Thursday 10 November 2016

Parliamentary debate on changes to the Elected Presidency

Parliament passes changes to elected presidency
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 10 Nov 2016

Parliament yesterday passed changes to the Constitution to raise the bar for presidential candidates and ensure all races are represented from time to time in the office.

It means Singapore's next president is likely to be Malay, as next year's election will be reserved for Malay candidates. The amendments also raise the maximum number of Non-Constituency MPs from nine to 12, and give them the same voting rights as elected MPs.

All 77 People's Action Party MPs present voted in favour of the changes, while all six elected Workers' Party MPs opposed them.

The Constitutional Amendment Bill was passed at the end of three full days of debate, during which 38 MPs spoke on the changes mooted.

Rounding up the debate, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said while the proposals were not perfect, they addressed present realities while encouraging Singapore towards multiracial representation in the presidency. WP's call for an appointed president and elected senate was not workable, he added.

"We are trying to improve our institutions and strengthen them for the Singapore of the future," he said. "It is part of the overall effort to build stabilisers in the system."

Changes to elected presidency arrived at after months of open dialogue
Care taken by Govt to improve, strengthen key institution for the future: DPM Teo
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 10 Nov 2016

The elected presidency is not a perfect system but the changes to it are the best way of safeguarding Singapore's assets, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

The Government had carefully considered the complex changes and settled on them after a thorough, consultative and open process, he added.

Mr Teo noted that the amendments were in line with the recommendations of an independent Constitutional Commission, and added that the entire review process lasted more than 10 months.

Such care was taken because the elected presidency is a key institution, he said yesterday when wrapping up the three days of debate on the constitutional changes to the elected presidency.

"We are trying to improve our institutions and strengthen them for the Singapore of the future.

"It is part of the overall effort to build stabilisers in the system so that, whether you're a town councillor or MP or president or the prime minister, you are governed by a set of laws and are held accountable."

He contrasted the thoroughness of the process to the way the Workers' Party (WP) "sprung upon members of the House" on the second day of debate, its proposal for a senate of eight elected members.

Mr Teo pointed out that the WP was invited to present its views publicly, and before the commission, but it chose not to do so.

Moreover, the details of its proposal are flawed, he added, saying he was dissatisfied with WP MPs' answers to issues like how gridlock in the senate would be resolved.

Said Mr Teo: "The Workers' Party has really not come up with a workable and better alternative to the system that we have and the improvements that we are proposing."

In all, 38 MPs took part in the debate, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Mr Teo, in his speech before Parliament approved the constitutional changes, also addressed three key concerns raised by MPs.

First, there may be tension between the president's role as a national unifier and his role as a custodian of Singapore's assets.

While acknowledging this potential tension, he said all of Singapore's elected presidents were able to perform the two roles with distinction.

"I believe that with wisdom among our voters, we should be able to elect good presidents and handle this well," he added.

Second, raising the eligibility criteria may limit the pool of candidates to certain groups.

Private-sector candidates must have helmed a company with $500 million in shareholder equity, a change from the old threshold of $100 million in paid-up capital.

Mr Teo said it would ensure a president has the requisite experience and ability to make large and complex financial decisions on an urgent basis. "There will continue to be qualified minority candidates, from both the public and private sectors," he added.

The exact number of such candidates is not available as firms do not make their officers' race public.

"But if we agree, as I think we do, that we must be uncompromising on the criteria and that we cannot lower the bar for any community, we should focus on growing the pool of eligible candidates," he said.

Other non-financial criteria such as integrity and good character are also crucial, but must be left to the judgment of voters, added Mr Teo.

Third, he assured MPs that the changes to the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) would not make it into "a third centre of power".

The CPA cannot veto the president's decision or what the Government proposes.

The changes mean the president must consult the CPA on all - as opposed to some - matters related to safeguarding Singapore's assets and appointing key public officers.

Lastly, Mr Teo observed that the change that ensures minority racial groups are periodically elected president drew some of the more passionate speeches, in support of greater multiracial understanding.

Singapore's multiracialism did not come about by chance, he said. The Government has actively intervened to grow the common space.

Similarly, reserving elections for ethnic groups from which there has not been a president for five consecutive terms addresses present realities, while having an eye on the long-term goal to be race-blind in such contests.

Said Mr Teo: "I want my children and my grandchildren and children of every community in Singapore to see in their lifetime the rich ethnic diversity that is Singapore reflected in the presidency.

"The changes that we are making to provide for ethnic representation will ensure they do so."

Workers' Party's senate idea flawed, unworkable: Shanmugam
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 10 Nov 2016

Law Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday called the Workers' Party (WP) proposal for an elected senate to safeguard the nation's reserves instead of an elected president "fundamentally flawed - in substance, and in terms of the process".

He rejected the substance of WP MPs' objections to an elected presidency. The WP had said the system was elitist, narrowed the field to a small pool of pro-establishment candidates, and could be politicised.

Instead, he said the WP's proposal to elect eight individuals to a senate would aggravate instead of ameliorate what it deems as problems in the elected presidency scheme.

Mr Shanmugam noted that WP MPs on Tuesday said that senators would need to have the same qualifications as an elected president.

"Instead of one elected president, we will have eight elected presidents. How does this deal with the objection of elitism?" he asked.

He also described as cynical the WP's view that "the whole exercise is to fix a non-People's Action Party (PAP) government", asking if its proposal would make this "eight times worse" as the senators would be drawn from the same pool.

Such a view also assumes the elected president would act in a dishonourable fashion to stymie a non-PAP government, a suggestion he called "unworthy" given the character of all the presidents who have held the custodial powers so far. He noted Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) and Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) made tributes to the late Mr S R Nathan after his death in August and said he served with distinction.

And having eight senators would build in politicisation throughout their term, as they would want to be re-elected and will have to constantly compete with each other, he said.

He asked: "Would this not considerably increase the risk of politicisation and gridlock, and a possible constitutional crisis?"

Mr Shanmugam also found the WP's process for its suggestion "deeply flawed", saying it was clear the proposal had not been thoroughly considered and did not stand up to scrutiny during the debate.

He cited questions WP MPs could not give clear answers on, such as whether senate candidates would campaign in teams or as individuals, how they would be selected, and how the senate would work.

"They are supposed to be independent. How do you form workable teams to compete against each other? Even worse, if the proposal is for them to run as independent, how can they work together as a team after that?" he asked.

When a scenario of a four-four split in a senate vote was raised, Mr Singh first said a casting vote could be used to break the deadlock, then later said there could be nine senators.

"It would have been comical, had we not been discussing such a serious matter," Mr Shanmugam said.

He also said the WP's proposal to select only 16 candidates for senate elections even if more qualified was an "extraordinary suggestion" that raises the issue of fairness.

On the eligibility criteria for senate candidates, Mr Shanmugam noted WP MPs seemed to suggest varying standards as their proposal was being questioned before settling on the same criteria as that of presidential candidates: "So this is clearly policy made on the fly in Parliament."

The WP was also not forthcoming about when the idea of the senate came about, he said.

"These are new ideas thought about in the last three months. Why not be just upfront and admit it?" he said, adding: "This proposal is like a home built with sand: One touch and it crumbles."

Mr Shanmugam noted the WP had on Tuesday mentioned its track record included running town councils. "If I were the WP, I would run away from talking about track records in town councils," he said.

He also took aim at Ms Lim's having said government leaders had been kept awake by the closely contested 2011 presidential election.

"Let me assure Ms Lim - ministers don't get sleepless nights, except when we are worried about Singapore and its future. The people who should be losing sleep are those who are accused of criminal impropriety," he said.

On risk of politicisation
The Straits Times, 10 Nov 2016

Several Workers' Party (WP) MPs questioned Law Minister K. Shanmugam after he spoke about flaws in the WP's proposal for a non-partisan elected senate that would have custodial powers, while the president is appointed by Parliament.

Here are edited excerpts of his exchange with Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera and Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC).

Mr Perera: (On) politicisation, how would we avoid the senate being politicised, and that has been bandied about a great deal... That same risk of politicisation is what the elected presidency is now vulnerable to. How do you manage that? No one from the other side of the House has given a definitive and convincing answer to this point.

Mr Shanmugam: As regards politicisation... we understand and accept that there is a risk. The Prime Minister talked about it, others have talked about it, there is a risk. We have always acknowledged the risk, we don't run away from the problem... Until and unless someone can suggest a better system, our assessment is: This is a risk worth taking and as our experience shows, if you elect good people, good presidents, the risk is well manageable.

Mr Faisal: Does the minister agree that the Constitutional Commission is taking a more prudent approach in dealing with the inherent tension by asking to do away with the elected presidency?

Mr Shanmugam: One doesn't have to characterise the Constitutional Commission's proposals. What I will say is, the Constitutional Commission gave many important recommendations which were directly relevant to the questions that were asked. In addition, it added an observation for the Government to consider if it wished and if it wanted to accept. That's what the commission said and I think we'll keep to the commission's words.

WP misunderstood role of Council of Presidential Advisers, says DPM Teo
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 10 Nov 2016

A president who has to consult his council of advisers before exercising his veto on critical matters will be hamstrung in his role as a custodian, Workers' Party (WP) MP Png Eng Huat (Hougang) said.

Arguing against the changes to the elected presidency, he said the president would have to "share power" with an enlarged Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) in the discharge of his custodial roles.

The changes require the president to consult the CPA on all fiscal matters relating to the reserves and key public service appointments. There will also be eight CPA members, up from the current six.

"The CPA, though only an appointed body, is bestowed with considerable powers to challenge and delay the decision of the president," said Mr Png, adding that a presidential veto does not carry weight unless it had the support of the CPA.

He also argued that the CPA, in its "enlarged" role, now functions like an "Upper House" of the legislature.

"The CPA has the power to turn the elected president into a lame duck institution over time if it chooses to disagree with the president each time he uses his veto. Check and balance under a political framework must be legitimised and mandated by the people," he said.

Replying, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said WP "fundamentally misunderstood" the CPA's role, and was misleading the House.

