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The Straits Times says

Understanding the President's role

The manifest value of the review of aspects of the Elected Presidency is the clarity that might be shed on the nature of the highest office in the land. An institutional innovation created to safeguard the nation against any executive misconduct or misjudgment in the future, its scope has created certain tensions that deserve to be discussed coolly rather than, say, in a charged political setting. The airing of the issues is all the more necessary because public expectations of the office are not aligned to the responsibilities spelt out in the Constitution. This was patently clear when candidates campaigned during the 2011 presidential election. The review by the Constitutional Commission and debate on the panel's recommendations offer a good opportunity to refine three key areas ahead of the next election in 2017. These are the eligibility criteria for candidates; how a chance can be created for eligible minority candidates to be elected from time to time; and the experience profile of members of the Council of Presidential Advisers.

The main tension arises from the grafting of a custodial role to the traditional unifying role in a Westminster system of parliamentary government. The latter is arguably the predominant one for the Head of State in a participative democracy as he or she would stand above the fray and be a symbol of the dignity and continuity of the nation - an authoritative upholder of the aspirations within the National Pledge. The President represents all of the people, including those who are disadvantaged or lack a voice, and not just those who voted for him. That is what lends moral authority to the office. In exceptional or turbulent times, the nation would depend on him to exercise his legal authority to ensure the Prime Minister "is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the Members of Parliament", under Article 25 of the Constitution.

Considering just the traditional roles, it would be proper to ensure all are in agreement about the attributes expected of a presidential candidate. Lowering the bar excessively to offer more opportunities for hopefuls to serve might in effect lower the dignity of the office, while raising it too high would invite cynicism, especially if the post is seen as a preserve of a closed circle. In taking into account the custodial powers, more would be expected of a candidate. This is to ensure the next President can competently safeguard spending of past financial reserves, and ensure corruption or nepotism doesn't creep into key public service appointments. Ensuring future presidents and presidential advisers have the requisite experience and skills is a matter that calls for a thorough examination. How to satisfy the demands of these twin roles and how best to select someone who might perform these duties is a question that bears pondering and debating openly.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2016, with the headline 'Understanding the President's role'. Print Edition | Subscribe