Moral roles of the elected president

The elected president's role should expand beyond that of custodian of financial reserves, to include that of mentor, guardian and unifier

Singapore is expected to hold a presidential election within the next 18 months. Ahead of the election, the Government has initiated a review of the qualifying criteria for candidacy, the powers of the Council of Presidential Advisers, and minority representation. For all of these reasons, it is timely to ask how we should pick a president.

The innovation of the presidency from an entirely ceremonial role to one with select "executive powers" should be regarded as a step forward in the maturation of Singapore's political arrangements. There is no push from any quarter to return the presidency to a merely figurehead role. The elected president model is, thus, likely to continue to define the office.

It should be recognised that despite the range and importance of select executive powers, the president is served by only a very small staff headed by a principal private secretary (the PPS).

The overwhelming majority of the staff allocated to the office of the president are concerned with the administrative, logistical, travel, security and planning arrangements of the ceremonial roles of the presidency. The PPS to the president is reliant on the support of the ministries to be kept informed on matters relating to the executive powers.

Consequently, the presidency appears designed in such a way that it is deliberately ill-equipped to become a position from which to initiate challenges to the Government on matters of detail of policy and practice. It is dependent on the information, data and arguments presented to it by the Government.

The president must possess a familiarity with government mechanisms, public policy and the principles and mechanism of public finance to best inform his or her judgment on whether, when and how to exercise the executive powers. This judgment comes with experience and being tested. The presidency is not the place for volatile personalities looking to make statements or a name. Ideally, the president should be a person whose "wars" are behind him, someone who can bring an emotionally balanced and sober attitude to upholding the prestige and standing of the presidency.

The president must possess a familiarity with government mechanisms, public policy, and the principles and mechanism of public finance to best inform his or her judgment on whether, when and how to exercise the executive powers. This judgment comes with experience and being tested. The presidency is not the place for volatile personalities looking to make statements or a name.

Such a president would be well equipped to play the role of a mentor to apex government leaders, including the prime minister. His or her prior experience and networks would be a welcome source of support for the otherwise lonely role of leader.

Prime ministers need confidants and guidance too. Naturally, the president must play the role of mentor carefully to avoid imposing positions and philosophies, and such roles are best played quietly away from the public gaze to maintain the trust and mutual respect necessary for the heads of state and government to interact constructively.

Citizens have been writing letters of appeal or complaint to the Istana from the inception of the office, hoping to get the attention and intervention of the president on their individual grouses. However, such letters are typically re-directed to the relevant government departments for their notice and response.

The president's role can be expanded so he or she can play a more prominent role of guardian, when it comes to matters of fundamental public or national interest, beyond the narrow areas currently specified in the Constitution. In instances when a proposed or current public policy or practice is perceived to be in conflict with the public interest, the president could be empowered to use his or her discretion to ask for a review and response on behalf of the citizens. Playing such a role would give the elected presidency more direct currency than merely contingent potency.

The presidency can and should play the role of national unifier. Being above the fray of parliamentary politics, the president is uniquely placed to bring attention to the things which unite us despite our differences.

This moral role of unifier is critical in times of crisis, but is also valuable during times of stability. This calls for a president whose priority is the nation, not self, a person who can bring moral standing to the office without contaminating it with personal ego and agenda.

It must be someone who can bring personality to the presidency without making the presidency only about personality.

Those who step forward to seek this office should be held to the highest standards. But those standards need a framing and coherency.

Apart from being custodian of financial reserves, my suggestion is that the president's moral role should include that of mentor, guardian and unifier. These roles are uniquely fitted to the office of the elected president.

Maturing our politics is more than about constitutional amendments and political frameworks. It is anchored foremost by the maturity of those who seek to be political actors - and the elected presidency may be non-partisan but it is still a political office.

Voters should judge the candidates not by what or who they are against, but for who they are as persons and what they stand for as leaders.


  • The writer is the chief executive officer of Future-Moves Group, a management consulting firm.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 12, 2016, with the headline 'Moral roles of the elected president'. Print Edition | Subscribe