"It is not a third centre of power. It is unable to single-handedly block a government proposal. The CPA's role has been the same for the past 25 years, and remains unchanged under the Bill," he said.

The changes "merely adopt a uniform approach to the president's obligation to consult the CPA on financial and appointment-related matters, as well as extend the overruling mechanism to these areas".

The WP had on Tuesday called for a return to an appointed presidency, with the custodial functions of the president vested instead in an elected senate.

The party also asked for a referendum so people could vote for the system they wanted.

Yesterday, WP Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera also questioned why an unelected CPA was vested with so much power. "This creates a president supposed to be a checker who is prone to be checkmated by an unelected council," he said.

DPM Teo said in situations where the president has vetoed a proposal the CPA agrees with, its views only serve to "moderate the weight" of the president's veto.

Parliament would have to relook the proposal, which can only be passed with a two-thirds majority.

"Ultimately... it is always an elected institution - the Parliament or the elected president that makes the decision," said DPM Teo.


Singapore has made significant progress in building a multiracial society. We are in a better situation than most countries and managed to avoid the toxic racial debates and tensions that we see elsewhere, precisely because the Government has always taken an honest, pre-emptive, open and active approach to fostering multiculturalism. We did not leave this to chance.

Contrast this with the approach that France has taken. In principle, the French espouse a colour-blind approach to race relations.

But in effect, it has masked the stark differences in socioeconomic opportunities and outcomes between the races, which have led to racial tension and strife.

Senior French officials, scholars and those doing community work acknowledge that there are deep fissures in their society (and) are trying to grapple with it.

But they run up against their long-held belief that the issue of race would go away if one simply does not acknowledge race and racial differences. But the issue has not gone away. Racial differences have become worse over time.

- DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER TEO CHEE HEAN, on how Singapore's active racial integration policies have helped build multiracialism.

Changes help build inclusive society, says Masagos
They add to Singapore's multiracial compact built on policies as well as communities' efforts, he says
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 10 Nov 2016

Constitutional changes to ensure all races are represented in the elected presidency are a continuation of policies Singapore has introduced over the years to build an inclusive, multiracial society, Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli told the House.

He said yesterday Singapore's multiracial compact has been built on three pillars: policies aimed at inclusiveness; proactive efforts by minority communities to integrate; and a majority that embraces its minorities.

"These pillars need to be continually tended to, strengthened or modified while keeping an eye on achieving the objectives of a workable and peaceful multiracial and multi-religious society," he added.

Speaking a day after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said next year's presidential election would be reserved for Malay candidates, he said inclusive policies have "built a sense of equity within the community and political system".

These policies include:

• Article 152(1) of the Constitution, which states: "It shall be the responsibility of the Government constantly to care for the interests of the racial and religious minorities in Singapore."

• The Presidential Council for Minority Rights to examine all legislation and ensure minorities are not disadvantaged.

• The Group Representation Constituency scheme to ensure MPs from minority communities.

• The Ethnic Integration Policy to ensure a balanced racial mix in HDB estates, and has promoted integration and harmony: "It's how many of us grew up: smelling and learning to love each other's ethnic cooking; going to school together; visiting each other's homes during festivals; familiarising ourselves with significant occasions at our void decks."

The changes to the elected presidency, Mr Masagos said, are another move in the same vein to build an inclusive, multiracial society.

He noted that ideally, since the elected presidency was enacted, each ethnic group should have been represented and elected.

But this has, unfortunately, not come to pass, he said, citing survey results and examples from elsewhere to show voters are not ready to set aside race in elections. If no adjustments are made, the elected president is likely to come from the majority race for a long time.

He said the Malay community has expressed support for the provision at town hall dialogues.

"Every time presidential candidates are announced, I would be accosted by them with remarks of disappointment because a Malay candidate is not contesting," he said.

And though such comments die down eventually, that is not always the case when racial sentiments are brought to the fore, he noted.

"Seemingly small things can and do snowball too, especially when they cut into primordial instincts about race and religion over time." he said. This is why it is a good time to address the "seemingly small" issue of minority representation in the presidency lest "it accumulates over time and snowballs with other issues into an avalanche".

Policies alone are not enough.

Both minority and majority communities have crucial roles to play to forge trust too, he added. While minorities seek to find ways to integrate - sometimes making sacrifices - the majority has a role to play in helping them feel they belong.

He cited how some minorities abroad turn to violence, quoting a US official who noted Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militants "came from everywhere because they belong to nowhere". Singapore is not immune to such developments given the long shadow of terrorism.

"We need this sense of belonging and an inclusive society to be pervasive even while the Muslim communities fortify their strength within to repel this threat," he said.

"It is this sense of belonging that motivates Muslim leaders in Singapore to stand ready to come forward to defuse conflicts, and not exploit them nor goad the community to extremism or terrorism."

This sense of belonging has seen the community respond strongly to reject extremism, he added.


"This discussion on minority representation in the elected presidency has created an openness to talk about what used to be perceived as a sensitive topic like race. It made us a bit uncomfortable to think about the current state of affairs, but it has pushed us to think about issues a little bit more... We should ride this wave and must be open to engage in these discussions."

- MS RAHAYU MAHZAM (JURONG GRC), on keeping the discussion on race going.

"Over time, these changes could be seen as a call to action within Singapore and within the ethnic communities to groom individuals from the minority races (for) influential positions. This should ensure that, over the years, we build up a wide talent pool of (minorities) reaping the experiences needed to meet the future pre-requisites of a multiracial elected presidency."

- MR SAKTIANDI SUPAAT (BISHAN-TOA PAYOH GRC), on how the changes can encourage minority communities to groom talent.

"The proposal for an elected presidency has given us a platform to reflect on our journey together, as a society and as a Malay/Muslim community... The Government has shown concern for the feelings of our minorities. This is crucial in a plural society."

- DR FATIMAH LATEEF (MARINE PARADE GRC), on the implications of the amendments.

"Let us prove to our fellow countrymen that the Malays are capable, and have candidates that are as qualified as the other communities... Do not hesitate. Put yourself forward if you are capable. Turn yourself into someone who will be the pride of our community. Prove that our community has progressed and is able to come up with an excellent candidate."

- NOMINATED MP AZMOON AHMAD, calling for eligible Malay candidates to step up for presidential elections.

Only 1 NCMP has ever become MP: Leon Perera
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 10 Nov 2016

Almost every opposition party candidate who became a Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) has gone on to lose at the next general election they contested in.

Workers' Party (WP) MP Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) is the only one who has ever bucked this trend.

NCMP Leon Perera cited this yesterday as he argued against the move to raise the minimum number of opposition MPs, including NCMPs, in the House. He said it would benefit only the People's Action Party (PAP).

But Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said the NCMP scheme ensures there will always be opposition voices in Parliament, which ultimately benefits Singaporeans.

The Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2016, passed yesterday, will raise the minimum number of opposition MPs, including NCMPs, from nine to 12, and will also give NCMPs full voting rights. All six WP MPs voted against the Bill.

NCMP seats are offered to the best performing losing opposition candidates when the number of elected opposition MPs falls short of the minimum.

Mr Perera questioned the motives behind the scheme, reiterating the WP's long-held stance that it dissuades people from voting for the opposition, and goes against the principle that only elected lawmakers have a mandate to represent the people.

He warned that if the scheme was "fully exploited by the ruling party and fully embraced by voters in the way that the PAP hopes", Parliament may end up with 12 "unelectable opposition MPs".

This would allow the ruling party to do whatever it wished, he said. "It can force Singapore into a never-ending dependence on only one party for generations to come, like a computer with no backup.

Mr Teo countered that the fact that the WP had taken up the full quota of NCMP seats it was offered shows the scheme has merits.

"This shows that being an NCMP offers advantages, not least of which are public exposure and parliamentary experience. Ms Sylvia Lim herself has been a beneficiary of this," he said, rounding up the debate on the Bill.

To this, Mr Perera had said earlier that he had taken up the NCMP seat, despite his objections to the scheme, because "being in Parliament and arguing for what I believe is right outweigh the risk of damage to our politics from accepting the NCMP position".

In his speech, Mr Teo also acknowledged that the scheme had benefited the PAP, but not in the way Mr Perera suggested.

Instead, it gives PAP MPs the experience of sparring with opposition members in the House, and not just during election season, he said.

It also allows the Government to engage the opposition and scrutinise their proposals, he said, adding that opposition politicians would otherwise behave like "phantoms in the night' that turn up only at general elections, make claims, not engage, and then disappear again".

"Ultimately, Singapore and Singaporeans will benefit from such debate and the diversity of views."

MP Joan Pereira suggests reserving election for Eurasians
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 Nov 2016

Eurasians ought to be considered as a separate racial group for the purpose of the elected presidency moving forward, so that elections can be reserved for the community if there has not been a Eurasian president for a period of time, said Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC) in Parliament yesterday.

"I strongly believe that we Eurasians, being culturally distinct as Asians with European ancestry and heritage, have a unique perspective to contribute to the office of the elected presidency," she added.

Currently, Eurasians are considered part of the "Indians and other minorities" group. This means that in a reserved election for the group, Eurasians, Indians or other eligible minorities can take part.

The first-term Eurasian MP said that even though Eurasians have been categorised as "others", she had never felt excluded nor discriminated against.

Rather, she felt that "by bringing something different to the table, we can help enrich the office of the elected presidency".

"As the embodiment of East-West unions, we are also living testimonies of inter-racial, cultural and religious harmony and unity," she said.

She also suggested that the Council of Presidential Advisers should include at least a member of each major racial group and at least one woman, adding this will provide a diversity of perspectives.

Supporting the provision to ensure minority representation, she said: "The importance of symbolism... is worth upholding."

Mr Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio GRC),also speaking about the president's symbolism, said it is undesirable for a particular ethnic group to go for years without a president.

He added that reserved elections do not compromise the values of equality and meritocracy, but are an acknowledgement that the "core Singapore values" of multiracialism and meritocracy can co-exist.

Responding to the suggestion of pulling Eurasians out of the "Indian and others" group, as well as to a query by Dr Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC) on how individuals of mixed heritage would be classified, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said the classifications would follow the mechanics of the group representation constituency system.

