only the total number for and against. Giving a breakdown of individual votes "could risk politicising the council, and consequently undermine its stature and independence", it said.

As for conveying the council's advice to the prime minister and Speaker, the Government agreed this should be done when the president is vetoing Supply Bills, Supplementary Supply Bills or Final Supply Bills - which are Bills related to government spending. In these situations, the president will also have to publish his opinion in the Gazette.

But for other veto areas - like key appointments - a balance must be struck between accountability and "protecting potentially sensitive and confidential information", said the Government, setting out "a more calibrated approach to publication".

What if the president neither assents to a Bill nor vetoes it?

Currently, he is deemed to have consented after 30 days have passed, in the case of certain Bills.

The commission suggested making such a deadline apply to all situations in which a parliamentary override can be invoked, and extending the wait period to six weeks.

The Government agreed and went further, applying a deadline to not just Bills but also the president's powers in areas like detention orders under the Internal Security Act.

It decided to keep the 30-day deadline for time-sensitive matters like Supply Bills, and to shorten this to 15 days in "exceptional cases" on urgent matters, though it did not specify what these might be.

More flexibility to update system of presidency
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 16 Sep 2016

Parts of the Constitution that safeguard the elected presidency (EP) will be amended to give the Government greater flexibility in updating the presidential system, without having to hold a national referendum each time it wants to do so.

The parts that will be changed are two provisions that "entrench" the president's powers, that is, protect them by making it difficult for Parliament to alter them.

Currently, these provisions - set out in Article 5A and Article 5(2A) - impose strict conditions that must be met before Parliament can pass amendments.

Under these Articles, the president can veto any attempt by Parliament to amend the Constitution to curtail his powers. To override the presidential veto, Parliament must get the support of two-thirds of the population in a national referendum.

Neither of the provisions has been in force. In fact, the Government had suspended them indefinitely.

But an indefinite suspension may not be appropriate, said the Constitutional Commission in a report last week on its review of the elected presidency.

Yesterday, the Government explained why it had suspended the provisions. It also proposed to re- craft the provisions into a two-tier system.

But the new system will not be brought into force for now, said the Government. "It is best to let some time pass, see how the institution works over time."

The reason for its cautious approach is to strike a balance between a Constitution that is too rigid and almost impossible to amend, and an overly flexible Constitution that can be altered by a simple majority vote in Parliament.

Singapore's Constitution needs to be able to continually evolve to meet changing needs, but the need for a national referendum makes this difficult.

A two-thirds majority of the electorate will be difficult to get on most issues. Indeed, it is such a high bar that there are only two other instances in the Constitution that require it.

They are: deciding whether to surrender Singapore's sovereignty or control of its armed forces or police force, and amending the provisions governing these decisions.

The issues in a referendum to override a presidential veto will also likely be complex and unable to be resolved by a simple "yes" or "no" vote.

The framework making it difficult for Parliament to change the laws of the elected presidency is also too broad now. It covers more than just the president's core job of safeguarding the reserves and making key public appointments. It includes operational details related to the presidency and even provisions completely unrelated to the presidency.

In view of this, the Government proposed to separate critical changes to the presidency from non-critical ones, which relate more to procedures.

It also suggested setting different standards for each category.

The first tier of provisions establishes the elected presidency and its powers. If the Government wants to change the provisions but the president and the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) disagree, the Government will need the people's support in a referendum to override the presidential veto.

If the president and the CPA do not agree on the veto, the Government can go ahead and make the changes if two-thirds of Parliament support it.

The CPA's advice should be given more weight because a presidential veto of these fundamental changes has wide-reaching effects and should be supported by "at least a majority" of his advisers.

The second tier covers how the president operates.

The Government argued that it was important for it to have the flexibility to amend these operational details and to ensure that they evolve over time as needs change. If the Government wants to change the second-tier provisions but the president and the CPA disagree, the presidential veto can be overridden if three-quarters of Parliament support the changes.

If the CPA disagrees with the president on his veto, then the changes can go ahead with the support of two-thirds of Parliament.

Suggestion to revert to appointed head of state rejected
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 16 Sep 2016

A custodial president who is democratically elected remains the "most workable and effective solution for Singapore for the present", the Government said yesterday.

It rejected the Constitutional Commission's suggestion of reverting to an appointed head of state who would focus on the historic role of being a unifying figure for the nation.

As for the custodial role of safeguarding the reserves and the integrity of the public service, the panel said in its report made public last week that this could be assumed by a group of appointed experts.

But the Government said retaining the elected presidency better serves the tenets of democracy.

"Whether the Government makes decisions with the president's concurrence, the president vetoes the Government's decision, or Parliament overrides the president's veto, it is always an elected institution that represents Singaporeans in making important decisions relating to our financial reserves and the integrity of the public service," it said.

It offered four reasons the presidency should remain an elected institution.

First, the president's custodial powers - the "second key" - should be held by someone with direct mandate from Singaporeans. This ensures that he has the moral authority to veto an elected government, it said.

It pointed out that the panel had acknowledged that for a president to have custodial powers, he must have the democratic mandate.

Yet appointing a group of experts to serve this role would lead to the same lack of independence and mandate that led the commission to reject an appointed custodial president, it said.

Second, the proposal of an appointed body of experts could lead to inefficiency and a lack of rigour while executing its custodial powers.

That is because the experts can only force a debate on its objections but not actually veto any initiatives - presumably because they lack the democratic mandate to do so, the Government said.

Third, despite the potential tension between the president's historical and custodial roles, all three elected presidents "have been able to perform these two roles with distinction".

The White Paper said such success depends on the character and qualities of the person elected: "All presidential candidates must aspire towards playing both roles well."

Fourth, the tension between the president's two roles can be mitigated, even if not entirely eliminated.

