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Commentary

A major upgrade to the elected presidency

The recommendations of the Constitutional Commission on the elected presidency (EP) represent a major upgrade to a 25-year-old institution.

They tighten criteria on who can stand and raise the bar for candidates. They help entrench minority representation so minority races don't get left out.

They strengthen the check-and-balance role of the presidency. They give Parliament a bigger role as a forum that debates the balance between the Government and the president.

In spirit, the recommendations are remarkable for the consistent manner in which they seek to advance transparency of what has sometimes been criticised as an opaque institution.

ELIGIBILITY

First, eligibility. For candidates from the private sector, the commission proposes limiting candidates to those who have been the most senior executives of companies (which would rule out people who are non-executive chairmen) with at least $500 million in shareholder equity (instead of $100 million in paid-up capital as in the past). There is a new recency requirement - executives must have served within the last 15 years; and performance criteria - they must have left the company in good shape.

Candidates must also sign a declaration that they understand the constitutional role of the EP. It will be an offence for candidates to "make promises or to take positions that are incompatible with the office of president" - such as promising wider healthcare or public transport - and those who do so can be subject to criminal and other sanctions.

Making candidates declare that they understand the role of the EP and will not make empty promises can help reduce the kind of political posturing seen in the 2011 presidential election by some candidates.

 

To be sure, such declarations may not hold back candidates. In the recent Hong Kong legislature elections, candidates had to sign pledges to uphold the Basic Law rule that Hong Kong is an "inalienable part" of China. This did not stop some from campaigning on independence for Hong Kong - and winning seats.

China says they face possible criminal penalties if they did not uphold the pledge.

Still, such declarations should give candidates with a secret political agenda pause before they enter the presidential contest. They might figure the more appropriate arena for their ideas is the general election, not the limited, circumscribed presidential one.

The proposed tightening of criteria for candidates, and preventing them from making empty promises, help raise the bar for entry to the contest.

MINORITY REPRESENTATION

Second, minority representation. The commission went for a model of a "hiatus-triggered safeguard", where a contest is reserved for candidates of a certain race if no candidate from that race has been elected for five terms. This helps ensure that the president, as the symbolic head of state, remains a multiracial institution.

It is to be welcomed from that point of view, although I agree with the commission that a "race-blind society is the only legitimate aspiration for Singapore" and look forward to a time when minorities don't need such protection, and a minority candidate has an equal chance of winning at the polls.

CHECKS AND BALANCES

Third, checks and balance.

The idea for the EP is that the president can act as a check on the Government in specific areas such as the country's financial reserves and public service appointments.

The Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) advises the president. If he acts in accord with their advice, his veto is final and the Government has to abide by it.

If the president goes against the CPA's advice, the Government can bring the matter up to Parliament, which can override the president's decision.

Under current rules, Parliament can shoot down a presidential veto only if it has a two-third majority.

The commission wants to reduce this to a simple majority, if the president's veto is not supported by a majority of the CPA.

If the CPA is evenly split on supporting the presidential veto, and the CPA chairman exercises his casting vote in support of the president, then Parliament will still need a two-third majority to veto him.

In other words, "the stronger the CPA's support for the president's decision, the more difficult it should be for Parliament to undo that decision".

Making it easier for Parliament to override a presidential veto in some circumstances is a clear sign that the commission is preparing for a time when Parliament is not dominated by a single political party, as it is today.

STRONGER PARLIAMENTARY ROLE

Fourth, several suggested changes would strengthen the role of Parliament in the elected presidency.

A clause has been on the books for 25 years but not entrenched - it is not yet in force.

This is a rule that lets the president veto any law that seeks to curtail his powers, and which requires a national referendum to be called to override that veto with a two-third majority.

This means having to call a national referendum each time changes are made to the presidency's powers, if the president disagrees with the changes and vetoes them.

The commission noted: "After 25 years, the Government should decide whether to bring these provisions into force or to repeal them in whole or in part."

Without taking a position, the commission said indefinite suspension of the clause may not be appropriate and suggested that the Government suspend the entrenchment for a fixed period of, say, five years, "after which they would be brought into force unless the suspension is expressly extended for further fixed periods by Parliament".

This gives the Government flexibility in fine-tuning the presidential system without having to call a national referendum to do so, while ensuring there is open parliamentary debate and scrutiny of the issue of entrenching those provisions.

The commission affirmed several times that Parliament is the best forum to debate issues in a "transparent and robust manner" when there is a difference between the Government and president, as parliamentary proceedings are "publicly accessible".

MORE TRANSPARENCY

This suggestion, and several others in the report, cheered the democrat in me for advancing transparency in the presidency.

For example, it suggests that successful presidential candidates' declarations on their candidacy be made public.

It wants the president to publish his decisions on any veto he makes, going beyond publishing his assent to Budget Bills as now.

It wants the CPA to declare its members' individual votes and grounds of decision to the president, so the latter has a better basis on which to decide whether to assent or veto a government decision.

The president should then convey the CPA's position to the prime minister and Speaker of Parliament if he wants to veto a Bill.

If the commission's recommendations are accepted, the elected presidency will be strengthened. It will be harder for a rogue president to emerge, with the bar set higher, and criminal sanctions for anyone who oversteps the limits of campaigning.

An overzealous president who is too veto-happy will find himself hemmed in by a stronger CPA and Parliament. The president's decisions will be subject to more scrutiny as his veto decisions are made public.

Over time, as presidents start to exercise their custodial powers more, the operations of the EP will be more visible to the public. The feeling that the presidential system with its CPA is a closed system of a few wise men making decisions among themselves should then abate.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2016, with the headline 'A major upgrade to the elected presidency'. Print Edition | Subscribe