"The framework has worked well," he said. "Any person who does not fall within one of the three racial groupings may still contest in open elections," he said.

Debate Day 2

Singapore's next president set to be Malay
PM says 2017 polls will be reserved for Malay candidates to ensure presidency is multiracial
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

Next year's presidential election will be reserved for candidates from the Malay community, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in Parliament yesterday.

The move would pave the way for Singapore to have its first Malay president in over 46 years, since the country's first president, Mr Yusof Ishak, died in office in 1970.

Following the statement, President Tony Tan Keng Yam posted on Facebook that he "will not be standing in the next presidential election" as it would be for Malays.

"I look forward to seeing a Malay president after 46 years," he added.

PM Lee, speaking on the second day of the debate on proposed changes to the elected presidency, made clear for the first time the Government's intention to trigger the proposed mechanism for reserved election in the next polls.

He also explained to the House the finer details and broad reasoning behind the decision for the timing, and said that race and religion are very deep-seated realities here.

"Even though the minority communities have not pressed for it in Singapore, we should make arrangements now to ensure the presidency will be multiracial," he said.

He gave two reasons.

One, he is very familiar with the office, having helped to conceive, implement and refine it over three decades.

"I am doing it now, because it would be irresponsible of me to kick this can down the road and leave the problem to my successors," he said.

Two, he wants to adjust the office before any problems show up, so that it can continue to function well.

PM Lee made two key arguments for his vision of the office.

It is an important stabiliser in Singapore's political system, acting as a safeguard against profligate spending and upholding the integrity of the civil service. Hence, the president must be elected.

Further, there is a fundamental need for the presidency to be multiracial, as the president is the most important unifying symbol for the nation.

"Every citizen, Chinese, Malay, Indian, or some other race, should know that someone of his community can become president, and in fact from time to time, does become president," he said.

Under the proposed constitutional changes, an election will be reserved for a particular racial group if no one from that group has been president for five terms in a row.

So, in the course of six presidential terms, there should be at least one Chinese, one Malay, plus one president from the Indian and other minority communities.

Candidates in the reserved elections will meet the same criteria as those running in open elections.

PM Lee said the Constitutional Amendment Bill stated the Government should legislate when the practice will begin, and it has received advice from the Attorney-General.

It will begin counting the five continuous terms from that of President Wee Kim Wee, the first president vested with the powers of the elected president. He was in office when the elected presidency came into effect in 1991. Since then, there have been five terms: that of Mr Wee, Mr Ong Teng Cheong, Mr S R Nathan who served two terms, and the current term of Dr Tan.

In all, 17 MPs including PM Lee debated the changes yesterday, with the Workers' Party making its first public statements since the proposals were mooted in January.

Its MPs reiterated the party's position for a president appointed by Parliament, with a ceremonial role.

They also called for a senate to be formed, made up of non-partisan, elected members. This second chamber of the legislature would be the custodian of Singapore's assets.

PM Lee said in his speech that doing away with the custodial powers and elected office would be very unwise as it would give Parliament unrestricted power to do as it pleases.

Association of Muslim Professionals vice-chairman Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim, 35, noting the new system guarantees that a Singaporean growing up would probably see elected presidents of different races, said: "That is a strong visual for racial diversity in his formative years."

The debate continues today.

House debates WP call for senate and referendum
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

The House saw a spirited debate yesterday after the Workers' Party (WP) proposed a popularly elected senate and called for a referendum on its ideas. Its first major statement on changes to the elected presidency being debated in Parliament came under fire from no less than a dozen People's Action Party MPs.

The WP, which has opposed the elected presidency since it was introduced 25 years ago, wants a return to the old system in which Parliament appoints the president.

The president's current custodial powers over the national reserves and key public sector appointments would instead be vested in an eight-member senate, said WP chairman Sylvia Lim.

Minister of State for Communications and Information, and Education Janil Puthucheary gave the most forceful rebuttal at the end of the sitting:

"They did not submit this proposal to the Constitutional Commission, they did not submit it for public scrutiny or public debate. At the last minute, when the vote is tomorrow on this motion before us, we hear of this extraordinarily radical proposal to take apart our president, make it symbolic and elect another eight people who are effectively the custodial presidents."

PM: Keeping presidency multiracial key aim of reforms
If the president always comes from same race, the very multiracial character of nation will come under question
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that among all the proposed changes to the elected presidency, the one the Government thought hardest about, and where the most is at stake, is the issue of ensuring multiracial representation in the highest office of the land.

Mr Lee disclosed this in Parliament yesterday when he sought to drive home the importance of the provision to reserve elections for certain races from time to time.

He said: "Whether to ensure that people from different races can and do indeed become president is the most difficult question, because it goes right to the core of our fundamental belief in a multiracial society."

The president, who is the symbol of the nation, represents all Singaporeans. Hence, the office must be multiracial.

"If the president... always comes from the same race, not only will he cease to be a credible symbol of our nation, but the very multiracial character of the nation will come under question," Mr Lee said.

Race is a live issue for Singapore because it is a small, open and multiracial country, he added.

Mr Lee also said that racial harmony in Singapore can be affected by developments in other countries.

He cited the rise of China, the issue of race and religion in Singapore's immediate neighbours, as well as the threat of a terror attack here.

Singapore has substantial relations with China, and their businesses and governments work closely together.

Yet, because of the make-up of Singapore's population and cultural familiarity, people may misunderstand Singapore to be a Chinese country, and forget that Singapore is, in fact, an independent sovereign country, said Mr Lee.

"We are not a Chinese country, but a multiracial, multi-religious South-east Asian country with an ethnic Chinese majority, but not a Chinese country. We have to show this," he said.

He stressed that Singapore needs to demonstrate not only to Singaporeans but also to its neighbours that it is a multiracial country.

Mr Lee also pointed to Indonesia's incumbent Jakarta governor, Mr Basuki Tjahaja Purnama - better known as Ahok - who is running for re-election.

"Ahok is a Chinese and a Christian. His opponents cited a Quranic verse to tell Muslims not to vote for Ahok. They called him a "kafir", an infidel, a strong word."

Ahok responded in a YouTube video, accusing them of lying and misinterpreting the Quran. He was attacked for blasphemy.

Despite his apology, his opponents staged a huge demonstration in Jakarta last Friday and there was violence and rioting.

In another example of how race and religion are hot issues in the region, Mr Lee cited Malaysia where politics is based on race and political Islam is a dominant feature.

Parti Islam SeMalaysia tabled a Bill in Parliament to enforce hudud law - or the Islamic penal code - which includes amputations and whipping as punishments.

The Barisan Nasional Government allowed it to be put on the Order Paper in Parliament which lists the House agenda.

"Non-Muslim parties are deeply upset about this, but they know that in such matters, they do not decide. The divide between the races is very deep," said Mr Lee.

Singapore is not like any of the countries cited, he said. "We are building a radically different society in Singapore."

It seeks to be multiracial, equal and harmonious, allowing minority communities ample space to live their own way of life, he said.

But this will not happen without hard work, or by ignoring the realities of race in Singapore.

Said Mr Lee: "We have to work consciously and systematically at this. It will not happen by itself, nor will we get there if we blithely assume that we have already arrived and do not talk about it."

Surveys show that at least a significant minority of Singaporeans consider race a factor when they vote, which means minority candidates are at a disadvantage in an election, he said.

Practical arrangements must therefore be made to make Singapore's multiracial system work, he said, hence the proposal of periodic reserved elections.

Still, Singapore's ideal is to be race-blind.

And as Singapore gets closer to the ideal, and minority candidates are regularly elected as president in open elections, these reserved elections will be needed less and less, said Mr Lee.

Murali had to fight harder for victory in by-election
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong decided to field Mr Murali Pillai as the People's Action Party candidate in the Bukit Batok by-election in May, he knew it would not be easy for a non-Chinese candidate to win.

But Mr Murali, who faced Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan, won with 61.2 per cent of the votes.

Speaking in Parliament yesterday, Mr Lee said: "He fought hard, he won, but he can tell you, and I can tell you, that he had to fight harder than if I had sent a similar Chinese candidate familiar with the ground to go and fight and win."

"It is a reality of Singapore society and Singapore politics," he said, making the point that minority candidates face an uphill battle.

This is why it is crucial to make arrangements to ensure the presidency remains multi-racial, he added.

One of the proposed changes to the elected presidency being debated this week seeks to reserve elections for candidates from particular racial groups if they have not been elected into the office for five continuous terms.

Referring to a Channel NewsAsia-Institute of Policy Studies survey on race relations, Mr Lee said a significant minority of Singaporeans consider race as a factor when they vote, and will not vote for somebody of a different race to be president.

He added: "Not everybody, but not a small minority either. And that puts the minority candidates at a disadvantage in an election. "

"If we do not make deliberate arrangements to ensure a multiracial outcome, the presidency could well become a single-race office because minorities do find it harder to win in a national election."

Mr Lee acknowledged that this is not an easy subject to speak about openly, as many people feel they are race-blind and are uneasy about any suggestion that they may not be so.

"I am heartened that is our ideal and aspiration but, at the same time, we have to be realistic about where we are today," he said.

'Race and religion are very deep-seated realities in every country'
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

The supporters of Republican candidate Donald Trump are overwhelmingly white and casting a white protest vote, while black voters are turning out in force for Democrat Hillary Clinton, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

His reading of the United States presidential election was delivered in Parliament yesterday, hours before America headed to the polls.

"What is the election about? At one level, it is about globalisation, jobs, insecurity, but on another level, race is front and centre," he told the House as he made the argument that race and religion are very deep- seated realities in every country.

Mr Lee's point was that race matters in national elections, in Singapore as in America.

He drew lessons from the superpower's experience to argue that Singapore should take steps to ensure that its presidency will be multiracial.

Tracing how the dynamics of race played out in the US' recent elections, he noted how black voters backed former president Bill Clinton when he first stood for election in 1992 against the incumbent George H. W. Bush.