This could be partially achieved by implementing rules to govern election campaigns and reduce the risk of presidential elections becoming politicised, since the president has no role in initiating policies.

To that end, the Government said it would study the panel's proposals to restrict or exclude acts that might cause divisiveness, and impose sanctions on candidates who take positions that are incompatible with the office of president.

Its decision on the necessary changes will be made known in due course, the White Paper said.

Many questions raised at dialogue
Community leaders ask if changes will weaken institution, nation's principles
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 16 Sep 2016

Whether proposed changes to the elected presidency weaken a key institution in Singapore's political system or undermine the nation's basic principles like meritocracy - these were the thrust of many questions raised by community leaders at a two-hour dialogue yesterday.

But Law Minister K. Shanmugam said the Government makes tweaks to the system that it feels are in the best interest of Singapore and Singaporeans, even if the changes invite criticism from some quarters.

He cited the Group Representation Constituency system, which was introduced in 1988 to guarantee minority representation in Parliament.

The Government of the day faced severe criticism, especially from minority community leaders, Mr Shanmugam recalled.

"Many of the Malay and Indian MPs didn't want it. They said it is not good, people will say that we are being carried by the Chinese candidates, that we can't be elected on our own.

"But Mr Lee Kuan Yew realised that in the end, in some things like this, race becomes relevant - in a straight fight, race does matter," he said, referring to Singapore's founding Prime Minister.

But the GRC system has proved to work as it has been used honestly and in good faith, he said, in response to a question on whether trying to imbue respect and integrity in the elected presidency is an elusive process given the proposed reserved election.

"Today, some ministers are minorities: I anchor my constituency, nobody says I'm being carried by someone else," said Mr Shanmugam.

A reserved election is for a particular race which has not had an elected president for five terms or 30 years.

Last night's panel, which included Senior Minister of State (Defence and Foreign Affairs) and South East District Mayor Maliki Osman, was also asked whether the proposed changes would lead to an erosion in meritocracy.

No, said Mr Shanmugam, who noted that in the past, when the president was appointed, the office was rotated among the different races.

In the event of a reserved race, the candidates must still meet the eligibility criteria.

The panel was also asked if the proposed changes are aimed at locking out potential candidates that the Government dislikes.

Mr Shanmugam said the "key thing" is to leave aside the individual and ask whether the system needs to be evaluated regularly and kept relevant.

"Do we, as a Government, do what is right based on the system, or do we worry, well, some people are going to say, this is to knock out people we don't like?" he asked the audience of about 300 grassroots and community leaders.

The current criteria mean more than 1,000 private sector individuals qualify as candidates. It is not possible to ensure all will still qualify when the bar is raised, he added.

Asked why the Government wanted to retain the three-year, instead of six-year, qualifying tenure for private sector candidates, Mr Shanmugam said the Government felt a six-year qualifying period that falls within the last 15 years may exclude otherwise qualified individuals.

SIM University economist Walter Theseira said the Government was probably aware that overly stringent criteria will place too much emphasis on the custodial powers and have the unintended effect of excluding individuals who have the qualities to play the unifying role of the president.

Also, if only one candidate qualifies to run, it reduces the legitimacy of the elected president, he added.

Dr Norshahril Saat of the Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute said the Government did not accept all the recommendations for raising the eligibility criteria because it wanted to strike a balance between maintaining high standards and ensuring there are enough people who qualify for the job.

"You want to ensure high standards so that the position is given to someone who can manage the technical requirements of the position, but not too much that you shrink the pool of those who qualify," he said.

On Tan Cheng Bock, mixed-race candidates: Singaporeans ask tough questions on the Elected Presidency review
By Linette Lim, Channel NewsAsia, 15 Sep 2016

Is the Government raising the qualifying criteria for presidential candidates to block certain individuals from contesting? In a reserved election for Malay candidates, would someone who is half-Malay qualify? These were among the questions Singaporeans asked at dialogue session on Thursday (Sep 15).

The dialogue, helmed by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, is the first to be held after the Government released its White Paper on Thursday evening. It was attended by around 300 to 400 people in South East CDC. Here is a sample of what they wanted to know about the changes to the Elected Presidency scheme:

Q: How will the Government respond to the view that all these changes are just to ensure that some individuals will not get elected?

Mr Shanmugam: You might as well mention the name of Tan Cheng Bock… Dr Tan won’t qualify (under the new eligibility rules) because he didn’t actually run a company. He was (a) non-executive. And of course the company is not S$500m shareholders' equity. So I think the key thing in this is to really, first leave aside the individual and look at the system.

And ask yourself logically, whether... do we, as a Government, do what is right, based on the system, or do we worry (that) some people are going to say this is to knock out people we don't like?

You know, more than 1,000 people will qualify from the private sector. Do you think we know who they are and we can make sure that they are all going to be OK? It’s not possible.

Q: When could the circuit-breaker (to hold a reserved election after a racial group has not been represented in Presidential office after five continuous terms) come into effect?

Mr Shamugam: The most direct answer is actually, the Government can decide. When we put in the Bill, we can say we want it to start from this period. It’s… a policy decision but there are also some legal questions about the Elected Presidency and the definition and so on, so we have asked the Attorney-General for advice. Once we get the advice, we will send it out. Certainly by the time the Bill gets to Parliament, which is in October, I think we will have a position and we will make it public.

At present, there are a number of legal questions… including whether such provisions are consistent with the Convention to eliminate racial discrimination, how do you draft it, whether you count all presidencies, elected presidencies, which is the first elected president – there are a number of questions we have to sort out.

Q: In a reserved election for Malay candidates, would someone who is half-Malay qualify?

