Dangers of a politicised elected presidency

I refer to last Friday's letter by Mr Clinton Lim Eng Hiong ("Fine-tune presidential election process").

The problem with the elected presidency goes beyond the quality of the candidates - the problem is that the process has been politicised.

It is clear from the previous presidential election that candidates are no longer content to just be a figurehead with a second key to our reserves - several candidates campaigned on a platform of a more politically active elected president who can draw from his popular mandate to act as a check on the Government.

This is problematic in two ways.

First, such a politically active elected president could ignite a constitutional crisis because, in our political system, the President is not meant to be an alternate source of political power, much less a check on the Government.

Even if his powers are curtailed constitutionally, an elected president intent on making his political views heard will be hard to stop.

A politically active president could thus reach beyond his constitutional role, by appealing to his electoral support.

Second, after every general election, a time of healing and national unity is necessary for the country to move forward.

The presidential election, if it continues to be politicised, will quickly become a proxy for a mid-term referendum on the Government, with each party backing its own candidate.

This means that instead of focusing on technocratic competence, governments will end up having to deal with politicking every two years, effectively shortening the electoral cycle.

This is unhealthy both for governance, as well as for national unity.

A permanently politicised country is a road that other countries have travelled, and one we would do well to avoid.

In the light of this, it may well be prudent to scrap the elected presidency, and revert to the old system of an appointed one, which produced respected and loved presidents such as Mr Yusof Ishak, Dr Benjamin Sheares and Dr Wee Kim Wee.

The president should be a figure for national unity, and elections, by nature, divide rather than unite.

The second key to the reserves can then be held not by one man with a political agenda, but by a Council of Grandees, which can include the appointed apolitical president, the Chief Justice, the head of the civil service, as well as well-respected people from the unions, professions and businesses.

Calvin Cheng

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2015, with the headline 'Dangers of a politicised elected presidency'. Print Edition | Subscribe