Mr Lee recalled how Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, a female African-American novelist, "described Bill Clinton rapturously as 'the first black president' ".

Years later in 2008, Mrs Hillary Clinton - Mr Clinton's wife - ran against Mr Barack Obama for the Democrat nomination.

Mr Clinton repeated the phrase, describing himself as "the first black president", to shore up support for his wife.

"He thought it would help. Instead, he caused an uproar in the African-American community," said Mr Lee, noting that the community voted overwhelmingly for Mr Obama, who became president.

His presidency was considered a breakthrough for African-Americans, and some people commented that race no longer mattered in American politics.

But they were too optimistic, said Mr Lee, turning to the current election with its two white candidates.

Supporters of Mr Trump are overwhelmingly white, lower- and middle-income voters, he observed.

"They feel threatened by the demographic changes happening in America. Theirs is a white protest vote," he said.

Mr Lee said African-American voters are overwhelmingly voting for Mrs Clinton this time, but with somewhat less enthusiasm than when they voted for Mr Obama.

Latino voters as a group are voting against Mr Trump and turning out in big numbers because they see that perhaps Mr Trump may win if they don't vote, he added.

"The moral of this story is that race and religion are very deep-seated realities in every country. We must take them very seriously," said Mr Lee.

Alternative models not workable: PM
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

It may not be easy to improve the elected presidency system to get it right, but the task has to be done as the alternatives will likely create worse difficulties down the road, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in Parliament yesterday.

He presented three alternatives and went through why they were not ideal, on the second day of the debate on proposed changes to the elected presidency.

Non-elected president with custodial powers

An appointed president who is given the same custodial powers as an elected president may find it difficult to go against the government's decisions, Mr Lee said.

"To veto the government is a major decision. You must have a democratic mandate to make that call."

All may be fine when an unelected president approves proposals by the elected government, Mr Lee said, but he may find it tough to stand his ground when he disagrees.

The government can rightly argue that it is elected and represents the people's will, and the president, who is appointed and does not have the people's mandate, has no right to disagree, he said.

He added: "The president's 'no' will not stick."

Non-elected president, custodial powers vested in CPA

There have been calls to revert to a system with an appointed president playing a ceremonial role, and to have the president's custodial powers vested in the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) instead.

Mr Lee said the CPA - a council of unelected non-political wise men - works well as an advisory panel to the president when he is elected by the people, and has the mandate to make the final decision.

But if the unelected council becomes the decision-maker, it will have problems saying no to the government just as an unelected president would, he added.

If the council members were to be elected, "the CPA becomes an Upper House", and elections would be needed "for six, eight, or 10 presidential advisers", Mr Lee said.

"Instead of having one presidential race risking being politicised, we would have six, eight, or 10 CPA races at a similar risk."

This magnifies, instead of reduces, the problems the elected president faces, he added.

Non-elected president, no second key

The third alternative, said Mr Lee, is to appoint a president with a purely ceremonial role, do away with the president's custodial powers, dismantle the CPA, and let Parliament be supreme.

But that would be "very unwise" as this leaves Parliament with unrestricted power to do as it pleases, with no safeguard in place.

Citing what Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in Parliament on Monday, Mr Lee said the pressure "is to do more rather than to spend less".

He added: "I cannot recall the last occasion in this House when any political party or MP has pressed the Government to spend less or to raise more taxes."

If Parliament is made supreme, he said, it creates a single point of failure. "Everything hinges on the outcome of a single general election, on the government elected into Parliament in that one vote every five years," he added.

Elected presidency has influenced Singapore politics for the better: PM
Prospect of a veto alone has lessened the temptation for political parties to promise the world during elections
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

The elected president's custodial powers over the national reserves have influenced Singapore politics for the better, even if the veto over the Government's spending proposals has never been exercised, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.

"The prospect of a veto alone has lessened the temptation for political parties to promise the world to voters in general elections," he said, adding that he believed it was an important reason why the opposition parties have been cautious with their spending proposals.

"Without the second key, I am sure some opposition parties would have gone to town many elections ago. The People's Action Party Government would have come under pressure to match their generosity, and might well have found it difficult to hold the line," he said.

Mr Lee was speaking on the importance of the elected presidency as a safeguard in the political system, during the second day of debate in Parliament on proposed constitutional changes to the highest office of the land.

He reiterated the lessons from Australia that Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean had raised on Monday. During the boom years of its commodities, the Australian government spent A$18 out of every A$19 it received in extra revenue.

When the boom ended, it went into deficit and had to make painful spending cuts.

"Singapore is not in such a position and for that, some credit must go to the system of the elected president with veto powers over reserves," Mr Lee said.

Ultimately, the goal is to design a system with the right balance between a decisive government and adequate stabilisers, he added.

Without stabilisers, there will be serious consequences if anything goes wrong.

But should the stabilisers become too strong, gridlock would set in.

Singapore started very close to the first extreme, with "a unicameral, single Parliament, untrammelled", Mr Lee said. So, the elected presidency was introduced to protect the reserves and key public service appointments.

"This is not a fundamental shift from our system of parliamentary democracy, but it is an important one, because every system needs political stabilisers," he said.

Addressing arguments that the power to safeguard the reserves should be vested in Parliament, Mr Lee said it would create "a single point of failure" as everything would hinge on a single general election.

In countries with an Upper and a Lower House, polls are often held separately in different constituencies and the timing staggered so that "you are never risking everything on one throw of the electoral dice".

But the elected presidency is not all smooth sailing either. A unique system, it is "very difficult to get right because the balance is delicate", said Mr Lee.

As the president is elected by the people, he has a mandate. But the mandate is not to govern but to be used only to veto specific government actions.

Also, the 2011 presidential polls showed that issues outside the president's constitutional role can be touted in a fierce contest.For instance, one candidate championed a $60 billion economic plan which he claimed would create jobs, while another pushed for greater recognition of national servicemen.

Still, Singapore should persevere with the elected presidency, Mr Lee said. "But for all these difficulties, I am convinced the elected president has been a plus for our system."

Turning to overseas examples of political systems, he cited two countries on extreme ends in terms of checks and balances.

Britain has no written Constitution and comes closest to a Parliament with no constraints as it can theoretically make decisions as major as abolishing the monarchy through a simple majority, he said.

Even so, British courts have become a check on the government by making judgments that are, in effect, executive decisions.

This can be seen in the judicial response to government measures against terrorism.When it tried to deport convicted foreign terrorists, "the cases are endlessly litigated and the government finds itself impotent to act," he said.

On the other hand, "the United States has elevated the separation of powers into a sacred doctrine" with three centres of power - Congress, the presidency, and the Supreme Court - constantly balancing one another.

"The tension is always there, and often results in gridlock. But the US accepts that, because their overriding priority and philosophy is to prevent an overbearing government."

Mr Lee also noted that James Madison, one of the US founding fathers, wrote that: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."

Mr Lee said such a system would not work in Singapore.

"But we, too, need some 'auxiliary precautions', some stabiliser, besides the 'primary control', which is the fact that Parliament is elected by the people. And for us, that stabiliser is the elected president."

Debate on changes to Elected Presidency: PM explains why he is making changes now
Successors who don't have his long experience with elected presidency scheme would find issue 'much harder to deal with'
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

As a young minister in the 1980s, Mr Lee Hsien Loong had helped then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and his team develop the elected presidency scheme, which started out as a concept by founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

He later assisted then Law Minister S. Jayakumar in drafting the White Papers on the scheme, published in 1988 and 1990.

As Prime Minister, he has also worked closely with two elected presidents, Mr S R Nathan and Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, and had sought and received approval from Mr Nathan to draw on the reserves during the 2008 global financial crisis.

Yesterday, Mr Lee pointed to his familiarity with the elected presidency scheme as he explained why the institution needed to be adjusted now.

"I am doing it now because it would be irresponsible of me to kick this can down the road and leave the problem to my successors.

"They have not had this long experience with the system, and will find it much harder to deal with," he said.

His experiences, he said, have given him insight into what the intention of the elected presidency scheme was when it was formulated, how it has worked in practice, how conditions have changed, and how the system should be fine-tuned.

"Since the elected presidency began, I have been operating the mechanism that we designed, and discovering its glitches.

"I helped to refine and amend the scheme as we went along," he said during the debate on the proposed changes to the elected presidency under the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill.

While the institution has been functioning well, he added, the changes made now are in the long-term interests of Singapore and will strengthen the elected presidency, which is an important stabiliser in the political system.

But further changes will still be needed in the future as the system has to be continually refined, he said.

"I am sure the result will not be perfect. I fully expect that one day, my successors will find it necessary to make further improvements and adjustments to the elected presidency scheme."

Mr Lee added that the refinements are "not cast-iron and foolproof", and things can still go wrong with politics in Singapore.

What the changes will do is reduce the chances of this, he said, adding: "Ultimately our safety, and our future, lie in the hands of Singaporeans. We must rely on Singaporeans to remain united, so that our politics can be constructive and cohesive."

Chinese have always acted in interests of wider society
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

The Chinese community, which makes up the majority in Singapore, has always acted in the interests of the wider society, Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung said yesterday in Parliament.

"When necessary, the community has made important compromises to protect Singapore's values of multiculturalism and multiracialism," said Mr Ong in Mandarin, as the House entered Day Two of the debate on proposed changes to the elected presidency.

One example of the community compromising was when it agreed to have English as the state's working language, he added.

This is why he believes the community will understand the need to safeguard minority representation in the president's office.

"All races need to have the chance of being elected president. This is the only way that our president can be a symbol of multiracial Singapore," he said.

But apart from being a unifying figure who can connect with Singaporeans from all walks of life, the president must also have the financial acumen to manage the country's reserves, said Mr Ong.

To ensure that the president has the right skills to safeguard past reserves, the eligibility criteria need to be refreshed and updated from time to time, he said.

He added that the Chinese have a saying that wealth does not survive three generations.

But he believes this to be less a prediction, and more a reminder to successors to cherish the efforts of their predecessors.