Mr Shanmugam: It’s a fair question, because 40 per cent of our marriages today are mixed… so we do know, a substantial number are mixed races, and it is quite a complicated question. On top of the complications, now we have to set up a Chinese committee to decide whether you are Chinese or not Chinese. I don’t know how we are going to do that, but we will do it.

In the GRC system today, it already takes into account the possibility of mixed marriages. There is a two-step test. First, what do you consider yourself as? So let’s take a Malay-Chinese, or a child of Malay-Chinese parents. Does he or she consider himself or herself primarily Malay or Chinese? That’s the first criteria. If he considers himself Chinese, then he cannot qualify as Malay. So culturally, what is he, how does he consider himself? Then there is also a committee that looks to see whether – you say you are Malay, but are you accepted by the community as Malay? So that’s the two-step criteria, because people can try and game the system.

Changes to the elected presidency

Just who should hold the second key?
The Sunday Times, 18 Sep 2016

Has the qualifications bar for candidates been raised too high?

Does the reserved presidency for minorities conflict with meritocracy?

Are there sufficient checks and balances, bearing in mind that the elected president has custodial powers - the so-called "second key" safeguard mechanism - against a government that might wish to draw on past reserves?

These and other questions reared their head during a Straits Times roundtable discussion on Friday, a day after the Government released its White Paper accepting - with some modifications - recommendations put forward by the Constitutional Commission reviewing the elected presidency.

Insight reports on what the panel comprising two politicians, including Law Minister K. Shanmugam, and two academics had to say.

The Straits Times Roundtable on the Elected Presidency

Finding good men - and women - who can be president
Head of state versus custodial role, minority representation and stricter qualifying criteria. The Straits Times roundtable panellists discuss what these mean for the elected presidency and the nation.
By Zakir Hussain, Political Editor, The Sunday Times, 18 Sep 2016

When Singapore attained self- government in 1959 and independence in 1965, its head of state and later, president, was a unifying symbol of the multiracial nation.

Just over a quarter-century later, in 1991, changes to the highest office in the land were introduced, giving the president custodial powers over the nation's reserves and in approving key public-sector posts - assets vital to a country with no natural resources to fall back on.

He would also have to be elected.

And now, one year after Singapore celebrated its Golden Jubilee, the Constitution will again be amended significantly, with the widest changes to the elected presidency in its 25 years.

The changes, which the Government outlined in a White Paper published last Thursday, will strengthen the process of candidate selection to ensure men - and women - who stand for election merit the post and can fulfil both key roles well, said a roundtable panel convened last Friday by The Straits Times.

Private-sector candidates must have been the most senior executive in a company with at least $500 million in shareholders' equity, compared to the current $100 million in paid-up capital.

There will also be a mechanism that ensures candidates from the three main racial groups are represented in the office regularly.

Amendments to the Constitution will be made to strengthen the role of both the initial vetting panel, the Presidential Elections Committee and the Council of Presidential Advisers, as well as to safeguard the institution itself.

But the demands of the historical and custodial roles of the president can be at odds and give rise to potential tension - a point the Government noted in its White Paper.

And finding good men and women who can do the job is a big task, let alone taking the issue of minority representation into consideration, said the roundtable panellists, comprising Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam, Nominated MP Azmoon Ahmad, and academics Gillian Koh and Cheah Wui Ling.

They noted that the process by which the matter was tackled - from the time the review was announced in January and the setting up of a Constitutional Commission that called for public submissions and had hearings, to the publication of the commission's report on Sept 7 - was consultative.

More importantly, it has started a broader conversation about topics that people have been wary of talking about, such as race and representation in the position, said Assistant Professor Cheah of the National University of Singapore Law Faculty.

"There was sufficient time for people to discuss this," she said, noting that the commission received more than 100 submissions from the public.

"You can't say that Singaporeans are apathetic. Given the opportunity, they would want to engage, and engage in a constructive manner."

These engagements shaped the Government's response to the commission's proposals "quite substantially", Mr Shanmugam said, noting that it felt the broadest possible representation should be taken into account.

"The process has been good for this matter," added the Law Minister, who is leading a series of engagements with grassroots and community leaders on the changes, which the Government will introduce in Parliament next month.

The amendments to the Constitution will then be debated in the House in early November.

The review of the elected presidency itself came in the wake of the hotly contested 2011 presidential election which President Tony Tan Keng Yam won by a narrow margin.

One question that has emerged is whether the changes are aimed at barring certain individuals from contesting the next presidential election, which must be called by August next year.

But Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who came in a close second, himself said in a Facebook post this month: "We should not jump into conclusion that the whole exercise was to prevent me from running. After all, the people in charge are men of virtue and integrity and would not resort to doing this."

At recent dialogues, Mr Shanmugam and his colleagues have said the changes seek to improve the system and raise the bar for candidates in tandem with the growth of the economy and the reserves, and are not directed at individuals.


Given that the president is a symbol of national unity, there is a need to guarantee minority presidents from time to time. In particular, Singapore has not had a Malay president since its first head of state Yusof Ishak died in office in 1970.

One key recommendation by the commission - the only one the Government accepted in full and that has gained some traction among the public - has been the special provision to guarantee minority representation in the presidency.

This means that if there has not been a president from one of the three main racial groups - Chinese, Malay or Indian and other minority communities - for five continuous terms, or 30 years, the next election will be reserved for members of that group.

One significant aspect is that, unlike the provision for minority MPs to be elected under the Group Representation Constituency system, the commission proposed that this framework be race-neutral.

This means that if, for some reason, there is no Chinese president over five terms, the next election will be reserved for Chinese candidates. "We thought in practical terms that eventuality will never happen and wonder if it was necessary," said Mr Shanmugam.

"But when we went round to the various dialogue sessions and to people on the ground, it was quite clear that most people preferred an approach which had a reserved election for all the races if, for example, for five terms a Chinese candidate doesn't get elected. A race-neutral approach in those terms philosophically also makes sense, and so the Government has accepted that."

