Don't let elected presidency become a divisive factor

Dr Tony Tan waving to his supporters during the presidential election at Toa Payoh Stadium on Aug 27, 2011.
Dr Tony Tan waving to his supporters during the presidential election at Toa Payoh Stadium on Aug 27, 2011. PHOTO: ST FILE

Reading from the terms of reference given to the Constitutional Commission on the elected presidency (EP) review, one can guess the targets the Government has set for the review.

But the bigger objective behind the review is not so clear. They are subject to various interpretations and speculations.

Sadly, after the last presidential election in 2011, the EP institution has slowly become a dividing force, not in the real political system yet, but already in the minds of the people.

Of the four candidates in the 2011 election, three promised that, should they win, they would speak up on issues outside the purview of the EP. This could be seen as a challenge to the existing limited role and power of the EP.

The three also claimed that they were more "independent" than Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, a former Cabinet minister. Dr Tan eventually won by a hair's breadth margin of 0.35 percentage points.

The takeaway from the 2011 election was: People were confused over the intended function of the EP in our political system.

Some, perhaps many, people now perceive the EP as a check-and-balance - rather than a custodial - mechanism, and these people would want the EP's role and power to be expanded.

To them, the ideal man or woman elected to do checks and balances should be one who has little or no relation with the existing Government.

Would future EP elections become more combative?

You bet they would, if people are still confused or divided over the intended function of the EP, and if we still allow campaigns to be conducted under existing rules.

These are very critical areas the Government and commission should look into in the review. They hold the primary task of preventing the EP institution from becoming a divisive factor in the nation.

As any election mechanism will never be perfect, the most crucial duty of ensuring that the best candidates will be elected as our future presidents rests squarely on the rationality and wisdom of Singaporeans at large.

Ng Ya Ken

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2016, with the headline 'Don't let elected presidency become a divisive factor'. Print Edition | Subscribe