Successful home-grown brands such as Singapore Airlines, Tiger Balm and United Overseas Bank have defied the Chinese saying and have weathered storms only to emerge stronger, he said. "These enterprises have responsible leaders working hard to keep their companies going."

Those tasked with safeguarding the country's reserves too need to act responsibly, he said.

The elected presidency is the Government's way of institutionalising responsibility, by giving the president the second key to the country's reserves, he said.

This, said Mr Ong, ensures that Singapore's wealth is not squandered within three generations as the Government is prevented from acting as it pleases.

But only when the president is elected by a popular vote will his second key wield as much power as the first key the Government holds. "This way, the Government and the president can act as an effective check and balance on each other," said Mr Ong.

Borrowing a Singlish phrase popularised by opposition MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC), Mr Ong said: "Some may say this is 'ownself check ownself'.

"But self-restraint is a virtue. Only a wise and responsible government will do that. A government hungry for power will never check its own actions."

The Government also needs to strengthen the political system in times of stability. This is the only way to safeguard Singapore's future and ensure some regulation in the system, no matter which party comes into power, he said.

Changes strengthen multiracial ideals: Janil
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

The latest proposed amendments to Singapore's Constitution will strengthen its democracy and the recognition of its multiracial ideals, Minister of State for Communications and Information, and Education Janil Puthucheary said.

The changes will inject diversity into the House by increasing the number of Non-Constituency MPs, and the move to introduce reserved elections guarantees all races the chance to become president, he told the House.

This allows Singapore to better strive to be a multiracial nation, he added, in calling on the Workers' Party (WP) to put the nation's interest first and change its mind on the changes to the elected presidency.

"It allows our first elected Malay president after many decades and it guarantees that we will have an elected president with representation across all the races," he said.

"It has a natural sunset where, over time, that mechanism may no longer be needed. So you have built into this constitutional amendment, I believe, one of the first times we can identify when we might truly arrive in the future as that ideal multiracial state. Not when we have an open contested election of various races. That would just be the start," he added.

"We need to have a few of those. We need to have a minority candidate that loses, and loses gracefully. Not because of his or her colour of skin but because he was not the best person for the job."

When the time comes, he added: "We will need... someone from one of the political parties to stand up and propose a constitutional amendment to remove the five-term hiatus and the reserved election mechanism. Then we'll know that there is political confidence that we can do so because there are no votes at risk.

"And we will have arrived at that ideal state as a multiracial nation."

Dr Janil admitted his own views on the mechanism to safeguard minority representation in the elected presidency had changed since the proposal was first put forward.

He now fully supports the move.

"The need for any kind of safeguard in our electoral process, in our political process, reminds us of the less-than-perfect human nature that we have to deal with... (It) reminds us how imperfect we are," he said. "We wish that it was not so. We wish that it was a much nicer world where we would not need such a mechanism. But we have to deal with the reality around us."

And the reality, as Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) pointed out, citing results of a recent survey, is that society here is not ready to turn a blind eye to race.

While the hope is that race will one day no longer play a significant part in the choice of candidate, the current review is timely, he added.

And he hopes that when the reserved election kicks in, voters will stand by the elected candidate.

"At no time must the credibility of the seat of the president be seen to be undermined or undervalued by Singaporeans as this will not only erode the goodwill that previous presidents have helped build up, it will also not be fair to the minority-elect president if there is even a doubt that he is there based on his ethnicity," Mr Zaqy said.

Singapore's next president set to be Malay: Mix of cheer and concern in Malay community
Some applaud move to set aside next presidential election for community but others fear it may be seen as tokenism
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

Members of the Malay community reacted to news that Singapore's next president could come from among their ranks with a mix of cheer and concern.

While some yesterday applauded the move to set aside the 2017 presidential election for the Malay community, others still wrestled with worries that this special arrangement would fly in the face of meritocracy and be seen as tokenism.

Association of Muslim Professionals vice-chairman Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim, 35, pointed out that young Malays like him have yet to see a member of their community take up the mantle of president.

Mr Yusof Ishak, who died in office close to five decades ago, was Singapore's first and only Malay president so far. Community leaders and observers say possible candidates for the post next year include Speaker Halimah Yacob and former minister Abdullah Tarmugi.

Said Mr Zhulkarnain, a law firm partner: "To me, having a varied representation across all races and possibly gender, in the highest office in the land, is important to all Singaporeans, in particular the young. This new system... guarantees that a Singaporean child growing - going to school, national service, and then on to working life - would probably see presidents from different races.

"That is a strong visual for racial diversity in his formative years."

And, Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Norshahril Saat, 33, said it would be worrying if a president does not emerge from a particular community for longer periods of time. "It will further entrench certain stereotypes about the community's capability," he said.

But concerns about a reserved election undermining meritocracy or being seen as tokenism remain.

On Monday, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim reiterated that Malay candidates must meet the same standards demanded of those from other communities, insisting: "We do not want, and we cannot accept, tokenism."

Still, some like analyst Liyana Mohamad, 26, said the very concept of an election set aside for Malay candidates gives the community an unfair shot at the office of president.

"No matter how much it is stressed that what is important is quality, you are still clearing the field of other qualified candidates for the benefit of one community. I cannot bring myself to accept that," she said.

"If the president is to be a unifying symbol, it is going to be hard when there are people across all communities - Malay and non-Malay - divided over the move."

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin, 57, wished Malay candidates can contest openly, alongside those from other communities, even as he acknowledged accommodations may have to be made.

He said: "Ideally, voters would be colour-blind, and race would not matter, but we are not at that stage yet. But, I don't think this system should be entrenched forever. As society grows and changes, we should be able to think about doing away with the reserved election. I am certain I will see that day happening.

"And until the Malays can stand on their own two feet, without any assistance, without any special arrangements, we have not arrived."

Boost to multiracialism, say leaders of Chinese and Indian groups
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

Leaders from the Chinese and Indian communities said they support the move to reserve next year's presidential election for a Malay candidate.

The step will strengthen multiracialism and social stability in Singapore, they added.

The new system will ensure multiracial representation in the highest office in the land, the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations told The Straits Times.

This is vital to safeguard Singapore's identity as a multiracial and harmonious society, said the national umbrella body that represents more than 200 Chinese clans and associations here.

"We urge all Singaporeans to support this new proposal, which would ensure that presidential elections remain current and relevant to our society," it added.

Yesterday, the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry issued a joint reply to The Straits Times.

"Meritocracy and multiracialism are the two key cornerstones of Singapore's success," said the chambers. "Social and racial stability is important to businesses and must be maintained. This allows businesses to plan ahead without worry, and adjust with ease. Businesses value a stable and predictable political system that is conducive in creating a pro-business environment to operate in."

The development does not surprise Mr Tan Aik Hock, president of the Singapore Lam Ann Association. "It is timely," said the clan association leader. "The Malay community has not had a president since Mr Yusof Ishak.

"Chinese Singaporeans will understand the reasons behind the move. It is part of being inclusive because we are a Chinese-majority society," he added.

Dr R. Theyvendran, president of the Singapore Ceylon Tamils Association, said the Indian community supports the move too, noting: "We have (had) two Indian presidents, so the Indian community is already represented and in a strong position.

"And this is a very fair system," he added. "Eventually, there will be another Indian president in the future."

Call to go beyond financial criteria
Some MPs want presidential candidate's criteria to be expanded to cover track record in social and public service
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

Some MPs want the qualifying criteria for a presidential candidate to go beyond the financial and include other strengths as well.

One suggestion is a track record of public service, such as running charities and non-profit organisations.

The revised requirement under the proposed changes to the elected presidency is that private sector candidates must helm a company with at least $500 million in shareholders' equity.

But there is also a "deliberative track" that gives the vetting body, the Presidential Elections Committee, some flexibility in deciding who qualifies to stand for election.

These include chief executives of companies limited by guarantee, or managing partners of large partnerships, or chief operating officers of exceptionally complex companies.

The MPs also called for greater transparency in the decision-making process on whether candidates meet the criteria.

In calling for an expansion of the criteria, Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) said: "The president is not applying to be chairman of a listed company, in which his financial and corporate track record should be the key criteria for evaluation."

Instead, the president's role demands a track record of service and willingness to contribute to society, in addition to being a custodian of the national reserves, he said.

Mr Zaqy suggested adding "softer" criteria such as leading a charity or non-profit organisation.

"The gauge to measure the president must be broader and not narrower," he added.

Mr Christopher De Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) said the "deliberative track" has to be broad enough to include the first four presidents: Mr Yusof Ishak, Dr Benjamin Henry Sheares, Mr Devan Nair and Mr Wee Kim Wee.

They contributed immensely to Singapore before they were appointed, but "they neither ran $500 million companies nor did they occupy an office that would immediately qualify them to even stand for election", he said.

While the financial criteria are useful to the office of the president, they are not everything, he said. "It cannot be all about commerce."

The candidate has to be "people-centred, community-centred and nation-centred", said Mr De Souza, sharing Mr Zaqy's view that presidential candidates should hold leadership positions in charities and non-profit organisations.

Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin said that "people sector leaders" such as social workers who help broken families should also be considered.

"This is not about simplistically asking for people sector leaders to be given an easier shot at running for the presidency," she said. Rather, such candidates with social experience can unify the country.

But whatever the criteria, they cannot be so strict that they create an "empathy gap" between political leaders and the electorate, she said.

Two MPs suggested using the National Day Awards as a yardstick.

"Would recipients of the nation's highest orders and decorations - such as the Order of Temasek or the Order of Nila Utama - and who may not automatically qualify, also be deemed to qualify?" asked Nominated MP Mahdev Mohan.

Mr De Souza noted that top National Day awards such as the Distinguished Service Order are given to those who have distinguished themselves and made significant contributions to Singapore. Using such awards will allow the committee to understand the "comparable contributions" across candidates, he said.

Nothing wrong with amending Constitution, says minister
The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung yesterday dismissed the Workers' Party (WP) suggestion that amendments to the elected presidency are the Government's bid to fix what is ultimately a flawed institution.

There is nothing wrong with amending the Constitution from time to time, he said.