He noted that some have also wondered whether five terms was too long. The commission had rejected a model of alternating the presidency between the three racial groups, as this was too obtrusive and fixed.

But the minister added: "There is nothing to stop candidates from any race standing in any election unless it's a reserved election."

The accepted framework, he said, acted as a "circuit breaker" - a reserved election would kick in only if a candidate from a racial group had not held the office for five terms.

In its White Paper, the Government said this approach "carefully balances the need for multiracialism with our meritocratic ideals".

Dr Gillian Koh of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), who at a commission hearing felt strongly that a president elected in a reserved election might lack gravitas, said she had come round to the idea of a reserved election. She noted that the provision was a fallback one, a "light touch" and a "nudge" in the direction of multiracialism.

Prof Cheah felt reserved elections help resolve the issue of minorities finding it harder to be elected, but wondered about possible steps that could be taken to tackle underlying issues like voting along racial lines.

Mr Shanmugam noted that the United States has had close to 2,000 senators in its history, but only nine have been African- American. And 43 per cent of whites voted for US President Barack Obama in 2008, compared to 95 per cent of blacks.

The minister noted that every major community would like to see someone of their race be president. "These things are primordial. They don't go away," he added.

Singapore, he said, took the approach of recognising that differences can be a strength. "We needed meritocracy as a basic building block, but if meritocracy meant that one or more of the races didn't have a look-in into the system, that wouldn't work either. We had to make sure that everybody prospered within the framework of meritocracy, but you make some adjustments along the way and encourage a lot of self-help."


But a deeper issue, Nominated MP Azmoon Ahmad felt, was that the raised eligibility criteria would narrow further the pool of minority candidates from the private sector, even as it was important to have a sufficient crop of Malay candidates and the same criteria for all.

Dr Koh pointed out that the Government's qualified acceptance of the commission's recommendations - it rejected the suggestion that all candidates must have served for at least six years in a qualifying position, up from three, among others - would still keep the field of eligible contenders wider than the commission proposed.

Mr Shanmugam said that even as the criteria had to be updated, having different criteria for minorities would not be accepted by people, including minorities themselves.

Thus, while the revised criteria means there will be fewer Malay and Indian candidates who would now be eligible, he was confident the pool would grow over time.

Mr Azmoon asked the minister if he was confident there would be a Malay president elected in an open contest in the next five terms.

"I certainly hope so," Mr Shanmugam replied. "There are qualified Malay candidates. And I think it's up to the community to persuade them to come forward and stand in open elections."

But the onus must not just fall on minorities, Prof Cheah pointed out.

"It's also incumbent on the majority community to try to overcome the in-group mentality shown in data (from surveys on racial preferences of voters)," she said.

Indeed, a recent Channel NewsAsia-IPS survey found 59 per cent of Chinese respondents said they would find a Malay president acceptable, the lowest across all groups.

Panellists agreed that it was the obligation of Singaporeans as a whole to overcome such tendencies.

The indications seem promising.

Said Mr Shanmugam: "What has been heartening in the dialogues is the strong sense of multiracialism and strong sense of meritocracy."


Even as the current debate on the changes revolve around two key long-entrenched principles that have stood Singapore in good stead over the past 50 years - multiracialism and meritocracy - the latest changes also move a step closer to making the elected presidency a permanent feature of the system.

A quarter-century has elapsed since the elected presidency was introduced, and the Constitutional Commission called for provisions in the Constitution that entrench the system to either be brought into force, or repealed fully or partly.

Dr Koh found the Government's decision to split these provisions significant: The first tier seeks to safeguard the elected presidency and "when it's finally set in place, we should have no further arguments about the need for the elected presidency, not even setting aside discussions about whether we should go back to the appointed president".

The second tier will allow amendments to the custodial powers and other criteria to be made with more flexibility and not require a national referendum on such changes.

Mr Azmoon said he liked this approach: "There is this provision for changes. We have to make the system adaptable through time."

As to when the revised provisions will be entrenched, Mr Shanmugam said: "You want to see how it works and that is something that we can only say after some experience."

Does he see a return to an appointed president in the future, with the custodial powers devolved as the commission had suggested?

Mr Shanmugam said there was some basis for the commission's views in this area, but "if you want the president to have the moral authority to say 'No' to the Government, he has to have his independent standing, through elections".

"But a future government could disagree (on the need for an elected president), and if it disagrees, it can amend the Constitution in the way that is provided," he added.

For all the shortcomings of holding elections, which the commission said could prove divisive, panellists recognised the merits of the elected presidency as a unique feature in Singapore's evolving system of governance.

Dr Koh said she sees the elected presidency as an institution that addresses what critics of Sing- apore's government system say it lacks - checks and balances on a dominant party in government.

And it helps safeguard two things that are essential to the Singapore system, she added - the integrity of the public service and key appointments - as well as a key element of the nation's defences: its reserves. "If the time comes and we face trouble, that's all we've got," she said.

The potential for tension between the president's historical and custodial roles notwithstanding, the White Paper notes that all elected presidents have been able to perform both roles with distinction. "All presidential candidates must aspire towards playing both roles well," it adds.

Mr Azmoon agreed, saying "we must not ever forget" that the president is a unifier across various segments of society.

Prof Cheah added that the public discussion on the subject had surfaced deeper themes about identity and accountability, and going forward, it is a good thing for people to start thinking about difficult topics and talking about them and, ultimately, reaching out across communities.

Even as the ongoing debate is a reminder that the president must be a unifying figure, it should also give Singaporeans cause to reflect on what they, too, can do for the country to stay united.

Has the bar been set too high?
By Chong Zi LiangThe Sunday Times, 18 Sep 2016

Has the bar for potential presidential candidates been raised too high, inadvertently excluding individuals who have what it takes to be the head of state?

