The Government should tread carefully in its review of the Elected Presidency to ensure that candidates from minority communities can be elected periodically, former president S R Nathan told The Sunday Times in an exclusive interview.
While the laws do not stop anybody from contesting a presidential election on the basis of race, language or religion, he said: "Neither can you make it so that there are certain people who are going to be privileged, or they are going to have a special benefit."
His comments come days after it was announced that a Constitutional Commission will be set up to look into changes to the Elected Presidency system, including how to make sure candidates from minority communities get a chance to be elected president.
Two other aspects of the highest office of the land will also be studied: the qualifying criteria for presidential hopefuls and the powers of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA).
Mr Nathan, who is Indian, served as head of state from 1999 to 2011. He was elected unopposed twice, in 1999 and 2005.
The 91-year-old observed that Singaporeans believe they are colour-blind, but given the volatile nature of race and religion issues, tensions may be easily triggered.
"Race is under our skin," he cautioned. "Once you open it, the genie cannot go back into the bottle."
"We are a multiracial country, we are a multicultural country, we are a multi-religious country. You can't make it in such a way that anybody has a particular advantage. The commission will have to decide," he added, in the half-hour interview. "It's a question of whether (a candidate is) competent. If a competent person is available, then what does the race matter?"
The process to ensure minority candidates can periodically be elected as President will act as a safeguard against the possibility that some Singaporeans may still be prone to voting along racial lines, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Parliament.
Mr Nathan declined to be drawn into discussing whether he would have won if he went up against a Chinese candidate, though he said he was prepared for a fight. But, in an interview with this reporter last year, he had said: "At that time, I still thought they would contest it because I'm not Chinese. So they might think it's easy, let's defeat this fellow."
During this latest interview last Friday, Mr Nathan repeatedly refused to be drawn into commenting about the three aspects of the Elected Presidency to be reviewed.
On at least four occasions, he said it would be "premature" to pre-empt the commission on its deliberations and recommendations.
He added that he had not suggested any changes to the Elected Presidency system, but felt it was natural for it to be relooked after 25 years of its implementation.
Mr Nathan was the first Elected President to approve the use of past reserves - in his case, $4.9 billion - for two schemes to save jobs and ease credit for firms.
This was at the height of the 2008 global financial crisis, and he made the call on the unanimous advice of the CPA. The council comprises people with backgrounds in areas such as banking, international trade and the labour movement.
This is why it was "incumbent on me to seek the advice of the CPA, with all their expertise", he said.
It is law that the President must consult the CPA before he vetoes the Budgets of the Government and key government-linked bodies, as well as the appointments of government nominees to key posts.
For other areas where he exercises discretionary powers, such as the granting of clemency to death row inmates, it becomes optional as to whether the CPA is consulted.
Mr Nathan said he "regularly consulted" the CPA, especially in deciding on appointments. This acted as an important safeguard against potential favouritism, he added.
But in cases of the death penalty, he acted on the advice of the Cabinet, which itself must be satisfied by the grounds of evidence laid out by the Attorney-General.
MORE MEET THE MARK
The upcoming review will also look at raising the qualifying criteria for potential presidential candidates.
More people today, especially in the private sector, can meet the mark, given Singapore's increasing affluence, compared to 1991.
"Insofar as determining the position is concerned, we look at the person's experience, ability to hold that office, and philosophy of life to carry the responsibilities of the Presidency," said Mr Nathan.
"It was very easy to say, when we didn't have so many people," he said. "But now, you can have plenty of people, but maybe they think it's not necessary, that it must be limited to those who are qualified, on the basis of ability, to discharge the function." When asked if it was not a good thing for Singapore to have many more qualified people for the President role today, he would only say: "I will leave this to the commission to determine."
Ultimately, the role of the President is to unite Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion - one which Mr Nathan said is of the utmost importance.
Unlike the United States, where the President has executive powers, Singapore practises a system akin to the United Kingdom's, where the Queen is the head of state but has little power, he noted.
"So I often get asked why I keep quiet when everybody is singing Majulah Singapura on National Day," he quipped. "I reply, 'Yes, they are singing to me. I'm standing there! This is symbolic of the country. I don't expect to sing to myself!'"