Here is what he said:

"At the beginning of this debate, Ms Sylvia Lim said this is a nightmare that came back to haunt us. Indeed, it is never a perfect system and it has to be improved over time.

"This is really what building an institution is about. You never get it right the first time and you have to keep on improving, and as the WP proposed a senate, likewise the details will be hazy and it will be an idea that you have to keep on improving...

"There is nothing wrong with the Government coming back and amending the Constitution from time to time to improve this institution. As Mr Lee Kuan Yew said - it is (like an) old pair of shoes, you don't throw it away at the first blister, wear it a bit more, season a bit more, it will be more comfortable.

"Better than to buy a more complicated shoe that will give you all kinds of problems."

WP calls for return to appointed presidency
It proposes a senate, wants a referendum to let the people decide on these issues
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

The Workers' Party (WP), in rejecting the proposed changes to the elected presidency, wants a return to the old system in which Parliament appoints the president.

An appointed president would "naturally take care of any concerns" of minority representation and would not be regressive, said its chairman Sylvia Lim in Parliament yesterday.

Ms Lim and her WP colleagues also called for a national referendum to be held to let people vote for the change they want made to the presidency.

She suggested two options for the vote.

One, the current system of an elected president playing the dual role of being a unifying head of state and custodian of the nation's reserves; and two, for the president to be appointed and not vested with powers over the national reserves and the public service.

The responsibility over the reserves would be vested in an elected senate instead, said Ms Lim (Aljunied GRC) during the debate on the constitutional amendments to the elected presidency.

The WP has opposed the elected presidency since it was introduced about 25 years ago.

One of its arguments is that such a president, elected under a People's Action Party (PAP) government, would be pro-PAP and could potentially cripple a non- PAP government in its first term.

Ms Lim, however, acknowledged that Singapore's accumulated past reserves were "worthy of strong safeguards".

These safeguards, she suggested, could be vested in a second chamber in the legislature.

Called the senate, its members would be elected in a national poll and would initially have eight members.

"We see the election of the senate members as critical to make the membership process open and not susceptible to political interference. This will also give the senate the necessary mandate for the important decisions it makes," she said.

Candidates must possess "certain qualifications" and be selected by a special election committee, said WP chief Low Thia Khiang.

Mr Low (Aljunied GRC) pointed out that, similar to the current elected president, the senate can veto decisions by the Government to draw on the national reserves or make key public service appointments. But this veto can be overruled by a three-quarter parliamentary majority.

Explaining his party's rationale on divesting the president's custodial duties to an elected senate, Mr Low said the main role of the president is that of a unifying figure that goes "beyond politics".

"Making the president protect the reserves, it amounts to wanting him to be confrontational towards the Government at certain times. This is in conflict with the function of the president," said Mr Low, pointing out that the Constitutional Commission that had proposed the changes to the elected presidency had also recognised this issue.

Calling for a referendum is a "democratic way" to determine whether Singaporeans would support this model proposed by the WP, said Mr Low.

Speaking in Mandarin later, Mr Low said the proposed changes have made people "uneasy".

"The ulterior motive behind this exercise is to ensure that even when the PAP has lost the majority seats in Parliament, they could still make use of the elected president to contain the operation of the new government," he said.

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) said he agreed with the Government that the presidency should not be an alternative centre of power, but took issue with the upcoming changes to the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA).

The proposed changes would require the president to consult the CPA on all monetary matters relating to the reserves and key public service appointments.

An elected president could potentially be caught between the Government and his CPA when making decisions, said Mr Singh.

"This makes the council an alternative centre of power... An unelected council should not have the power to create such outcomes," he said.

Non-constituency MP Dennis Tan also took aim at the plans to tighten the eligibility criteria to qualify for election as president, saying this would narrow the pool to a very exclusive group of people.

One of the key changes stipulates that a candidate from the private sector must have helmed a company with at least $500 million in shareholder equity to qualify, up from $100 million in paid-up capital now.

The WP has argued that this would invariably mean potential presidents would be drawn from a pool of senior public officers - and reduce the chances of a candidate outside the system to qualify.

"President (Benjamin) Sheares was a doctor, President Wee Kim Wee was a journalist - under the present rules they would never have qualified," Mr Tan said.

Referendums should be for key issues only: Janil
Calling for vote on elected presidency would push responsibility for making laws to people
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

National referendums should be reserved for fundamental issues that concern a country's sovereignty, and not be held for people to vote on policy matters, said Minister of State for Communications and Information, and Education Janil Puthucheary yesterday.

Calling a referendum over such matters would amount to parliamentarians pushing to the people the responsibility for making laws for the country, he added. "That is the responsibility that we have been elected into this role for."

Dr Janil was responding to the Workers' Party's (WP) call for a national referendum for Singaporeans to choose what form the presidency should take.

The opposition party had proposed that the president be appointed, and his current custodial powers be vested in an elected senate, essentially a separate legislative chamber.

WP MPs who spoke said this option should be put to a national vote alongside the current elected presidency.

The proposal drew responses from over a dozen People's Action Party (PAP) MPs, with Dr Janil reminding the House that there has been only one referendum in Singapore's history - in 1962, when people voted on whether the country should merge with Malaysia - as there was "an extraordinarily high bar" to cross.

The issues put to such a vote are often "urgent, pressing and simple" ones that can be crystalised into a simple choice for voters, he said, adding that the elected presidency, in contrast, was complex and "doesn't need to happen today".

He also questioned the timing of the WP's proposal, pointing out that the party had not worked out the details of implementing it and also did not submit its ideas for scrutiny or debate by the Constitutional Commission and the public.

"You've kept silent, you've kept quiet, you kept your cards in reserve, you played politics with this issue, which I don't blame you for. You are politicians, we are politicians, but that's not how we take an issue like this forward," he said.

Those who spoke yesterday also grilled the WP on how its proposal would work, asking for details on how the election would be held and what kind of criteria would be imposed on candidates.

The WP proposed an eight-member senate, which would be popularly elected.

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) said a senate elections committee would put forth a slate of 16 candidates up for elections, and the top eight candidates with the most votes would win.

But Dr Janil said such a system would be more "exclusionary" than the one being proposed by the Government because the committee would have to arbitrarily limit the number of candidates who could run during an election.

"Where is the transparency there? It is going to be arbitrary for a non-elected body to then decide who will be elected in. It is not the public," he said.

Mr Edwin Tong (Marine Parade GRC) said holding separate elections for a senate would be "far more political and politicising than the current model". He also suggested the WP wanted to "have a platform to politicise issues" .

Ultimately, he said, the issue of having an elected president was settled over 25 years ago - it was one of the key platforms that the PAP Government campaigned on in the 1988 General Election and Singaporeans supported it.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) said a president's moral authority can be earned only by being elected by the people - and not appointed - as head of state.

The WP's continued objections to it may betray more sinister intentions, Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) suggested, saying: "Who can object to a president who wants to prevent a populist run down of reserves - Who will do this, except for the people who have plans to run this down?

"This may seem to be a hypothetical parlour game but I assure you, for shareholders of any company whose reserves in their company or for residents whose reserves in their town councils have been run down, this is not."

Dr Janil said the reality is that Singaporeans want to vote for the president. "The vast majority of all our constituents, whether they voted for WP or any other opposition candidate, they voted in the presidential election. They may have supported different candidates, but they expressed a democratic voice. They support the idea of an elected presidency and they will not accept having that democratic voice removed," he said.

He urged the WP to demonstrate its support for the people's will and to adapt to "reality" by supporting the Bill. "This debate will become part of our historical record. Imagine how the record might demonstrate that, in this House, we might have had a real engagement of ideas where people are open to what is being said and not just who is saying it... demonstrate in your actions tomorrow by voting for the Bill to strengthen our system and our country," he said.

Shanmugam, WP MPs on proposal for senate
The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2016

Law Minister K. Shanmugam had an exchange with Workers' Party (WP) MPs in Parliament yesterday over the opposition party's proposal for the president's custodial powers to be vested in a senate. Here are edited excerpts of his exchanges with WP chief Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) and Non-Constituency MPs Dennis Tan and Leon Perera.

On the details of the election for "senators"

Mr Low: I've said we have looked at the framework, the details we probably will have to fine-tune.

Mr Shanmugam: Can I take it that the details have not been worked out?

Mr Low: We've thought about the details, yes, and (they are) not fully worked out.

Mr Shanmugam: Can you tell us (if) the extent that you've worked out has been explained in this Parliament (sitting) today?

Mr Low: Yes, we've explained.

Mr Shanmugam: So what you've thought about is what you've explained so far?

Mr Low: There will be (WP) MPs speaking on some of the details.

Mr Shanmugam: I've asked a simple question. Fundamental to all of this is the criteria.

So I have you on record, Mr Low, as saying that you have thought of some, and some of that criteria and details will have to be worked out further? Second, I have you on record as saying whatever you've worked out has been set out.

I would like to ask Mr Tan, if there is any other detail on the selection criteria, please let us know. I'd also like a clarification. You said (the) criteria for the senators could be similar to the criteria for the presidents. Can you tell me to what extent will they be different?

Mr Tan: The criteria (will be) similar to the Council of Presidential Advisers.

On the criteria senatorial election candidates must satisfy

Mr Shanmugam: I take it that the basic criteria must be similar to the current elected presidency's qualification criteria.

Mr Perera: The basic qualities will be similar.

Mr Shanmugam: I'm not talking about qualities, I'm talking about criteria. Would you require the same criteria for the senators?

Mr Perera: The criteria would be similar.

Mr Shanmugam: I've heard this word "similar" several times. To what extent will they be different?

Mr Perera: It would be different in the sense that we would not have a hard and fast threshold or cut-off to say that regardless of the applicants who apply for this role... (interrupted)

Mr Shanmugam: But that is similar to the deliberative track today that we have because that's also not a hard and fast rule. So, what you are proposing for the senate is like what is being proposed for the elected presidency, (a) set of objective criteria which is the same, and some deliberative process, right?