Nominated MP Azmoon Ahmad raised this question at last Friday's panel discussion, when he zeroed in on two key amendments to the eligibility criteria suggested by the Constitutional Commission and accepted by the Government.

When the changes kick in, private-sector candidates must have had experience running large, complex companies that have a minimum of $500 million in shareholders' equity - a change from the current requirement of $100 million in paid-up capital.

Also, only the most senior executive in such a company will qualify.

But Mr Azmoon argued that the $500 million figure was not an exact measure of a person's capabilities, and someone helming a company of a lower value may well have better leadership skills.

"I know of top executives, those that lead smaller companies, and they are good leaders and their products are, what I call, low-value products and they will never make the $500 million mark," he said.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam acknowledged that the $500 million figure is a "proxy" for finding individuals with the necessary financial competence. But he highlighted that the same could be said of the criterion, no matter what figure it is set at.

That is why the commission compared the financial figures today with those of 1991, when the elected presidency was introduced, to get a sense of how the eligibility criteria should be revised to better reflect the present economic landscape.

"There is no ideal way of choosing the best person, but if you want to look for markers and proxies, this is what the commission has come up with," he said.

And even if an applicant's company does not meet the $500 million mark, the rules include what Mr Shanmugam called a "deliberative track" that allows the vetting body, the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC), some leeway on who qualifies to stand for election.

"If you can persuade the PEC that you have this kind of qualities and you have run a smaller company but your company made all these sorts of advances and changes and it's demonstrative of your ability, if you can persuade the PEC that you have comparable experience, then you can still succeed," he said.

Later, Mr Azmoon asked if it was necessary to restrict qualification to only the top executive position in a firm. A chief financial officer - not as high a rank as chief executive - could actually be the best person to look into the numbers when safeguarding the national reserves, he said.

But Institute of Policy Studies deputy director Gillian Koh pointed out the commission's rationale was that only the most senior decision-maker in a company will have the required expertise and experience.

Mr Shanmugam added that if more executive positions could qualify, the PEC would "be hard-pressed to decide what exactly your executive role was, how significant your role was in the context of the success of the company".

"The commission's view was 'let's be quite clean and neat about it - you show that you are responsible for the company and that it was profitable, that you managed it and for a period'," he said.

Meanwhile, National University of Singapore assistant professor of law Cheah Wui Ling suggested that the PEC's decision on who qualifies to stand for president could be subject to judicial review.

But Mr Shanmugam said the realities of operating such a system would make it too complex and unworkable.

"Let's say a candidate challenges and meanwhile elections are held and someone else is elected, the court ruling may come 18 months down the road. I think judicial review in such cases is not the best or most practical solution," he said.


AZMOON AHMAD: I know of top executives, those that lead smaller companies, and they are good leaders and their products are what I call low- value products and they will never make the $500 million mark.

K. SHANMUGAM: I understand. But how do we devise a system that doesn't look at individuals but can work for the future?

AZMOON: Precisely, that's what I'm trying to point out - this $500 million is still a proxy, it is not a true measure.

SHANMUGAM: Yes, it's a proxy.

AZMOON: Yes, so if it's not a true measure, it's just a proxy and that proxy became...

SHANMUGAM: I don't say it's not a true measure, I say it's a proxy.

AZMOON: Okay, a proxy may become a stumbling block, a filtration where it's not real. That's my worry. Can we couch it a bit different?

SHANMUGAM: Right. Well, you have the deliberative track which Gillian Koh pointed, even if you haven't run a company of size of $500 million, but if you can persuade the Presidential Elections Committee that you have this kind of qualities and you have run a smaller company but your company made all these sorts of advances and changes and it's demonstrative of your ability, if you can persuade the PEC that you have comparable experience, then you can still succeed.

Reserved races - right direction but will they work?
By Rachel Au-YongThe Sunday Times, 18 Sep 2016

Are reserved-race presidential elections a clever solution to ensure multiracialism? Or are they something that minority groups themselves may not find all that workable?

At a Straits Times roundtable discussion on changes to the elected presidency last Friday, panellists discussed the pros and cons of the "hiatus-triggered" framework.

Under this model, an election is reserved for a particular race if no one from that group has been president for five continuous terms.

On one hand, Institute of Policy Studies deputy director Gillian Koh saw the move as a "nudge towards multiracialism".

It would also go hand-in-hand with Singapore's other ideal, meritocracy, as the proposed higher eligibility criteria would apply to all elections.

Dr Koh said she had initially disagreed with the provision, fearing it would lead to heightened race differences but was heartened that the provision is meant to be a fallback.

"I live with it because it is a five-term hiatus before the provision kicks in," she said.

On the other hand, Nominated MP Azmoon Ahmad was concerned that the higher criteria would shrink an already small pool of Malay candidates even further.

His worry was compounded by his observation that of those Malays who are qualified, most would prefer not to put themselves up for election. "I hope that there will be more Malays coming forward offering themselves (as candidates), maybe in the coming 10 years," he said.

Dr Koh concurred, noting a lack of Malay candidates who have put themselves up since the elected presidency scheme was introduced in 1991.

The panel concluded that two things must happen to change this.

First, minority candidates must, well, volunteer.

"We really want to encourage the community to... not be scared and feel that the election process is so churlish because you have to trumpet yourself and offer yourself for the position," said Dr Koh.

Second, it is also the responsibility of society to overcome any racial biases it might have. Panellists cited recent surveys that had shown that a significant number of Singaporeans preferred their leaders to be someone from their own race.

Said National University of Singapore assistant law professor Cheah Wui Ling: "We also have to reach out across community lines... and encourage them to run."

