Thinking Aloud | All eyes on the presidential election

A very Singaporean dilemma in picking a president

There is no pleasing everyone, much as the Presidential Elections Committee might try

Singaporeans will head to the polls to pick a new president on Sept 23.

Or maybe not.

For just how to go about selecting a successor to Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, who completed his six-year term on Thursday, now hangs in the balance.

Whether there will be an electoral contest, or a walkover on Nomination Day on Sept 13, turns on the decisions of a six-man Presidential Elections Committee, helmed by Public Service Commission chairman Eddie Teo.

The committee's role is to ensure that potential candidates for the job meet a set of qualification criteria set out by Parliament. These aim to ensure that anyone who aspires to the post has the experience, independence and financial nous to play its custodial role of safeguarding the nation's financial reserves and appointments to some key government posts.

Its work takes on greater significance this year since the election is a "reserved" one, meaning that for the first time, Parliament has mandated that only members of the country's Malay minority community will be eligible to run. It thought it necessary to do so as Singapore has not had a Malay president since 1970.

Pity Mr Teo. For he now faces the unenviable task of having to decide which of several conflicting principles - each important in itself - he and his committee will uphold, or give more weight to. There is just no pleasing everyone, much as they might try.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Consider the principles at stake. First, that the presidency should be open to all races that make up this ethnically disparate nation, with each having a realistic chance of aspiring to the Republic's top job.

This is critical if the nation is to live up to its pledge of being "one united people, regardless of race, language or religion", a founding tenet that goes to the heart of Singapore's reason for being.

Second, that given the importance of the president's custodial powers, the best man or woman should be chosen for the job, in line with Singaporeans' strong belief in meritocracy, which has been reinforced in the public mind over the past five decades of independence.

Third, that the president should be voted into office by the people, to give him the mandate to stand up to, and oppose if need be, an elected government that he thinks is unwisely drawing on the reserves or making dubious appointments to certain top jobs.

This provision that the president should be popularly elected was introduced in 1991 when the largely ceremonial role of the president was expanded to include the new custodial powers over the reserves and appointments.

Prior to this, the president had been nominated by Parliament, which exercised its judgment to select a respected Singaporean, who was manifestly up to the job and able to draw support from a wide spectrum of society. That practice, which was widely accepted, allowed for an informal rotation of the post among the various races.

Last year, a proposal was floated by a constitutional review commission that the country revert to the old practice - which, in my view, would have been the best way to deal with the conflicting principles mentioned above - but it was shot down by government leaders. They argued that having moved to a system where the president was chosen by voters, there was just no turning back.

They also insisted that, for all the progress the country has made over the years towards developing a common Singaporean identity, it was foolhardy to shy away from the reality that race continues to be a powerful factor influencing electoral choices and outcomes.

Hence, they concluded that a minority candidate would face an uphill task in an open contest, which led to the decision to hold a "reserved" election. This remains controversial, but to my mind, is neither unreasonable nor unrealistic. Yet, even if you accepted this contention, the solution proposed poses problems, as is manifested in the present quandary faced by Mr Teo and his panel.

So far, only three candidates have expressed interest in standing for election, although there is an off-chance that more might emerge over the next few days. But of these three, only one meets the criteria to do so. She is none other than Madam Halimah Yacob, 63, who qualifies in the light of her previous role as Speaker of Parliament, one of several top posts mentioned in the Constitution as an automatic pass to qualification.

The other two would-be contenders - Mr Farid Khan, 61, chairman of a marine services firm, and Mr Salleh Marican, 67, chief executive of a listed property company - do not meet the requirement of having led a company with an average shareholder equity of $500 million in the three most recent years.

The Presidential Elections Committee is empowered to exercise discretion and could, if it chose, override these criteria and allow one or both of these businessmen through, thereby setting up a contest for the election. But doing so comes at a cost, for it would set a significant precedent, making future efforts to uphold the financial requirements for the job all but impossible.

Many in Singapore's Malay community also feel uncomfortable about such a concession being made for them, contrary to the deeply held meritocratic ethos of the country.

Yet, should Mr Teo and his team choose to hold the line and rule that the two men do not meet the standards that Parliament had mandated, the result would be the first "reserved" election being won by a walkover, also a less than ideal outcome, not just for the Malay community but also all round.

Singapore has seen presidents elected unopposed in the past, but doing so this time, when Parliament had gone out of its way to restrict the election to Malay candidates to allow one of them to be voted in by the people, will leave not a few people disappointed, to say the least.

Hence, the deep dilemma facing those who have to decide on how best to proceed, given that there is just no way to check all the three boxes of the principles listed above.

In all likelihood, the committee will not be able to deliver on the triple goals of equal access to the office for all races, upholding standards and meritocracy, and an electoral contest for candidates to win a mandate through a vote. Something, as they say, will have to give.

So what is Mr Teo and his committee to do?

Well, the best that can be done under these difficult circumstances, in my view, would be for the committee to accept that there is only one candidate who qualifies under the present rules spelt out by Parliament. Madam Halimah might then be declared elected into office unopposed on Nomination Day. This seems to be the option most people are now anticipating, going by the betting talk making the rounds.

The committee might also point out that the next election, as spelt out in the Constitution, will be an open one. The upshot of this is that while the new president might seem to have won an easy victory, she will have her work cut out for her. She will have to work hard at connecting with the people, upholding the office and generally doing a stellar job, in the hope of winning over some of the doubters, over time.

Then, six years from now, she should stand again, to defend her position in an open contest.

Given her nearly four decades of service to the community, as union leader, MP and Speaker, as well as her likeability and common touch, some believe she could well win on her own merits, perhaps even now.

In any case, she should be ready to be put to the test in an open fight in a few years' time once people have had a chance to see her perform in the job.

This will not satisfy the purists. But it is a pragmatic approach that Singaporeans are familiar with. After all, Singapore has long had a system of group representation constituencies, where newbie potential ministers and minority candidates are fielded as a team with established leaders to help them gain a foothold in Parliament. Once there, they are expected to establish their own credentials and defend their positions at subsequent polls. The same now goes for the coming presidential contest.

The GRCs have never been popular in some quarters, but many Singaporeans would grant, however grudgingly, that it has worked to achieve its purpose of ensuring ethnic representation in Parliament, thereby contributing to the hard-won racial harmony the country now enjoys.

•This column is part of the Asian Editors' Circle series, a weekly column by top editors of newspapers which are members of the Asia News Network.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 03, 2017, with the headline 'A very Singaporean dilemma in picking a president'. Print Edition | Subscribe