Mr Perera: Essentially, yes. The reason for that is because (the senate) is still playing a custodial role, and it's not playing the role of reviewing legislations. So it's transferring the custodial (role) from an elected president to a senate.

Debate Day 1

Presidency: Give all races a chance, House urged
Call made by MPs, ministers and President Tan, as Bill to amend Constitution is debated
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2016

Parliament began debating proposed changes to the elected presidency yesterday, and a strong focus was on how best to ensure all races have a chance to be represented in the office from time to time.

The changes to the Constitution will also raise the eligibility criteria for candidates, and refine the role of the council advising the president.

Signalling the importance of the changes, President Tony Tan Keng Yam had a message for the House, which Speaker Halimah Yacob read out at the start of the debate.

The changes are based largely on the recommendations of a Constitutional Commission, whose report was released in September and which the Government broadly accepted.

Said Dr Tan: "The objectives of the review are clear - to ensure that the institution of the elected presidency stays relevant with time and our local context, and that the Singapore Constitution as a living document is aptly refreshed."

He added that the president is a symbol of the nation's unity and the office must uphold Singapore's multiracialism. It was thus not a coincidence that Singapore's first four appointed presidents - Mr Yusof Ishak, Dr Benjamin Sheares, Mr Devan Nair and Dr Wee Kim Wee - represented, in turn, the Malay, Eurasian, Indian and Chinese communities respectively, he said.

But after the elected presidency was instituted, all but one of the elected presidents have been Chinese, including himself, he noted.

"Our long-term aspiration should be for minorities to be elected into the office without the need for any intervention," said Dr Tan.

"But we also need to recognise the current realities."

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, in his 90-minute speech setting out the Government's case for the proposed changes, also noted that the presidency has lacked a way to ensure minorities are represented in the office since it was transformed from an appointed position to an elected one in 1991.

Thus the proposed change to reserve a presidential election for a specific ethnic group, if a member of that group has not been elected after five terms, was balanced, he said.

"The symbolic role of the presidency has sometimes been overlooked but remains of vital importance," said Mr Teo, adding that it is difficult to ensure all races will be represented in direct elections.

Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson), one of three backbenchers to speak yesterday, said while three in four Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese, it is important that the president reflect Singapore's multiracialism.

"Non-Chinese Singaporeans are not a 'by the way'; we are all an integral part of Singapore," she said.

Even so, the criteria to qualify to run will not be lowered for any race, said Mr Teo, addressing concerns that special arrangements to ensure multiracial representation in the presidency would be tokenism.

He said: "Multiracial representation can be achieved while ensuring meritocracy is not compromised."

It was a dilemma that Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim wrestled with.

In a moving speech, the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs said that segments of the Malay community, "perceived as an underachieving community", yearned for a president from one of their own.

There has not been a Malay president for 46 years. But a Malay candidate must meet the same exacting standards as all others, which the changes will ensure, he added.

The debate continues today.

Key changes


A candidate from the private sector must have helmed a company with at least $500 million in shareholder equity to qualify, instead of $100 million in paid-up capital now.


An election will be reserved for one of three groups - Chinese, Malay or Indian and other minority communities - if there has not been a president from the group for the five most recent presidential terms. All other elections will be open.


The Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) will be enlarged to include two more members, bringing the total to eight.

The president must also consult the CPA before exercising most of his discretionary powers.

The council must state the number of votes for or against its recommendations, and the grounds for these. If the president withholds his assent to Supply Bills, he must publish his reasons in the Government Gazette.


A set of provisions that "entrenches", or protects, the presidency by making it hard for Parliament to amend the office will be recrafted into a two-tier system. The new provisions will not be brought into force for now.


The maximum number of NCMPs will be increased from the current nine to 12, and they will be given the same voting rights as elected MPs.

Parliamentary system 'may not be sufficient to protect reserves'
That's why Republic conceived institution of elected presidency, says DPM Teo
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2016

Every political system has its strengths and weaknesses, and Singapore conceived the institution of the elected presidency because its parliamentary framework, by itself, may not provide sufficient protection for the nation's reserves, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean told the House yesterday.

He noted that some have argued that Parliament provides the best safeguard on this front, but countered that there is little or no incentive for lawmakers to resist appeals from a government should it decide to indulge in populist spending.

"Indeed, the call, from both sides of the House, will often be to do more," he said at the start of the debate in Parliament on proposed constitutional amendments regarding the highest office of the land.

When passed, the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill will, among other things, tighten the eligibility criteria for presidential candidates, ensure that members of racial minority groups are elected from time to time, and give more weight to the recommendations of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA).

Mr Teo cited Greece and Australia as "cautionary tales of elections descending into auctions, with political parties competing with each other to promise greater largesse from the nation's coffers".

"The elected presidency plays an important custodial role in safeguarding our key assets, in a way a purely parliamentary process cannot," he said.

"It also deters political parties from making wild promises at parliamentary elections. They know that even if they come to power, they cannot splurge our past reserves on populist measures."

This custodial role was put into action during the 2008 global financial crisis, Mr Teo pointed out, when the Government sought the approval of then President S R Nathan to use nearly $5 billion of past reserves to save businesses and jobs, and to guarantee about $150 billion of bank deposits.

President Nathan gave his approval after examining the request and consulting the CPA. The sum drawn down was returned to the past reserves by 2011.

The Bill comes after a nearly year-long process that began when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong first raised the need for a review of Singapore's political system during the debate on the President's Address in January, and convened a Constitutional Commission to review the elected presidency.

The commission's report was released in September, and the Government responded in a White Paper that broadly accepted the commission's recommendations.

One key change stipulates that a candidate from the private sector must have helmed a company with at least $500 million in shareholder equity to qualify, up from $100 million in paid-up capital now.

Another significant proposal is to reserve an election for a particular racial group if there has not been a president from the group for the five most recent presidential terms.

Mr Teo reiterated the need to update the eligibility criteria, noting that "the economic environment we live in is very different from when the elected presidency was introduced in 1991".

The proposed changes will ensure the criteria are periodically reviewed so that presidential candidates continue to have the necessary expertise to handle complex financial matters, as the economic situation changes over time.

During public hearings held by the commission in April and May, several contributors argued that the stringent eligibility criteria for the presidency seemed to be far more exacting than the eligibility criteria prescribed for the prime minister. However, they later conceded that this was a false comparison, Mr Teo noted, as the PM assumes office through an entirely different process from the president's.

The PM is elected as an MP during parliamentary elections, leads the political party that wins the majority of seats in Parliament, and commands the support of a majority of elected MPs.

"These requirements mean that there is a multi-layered filtering process where a person's abilities are tested before he is likely to become prime minister," he said.

The president, however, is elected directly and therefore there needs to be a baseline of experience and expertise that a candidate should possess, Mr Teo added.

Concluding, he likened the elected presidency to a ship's ballast that prevents it from rolling uncontrollably and capsizing in rough seas. But too much ballast will affect a ship's speed and agility.

"Our nation, like a ship, needs an optimal amount of ballast - enough to keep us stable, but not so much as to render us sluggish and unresponsive to change," he said.

Changes seek to balance rigidity and adaptability
By Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2016

The elected presidency serves as a check on the Government, and it is critical for the office and powers of the president to be protected against easy removal, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

At the same time, it must not be too onerous to amend the laws when changes are needed as the institution evolves over time, he said.

This need to strike a balance between "rigidity and flexibility" is behind the proposed amendments to a set of provisions in the Constitution that entrenches, or safeguards, the office and powers of the president, Mr Teo added.

Under the changes, the provisions will be categorised into two tiers: The first tier contains those provisions fundamental to the existence of the elected presidency, and will be harder to change; the second tier is on provisions on more operational aspects of the elected presidency and its custodial powers.

Mr Teo told Parliament: "The revised entrenchment framework seeks to achieve a more workable balance between preserving the adaptability of the entrenched provisions, and preventing easy removal or amendments to the elected presidency."

He added that finding a balance was ultimately a matter of judgment. Citing the example of the United States, he noted that only 27 out of nearly 12,000 proposals to amend the US Constitution have been successful so far.

For constitutional amendments in the US to be passed into law, they must be supported by two-thirds of both Houses of Congress and be ratified by 38 of the 50 states, he said, adding that this means even if more than 95 per cent of Americans support an amendment, it can still fail.

The current entrenchment framework states that the president can veto any attempt by Parliament to amend the Constitution to curtail his powers, and to override this veto, Parliament must get the support of two-thirds of the population in a national referendum.

But under the two-tier system, a national referendum will be needed only on changes to the first tier of provisions, if the president and Council of Presidential Advisers disagree with the Government. The referendum threshold will also be revised from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority, Mr Teo noted.

Another constitutional change proposed will give the recommendations of the Council of Presidential Advisers legal weight under the entrenchment framework, to serve as a counterbalance.

On the need for the framework, Mr Teo said there was a risk that a government "bent on raiding the reserves or compromising the public services" would try to get rid of the elected presidency, which acts as a check on the Government in these two key areas.

"By contrast, it would be much more difficult to remove well-established institutions such as this Parliament or the judiciary," he said.

The recrafted provisions will not be brought into force for now, while the Government observes how the other amendments to the Constitution operate in practice, he added.

Council part of framework to facilitate wise decisions
By Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2016

As an independent expert body, the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) provides a stabilising effect so that the president's custodial function does not depend solely on the judgment of a single person acting alone, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean told Parliament.

It also plays a role in resolving disagreements between the president and the Government, and is an important part of the framework of the president's custodial powers, he added yesterday.

"Overall, we want the framework to facilitate wise and prompt decisions, with suitable mechanisms to resolve impasses," he said.

As part of the constitutional amendments, the president will need to consult the CPA before exercising most of his discretionary powers, including over all fiscal matters and appointments. Currently, some of these matters are excluded from this requirement.

The proposed amendments also set time limits of 30 days to six weeks for the president to veto certain government decisions. These can be shortened if the prime minister certifies that the matter is urgent, or lengthened if both the president and Cabinet so agree.

This is to avoid ambiguity about whether the Government can proceed if the president remains silent on a matter, said Mr Teo.