She wanted the Government to take more active steps, such as in educational policies, to address the problem of voting along racial lines.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam agreed that more education would help, but said such biases are part of "human nature".

However, Singaporeans have come a long way: "We must not overstate it. The majority of Singaporeans can look past race."

He attributed this to the "practical" ways that Singapore has dealt with its different races: "We didn't, like France, ignore the differences and say they didn't matter. "

The Group Representation Constituency scheme, introduced in 1988 to ensure minority representation in Parliament, is one example.

Despite the minority requirement, the principle of meritocracy has not been undermined.

He said: "Today, when people look at a Malay MP or an Indian MP, they don't say, 'Oh, he's there because of his race'."

Bring the entrenchment provisions into force sooner?
Most panellists at discussion feel this could make the Constitution too difficult to change in future
By Charissa YongThe Sunday Times, 18 Sep 2016

A part of the Constitution that safeguards the powers of the president should be brought into force sooner rather than later, said Institute of Policy Studies deputy director Gillian Koh.

By empowering the president, the provisions - which are currently suspended - would act as a check on Parliament and unfettered use of the reserves, she argued at Friday's Straits Times roundtable discussion on changes to the elected presidency.

However, other panellists felt that bringing the provisions into force could make the Constitution too difficult to change in the future, leaving it unable to meet the evolving needs of society.

Because of this, the Government has taken a cautious approach and has no immediate plans to bring them into force, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam.

At the heart of the debate was the structure of checks and balances built into the political system, and the trade-offs it poses for the kind of Constitution that Singapore wants.

Panellists addressed a key upcoming change to a set of provisions in the Constitution that "entrench", or protect, the presidency by making it difficult for Parliament to amend the laws governing the office.

Currently, these provisions - set out in Article 5A and Article 5(2A) - impose strict conditions that must be met before Parliament can pass amendments.

Under these Articles, the president can veto any attempt by Parliament to amend the Constitution to curtail his powers. To override the presidential veto, Parliament must get the support of two-thirds of the population in a national referendum

Neither of the provisions has been in force as the Government had suspended them indefinitely.

Last week, the Government proposed to re-craft the provisions into a two-tier system. Under the new system, strict conditions must still be met if the Government wants to make fundamental changes to the presidency, but less critical changes will not need to clear such a high bar to get the go-ahead.

The new system will not be brought into force for now.

Giving her take on the issue of timing, Dr Koh argued that the provisions would be a structural check on Parliament, and any unfettered use of the reserves and making key public-sector appointments.

The provisions underpin and bolster the presidency, and having the elected presidency itself "is something that addresses what a lot of critics of Singapore's government system say we lack", she said.

"It is a light check but nonetheless should be viewed as a check."

But Mr Shanmugam said that care must be taken not to tie the hands of future governments and leave them unable to change the Constitution. "If you entrench it in a way that ties the hands of future governments, then that Constitution cannot fit the society as society changes," he said.

The Constitution must be capable of being amended - something that the current requirement of the support of two-thirds of the electorate in a national referendum may make virtually impossible.

In the United States, for instance, the Constitution is so difficult to amend that changes can be made only through the courts.

This has the effect of taking control over public policy away from Parliament and moving it over to the judges, which is not Singapore's constitutional structure, said Mr Shanmugam.

He cited a hypothetical example of a future government wanting to scrap the elected presidency.

Currently, requiring the president to be elected gives him the standing and moral authority to say "no" to the Government.

Said the minister: "A future government could disagree, and if it disagrees, it can amend the Constitution in the way that is provided."

Agreeing, Nominated MP and panellist Azmoon Ahmad said: "We have to make the system adaptable through time."

This need for flexibility is why there is no strict deadline for the changes to take place.

Asked by the fourth panellist, assistant professor of law Cheah Wui Ling, when the new system might be brought into force, Mr Shanmugam said: "I am not able to tell you that now. It depends on how these provisions work."

But he said that Singapore should "wait to see how it works out... and then entrench it at a suitable point in time once we are confident".

The issue of checks and balances also cropped up during a discussion on changes that give more weight to the decisions of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA).

These changes are about the intricacies of when Parliament can and cannot override the president - mostly, they depend on whether the president is supported by the CPA.

It serves as an additional layer of checks and balances, and Mr Shanmugam described the changes as complex but significant.

"In the past it was slightly untidy - the president in some cases has to consult the CPA, in some cases he didn't need to even in respect of fiscal matters. In the context of appointments he had to consult in some cases but at least in one situation, he didn't have to," he said.

"There were questions as to when Parliament can override and when it couldn't override, some cases it could, in some cases it couldn't.

"We now are looking at an approach based on what the commission has said, to say that in terms of the custodial functions - fiscal and for appointments - in all cases, the president must consult the CPA, and if the CPA agrees with the president, then that's it, Parliament cannot override."

Changes to elected presidency seek to improve system, not bar certain individuals: Shanmugam
They benefit Singapore's long-term future, he says, and are not aimed at stopping certain individuals from running
By Lim Yan LiangThe Straits Times, 19 Sep 2016

Changes to the elected presidency (EP) are aimed at improving the system for Singapore's long-term future, not at barring certain individuals from standing, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

"The starting point in looking at this is the system. We are doing this for the future, for the benefit of Singaporeans, our children and grandchildren," he said at a dialogue with 1,300 grassroots leaders and residents at ITE College Central.

"You don't look at individuals and then work backwards," he said.

The recommended changes, which the Government broadly accepted in a White Paper last Thursday, were proposed by a Constitutional Commission that felt the eligibility criteria should be raised, as did many of the participants yesterday, noted Mr Shanmugam, who is also the Home Affairs Minister.

Participant Edmund Lim had asked Mr Shanmugam whether the changes might seem aimed at denying candidates like Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who ran in the 2011 Presidential Election, a chance to contest the next election due by next August.

On Saturday, Dr Tan wrote on Facebook that Mr Shanmugam had said at a dialogue last Thursday that he could not qualify with the changes. Wrote Dr Tan: "Is there some truth after all that the changes in the rules were to make sure I would not be eligible? It would be a sad day for Singaporeans if a constitutional change was made because of an individual."

Replying to Mr Lim's question yesterday, Mr Shanmugam said Singaporeans should "start with a set of logical questions on the system, and then apply it fairly".

The questions are:

• Do you believe that Singapore needs a president with specific powers to say no to the Government?

• If so, do you think this person needs to be elected and cannot be appointed by the Government?

• If so, do you think there must be some criteria beyond being a Singaporean aged 45 and above, so he can say yes or no to spending a large sum from the reserves?

• And if so, do you think the criteria need to be reviewed regularly?

Mr Shanmugam asked for a show of hands for each question, and a majority of the participants raised their hands. "Once you look at it like that, you will see that this is not directed at any individual," he said.

The Government was updating the system for the "best possible chance" of having the right person for the job, not making exceptions to ensure a particular individual would qualify or not, he added.

Mr Shanmugam noted that the review of the EP comes 25 years after it was introduced.

And the commission led by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon studied over 100 written submissions and invited 20 groups and persons who made them to public hearings, which were widely covered by the media, before putting out its recommendations.

These include private-sector candidates having been the most senior executive in a company with at least $500 million in shareholders' equity, compared with the current $100 million in paid-up capital.

As the president is a symbol of Singapore's multiracialism, there will also be a mechanism to reserve the next election for a candidate from one of the three main racial groups - Chinese, Malay, or Indian and others - if no one from that group has held the office in the preceding five terms .

Other questions raised yesterday included whether the Council of Presidential Advisers should be elected and if there should still be a vote if only one candidate was eligible to stand for election that year.

Sculptor Elsie Yu asked if the Government could reserve elections for women. Mr Shanmugam said it would likely not go down this route, "but we should try and change attitudes, particularly of our men".

Participants were also divided on whether the provision to ensure minorities are represented in the presidency was necessary - even as some felt five terms was too long.

"There are many different views," Mr Shanmugam said, noting that group representation constituencies to ensure minority MPs were initially unpopular, but have now become a mainstay.

"It shows you the importance of having it (the minority provision), because in some things the Government has got to take the lead."

Entrenching race-based thinking in politics?
By Terri-Anne Teo, Published The Straits Times, 27 Sep 2016

The Government has accepted the Constitutional Commission's recommendation to reserve an election for candidates from a particular race if a member of that racial group has not been elected in the five terms prior.

The proposed changes, to be tabled in Parliament, seek to cultivate a society that recognises the value of cultural diversity and does not allow negative perceptions of difference to affect behaviour. Institutionalising this mentality through the elected presidency (EP) treats the recognition of racial differences as a civic principle that should be upheld across and within institutions of civil society.

With this understanding, there are clear merits to safeguarding the representation of racial groups through the EP. With revisions set in motion, we should, however, now consider measures needed to mitigate any self-fulfilling prophecy of voting along racial lines that could inadvertently emerge.


The release of the recommendations of the Constitutional Commission early this month came just weeks after the results of a 2016 Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) survey commissioned by Channel NewsAsia were published.

The survey found that Singaporeans are comfortable interacting with people from another race but have a strong preference for a prime minister or president from their own race.

Indeed, the commission noted public submissions on the subject, such as a contributor referring to a 2013 IPS survey showing a tendency to vote along racial lines.

While hoping that the electorate will evolve towards a "race-blind" society, "where no safeguards are required to ensure that candidates from different ethnic groups are periodically elected" to the presidency, it acknowledged it would be "prudent" to put safeguards while "on the journey".

Implicit within fears of race-based voting is that it reflects a form of racial thinking where members of a different race are perceived to be inherently different. Anthropologist Lawrence Hirschfeld states that "race is not a natural category of the mind... (but) race has in itself - in its psychological core - a naturalising and essentialising potency". This effect of racial thinking is worrying because it could lead to a racially divided society. Ideally, the symbolism of changes to the EP system will dissolve this "potency" of race by alleviating racial divisions, helping to create an inclusive society.

This objective of symbolically portraying a representative society has raised doubt among pundits. They warn that race-based changes to the EP are a form of tokenism, where individuals will be elected mainly on the basis of their representation of a particular racial group, rather than merit.

In response to these concerns, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the proposed change expresses "necessary symbolism of what we are as a multiracial society - what Singapore means, stands for and what we aspire to be". Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam also explained, "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". Assuring the electorate that meritocracy will be upheld, revisions to the EP include stricter criteria for eligible candidates.

With these measures, tokenism is clearly not the intent of the commission's recommendations. What appears more important is whether the symbolism of the new race-based contest for the elected presidency every five terms falls short of its objectives and leads to undesirable circumstances.


While recognising the potential for the EP to successfully nurture a racially representative society, the change risks fostering the very kind of race-based voting it was meant to compensate for.

Instituting an electoral mechanism founded on the very notion of race may reinforce the racial thinking that it is trying to avert, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rather than discouraging voting along racial lines, the electorate may be spurred to continue - or begin - voting for members of their racial group with the rationale that opportunities for a member of the minority group are now built into the system as a safeguard mechanism.

Consequently, the introduction of a five-term policy could result in a vicious circle where members of various minority groups are only elected every sixth term.

To mitigate this pitfall, existing shifts away from racial thinking should be nurtured. While the IPS survey suggests that there is a tendency towards race-based voting in Singapore, this projected trend may not be as ominous as it appears. Public dialogues around the subject of the EP illustrate an increasingly reflexive electorate who question the relevance of racialised categories.