The framework for the president and council to state their reasons for vetoes or recommendations will also be refined.

With the enlarged role that the CPA will play, two more members will be added to the council to strengthen it, said Mr Teo. One will be appointed by the president and one will be appointed on the advice of the prime minister, bringing the total number of members to eight.

Ideal way to ensure minority representation
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2016

Any changes to the elected presidency to ensure minorities are elected to the office from time to time must help, and not impede, Singapore's progress towards its long-term goal of being race-blind, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in Parliament yesterday.

Direct elections for presidents must also continue, but must balance meritocratic ideals with the need for multiracialism, he added.

In this regard, he said, the Government found that the most ideal way to ensure minority representation is to reserve presidential elections for a particular racial group if it has not been represented in the presidency in the most recent five terms.

The model balances the different goals, involves "minimal intervention", and is triggered only if presidents of different races are not elected periodically in open elections, said Mr Teo.

He added that setting the threshold at five terms strikes a good balance: Too long a hiatus could result in a system that does not meaningfully ensure the president's office is accessible to the various communities, while too short a period could come close to designating successive elections for different races, which is inappropriate for a directly elected office.

While public attention on the elected president is often focused on the "technocratic aspects of (his) custodial function", he said, the office's symbolic roleis of vital importance.

"It is necessary to continue emphasising this role, particularly because once we have direct elections, it is difficult to ensure that the presidents will continue to collectively represent the different racial groups," he added.

Pointing to the four presidents appointed prior to the elected presidency coming into effect in 1991, Mr Teo said they collectively represented all the different racial groups and were meant to remind Singaporeans of the country's multiracialism.

He added: "There is a real concern that members of minority groups may not be elected to the presidency for long periods. This will undermine the president's vital role as the symbol of our multiracial nation."

Some critics argue that the minority safeguard detracts from meritocracy. To this, Mr Teo said meritocracy will not be compromised if the eligibility criteria apply to candidates of all ethnic groups.

Malay candidates must meet same standards: Yaacob
President must be able to command the respect of all Singaporeans, he says
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2016

While it is nice and timely for Singapore to have a Malay president, the Malay candidate must meet the same exacting standards demanded of candidates from other communities, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said.

"We do not want, and we cannot accept, tokenism," Dr Yaacob told the House yesterday, on the first day of debate on proposed changes to the elected presidency. "We want a president to command the respect of all Singaporeans," he added.

Speaking in English and Malay, Dr Yaacob, who is Communications and Information Minister, sought to explain the psyche and concerns of the Malay community and its historical burden of being perceived as lagging behind other communities.

Describing the issue as an "emotive one", Dr Yaacob noted that Singapore has not had a Malay president for 46 years. The last Malay president was Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak, who died in office on Nov 23, 1970.

"An entire generation of Malays have grown up without ever having a Malay president," said Dr Yaacob. "Among the older Malays, having lived under a Malay president, it is understandable that they yearn for one after a very long time."

Younger Malays who grew up under meritocracy may be a little reluctant to see the change to ensure a Malay president from time to time, yet in closed-door discussions many would raise their hands when asked if they want to see a Malay president, he noted, adding: "But very few would say this publicly."

He noted how when the ethnic integration policy for public housing was started in 1989, there was some unease, but today, it has served the national interest, preventing ghettoes and enabling integration.

He himself struggled with it, but recognised the need for such policies "to avoid the pitfalls of other societies that ignored the human tendency to behave in tribal ways".

The changes to the presidency are a similar policy tweak, he noted.

"To have a qualified Malay to do the job speaks to a long-held desire among the community to see one of us serving in the highest office in the land. It is about our place in this nation that we call home," he said.

Malays, more so than other communities, look forward to seeing the success of one of their own, Dr Yaacob said. He cited the example of Natasha Nabila who topped the Primary School Leaving Examination in 2007 and broke the record for the highest scores. "The community was overjoyed," he said.

Dr Yaacob also shared a personal anecdote about his eldest brother Mohd Ismail Ibrahim, the first Malay President's Scholar. The extended family turned up at Paya Lebar Airport in 1968 to see his brother off for his studies, while a fellow scholar was accompanied only by his immediate family. He said: "The airport was swamped by Malays! It was a moment of celebration."

"The truth is that we do not have many Malays in key positions of power and leadership," noted Dr Yaacob. "Having one being a president is not just nice, but timely."

He added: "But this cannot, and must not, be the reason why we should have a Malay president."

Dr Yaacob also said he was concerned the debate was putting minority communities in the spotlight again, a situation the Malay community had frequently been in for the last 50 years. "We lagged behind in education, (had) higher divorce rates, higher crime rates and, more recently, Islam has been associated with the terrorism threat," he said.

The move to ensure a Malay president could be seen as "the Government going out of its way to help a community that has lagged behind". This is why for a candidate to be respected by all Singaporeans, he must meet the same high standards, regardless of race, he added.

Proposed changes reflect multiracial ideals
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2016

Singapore must always remain an inclusive society, and the proposed changes to the elected presidency reflect the nation's multiracial ideals.

Rising in support of these changes to the elected presidency yesterday, Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) said the issue here was a lot broader than whether someone from a minority stood a fair chance of being elected president.

Instead, the amendment "represents an important signal to all communities within Singapore that she must always remain an inclusive society", he said.

Under the proposed changes, an election will be reserved for a particular racial group if there has not been a president from it for the five most recent presidential terms.

This applies to the Chinese, Malay and Indian and other minority communities.

Mr Murali - one of three MPs in Parliament yesterday who raised Singapore's multiracial fabric as the reason why the amendments were necessary - said he saw this change as a "signal and a safeguard" for inclusiveness.

He added that the provision for a reserved election would kick in only if the country has gone 30 years without a president from a minority community. Under the Constitution, the Government has a responsibility to care for the interests of racial and religious minorities, "in particular that of the Malay community as the indigenous people of Singapore", said Mr Murali.

This responsibility is more pressing considering the growing racial intolerance, rising religiosity and extremism around the world - and Singapore is not immune to such pressures, he said.

"We cannot assume that we have arrived as a nation, with all inter- communal issues having been resolved forever," said Mr Murali.

Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) said the country's head of state must reflect Singapore's multiracialism. She added that even though the Chinese made up about three-quarters of the population, Singapore was not a Chinese society.

"Non-Chinese Singaporeans are not a 'by the way', we are all an integral part of Singapore," said Ms Tin.

Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) said there was value in reserved elections as they were a "safety valve".

The changes would ensure that "every generation has a chance to see a president from their own community", he said.

He cited the example of the Group Representation Constituency system, which was controversial when it was first introduced in 1988 to guarantee minority representation in Parliament.

"But today we see their value as a safety check, to avoid a freak election result where every elected MP is of the majority race," said Dr Tan.

President Tony Tan weighs in on role, scope of office
Elected president symbol of national unity and custodian of S'pore's assets but not second centre of power, he says
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2016

The elected president must be able to work with the government of the day so that Singapore can function effectively, said President Tony Tan Keng Yam yesterday in his first comments on the proposed changes to the office.

The president also plays the key roles of being a symbol of national unity and a custodian of Singapore's treasured assets, said Dr Tan.

But while the elected president plays a custodial role, he cannot be a second centre of power, Dr Tan added as he set the tone and implicit parameters for the MPs' debate.

His comments were read in Parliament by Speaker Halimah Yacob at the beginning of a three-day debate on amendments to the Constitution, following a landmark review of the 25-year-old elected presidency.

"Constitutional changes should never be undertaken lightly," he said, encouraging MPs to consider the proposals before them with an eye on the next 50 years and beyond. The goals of the constitutional review are to ensure that the institution of the elected presidency and the Constitution continue to be relevant, he said.

Drawing from his personal experience since being elected to the office in 2011, Dr Tan said an important dimension of his role has been working with the different ethnic groups that make up Singapore's multiracial society.

The president remains a symbol of Singapore's unity and, therefore, it is important that the office of the president upholds multiracialism, he said. This is a core value of Singapore that underpins its social cohesion and the harmony it enjoys.

While Singapore should aspire in the long run for minorities to be elected as president without the need for any intervention, "we also need to recognise the current realities", said Dr Tan.

He noted that all but one of the elected presidents, since the scheme started, have been Chinese.

These realities are why he thought the proposed change to reserve a presidential election for a specific ethnic group, if a member of that group has not been the president for five terms, was a balanced approach.

He also highlighted the president's role as a custodian of Singapore's national reserves and of the integrity of its public service.

As the president can disagree with the Government on these matters, he must be qualified to do so.

This is why Dr Tan agreed with the move to update the criteria individuals need to meet to be able to run for the office.

"From my own experience, the scope and complexity of the presidential oversight on Singapore's key assets have increased significantly, even in the span of five years of my term," he said.

"My finance background was useful in helping me understand the technicalities of the Government's proposals, but the decisions often also require good policy acumen and a sound judgment on what is right for Singapore," he added.

But while the president acts as a custodian, this does not necessarily mean that he acts in opposition to the Government.

There is a difference, said Dr Tan.

He cautioned that the elected president must act in accordance with the roles prescribed in the Constitution, and not hold back the elected government of the day from performing its executive role.

Dr Tan added: "We must rely upon the wisdom of our electorate to elect a president who is able to work with the Government of the day for the proper and effective governance of Singapore."

He said that as president, his working relationship with the Government has been harmonious.

"The Government keeps me informed of all its major decisions. On a regular basis, the Prime Minister and I meet over lunch and on other occasions, for him to brief me on his preoccupations and intentions, and to exchange views on the strategic direction in which Singapore is heading," said the President.

"Our relationship is built on mutual trust and respect. This, to me, is key to the effective functioning of our system."

Dr Tan also noted that the president had previously been described in the House as a goalkeeper.

"Indeed, if he fails to do the job well, no matter how good our strikers are, more goals will be scored against us and Team Singapore will be set back," he added.

"We need a capable goalkeeper who works with the other players. Only then will Team Singapore continue to do well in the global league, against competitors who may be bigger, stronger and more intimidating."


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