In addition, the IPS survey shows that voting preferences of the younger generation are less influenced by race as compared to preceding generations. These observations demonstrate movements towards a more evolved, multicultural society. Rather than allowing these conversations to stagnate, there should be efforts to harness and encourage constructive discourses about race of the sort that emerged during debates about the EP.

The introduction of race-sensitive changes to the EP signifies a move towards a more open and representative society. But it is necessary to identify the potential risks, such as divisive forms of racial thinking, while keeping its merits in view.

The writer is a research fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

Why reserved elections for the EP make sense for Singapore
By Mathew Mathews, Published The Straits Times, 27 Sep 2016

A recent survey of over 2,600 Singaporeans by market research agency Blackbox found that only 23 per cent thought it was "absolutely necessary" to improve the elected presidency (EP) system to ensure that minorities are given greater opportunity to become president.

Around half (48 per cent) thought it was "good to have" and 29 per cent thought it "not necessary".

In contrast, over half (53 per cent) thought it was "absolutely necessary" to improve the EP via the introduction of tougher checks and balances to restrict the Government's ability to spend Singapore's reserves. Only 5 per cent thought this "not necessary".

These findings, released by Blackbox on Sept 16 on its website, suggest a disjuncture in views between the Government and Singaporeans. The Government, in releasing a White Paper on the elected presidency on Sept 15 , agreed with recommendations by a Constitutional Commission that there should be reserved elections to safeguard minority representation in the EP. This will kick in if one of Singapore's constituent racial groups has not been represented in the presidential office after five continuous terms. Why the gap in views? A 2011 survey by the Institute of Policy Studies after the presidential election found that 85 per cent of the 2,000 Singaporeans surveyed agreed that a president from a minority community could be elected through the existing system.

This confidence indicates several beliefs which we have routinely noted in our research: We aspire to be multicultural and we believe that as a society, we have become race-blind. We also strongly endorse the principles of meritocracy and believe that success is independent of race in Singapore, especially since we have seen people of all races succeeding. As such, we are uncomfortable with policies that might favour individuals because of their racial background.


In reality, much of our multiracial harmony has come through the careful management of our differences. Despite the nostalgia that some have of pre-independence Singapore, where communities supposedly lived with great levels of cohesion, the reality is that there were many tense moments in our race relations which sometimes culminated in violence. Even in present times, while we espouse multiculturalism, many of us hold on to prejudices and some of us experience racism, as seen in the Channel NewsAsia-Institute of Policy Studies (CNA-IPS) survey on race relations, released last month.

History has shown that policies to proactively manage diversity are often contentious. When the motion was tabled in 1989 to have ethnic quotas in public housing, there was substantial opposition that these policies would affect the natural processes of housing sales, impact housing prices and disadvantage minorities. Today, few argue that this policy is detrimental. There are even calls for this policy to be extended to ensure there are no enclaves even in the private housing system.

In the same vein, there was robust argument against the group representation constituency system when it was first proposed in the late 1980s, with some charging that the system was politically motivated to support the ruling party. But 68 per cent of the 2,000 respondents in the CNA-IPS survey agreed that this policy safeguards minority rights, with 7 per cent disagreeing and the rest indicating that they were not sure.


Singapore's Government is not only expected to ensure that the nation's meritocratic system functions, it also has to work to preserve the harmony of this multiracial society. For the latter to be in place, it is crucial that the Government ensures minority representation, especially in public institutions closely related to Singapore's practice of multiracialism. This is something that at present seems more important to minority communities compared to the majority Chinese population. Over half of minority respondents (52 per cent) in the Blackbox survey said it was "absolutely necessary" to ensure that minorities are given greater opportunity to become president, compared to 14 per cent of Chinese Singaporeans.

But I expect Singaporeans across races will recognise that we have not had a Malay president for the last 46 years since Mr Yusof Ishak died in office in 1970. This is a gap in our portrayal of multiracialism, a matter which should not be treated lightly because of the symbolic nature of the presidency.

How Singapore ensures that we obtain an elected president of the minority races from time to time might require a mechanism to compensate for the race-based preferences which are still part of our society. The White Paper on the elected presidency calls for what some have deemed as affirmative action, as it agrees with holding a reserved election to ensure such minority representation.

Yes, the value of affirmative action has been called into question but I would venture to say that it is more problematic when it is applied to level up an entire group, rather than being used as a safeguard. As the case of African-American students in the United States has shown, pushing students who do not fare as well academically into top Ivy League schools might result in some simply not being able to cope with the demands of such competitive educational settings.

The mechanism that the Government's White Paper supports is different. It will not lower the bar for minority candidates - the same exacting standards will be required for all who want to be elected as president, regardless of race. The reserved election serves to eliminate the possibility that racial biases may disadvantage minorities who are exceptionally qualified for the presidency.

For minority Singaporeans, the fact that the highest office in the land can be occupied by a fellow minority, even if it requires some modification to our system, symbolises the broader priorities of the nation to include them. Thus, I hope that the next presidential election will be reserved for candidates from the Malay community. It would be logical to begin counting the five terms - since the reserved election provision kicks in if there is no president from a particular racial group after five terms - from 1991 when the EP scheme began with President Wee Kim Wee exercising the EP's new custodial powers.

Singapore's practice of meritocracy cannot merely be based on the realisation of the principle but should support the broader goals of ensuring an equitable and harmonious social system. Multiracial representation is a fundamental component of such a system.

It is high time that we have a Malay president in multiracial Singapore.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore. In May, he made representations to the Constitutional Commission set up to review the EP on ensuring safeguards for minority representation.

Elected Presidency
Report of the Constitutional Commission 2016
White Paper on the Review of Specific Aspects of the Elected Presidency
Elected Presidency: PM Lee on Race and Politics

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