Minority candidate elected at restricted presidential poll 'may lack gravitas, political legitimacy'

Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) deputy director for research Gillian Koh (left) and IPS researcher Tan Min-Wei at the third public hearing on proposed changes to the elected presidency on April 26, 2016.
Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) deputy director for research Gillian Koh (left) and IPS researcher Tan Min-Wei at the third public hearing on proposed changes to the elected presidency on April 26, 2016. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon (second from right) at the public hearing being held at the Supreme Court auditorium on April 26, 2016.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon (second from right) at the public hearing being held at the Supreme Court auditorium on April 26, 2016.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

SINGAPORE - A president elected in a restricted election held specifically for minority candidates may lack gravitas and political legitimacy, said Dr Gillian Koh from the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).

Such a president is also like to be seen as a token representative of the racial group he comes from, she added on Tuesday, at the third hearing on proposed changes to the elected presidency.

Dr Koh, who is deputy director at the IPS, was giving her views at the hearings by the Constitutional Commission set up to review the office of the president. Her submission to the commission on the issue was made with IPS researcher Tan Min-Wei.

She said Singapore's president should be chosen based on merit and whether he can uphold the principle of multiracialism.

Instead of changing the laws to ensure that particular races are elected at presidential polls from time to time, there should be a greater push to seek out members of minority races and to encourage them to contest, she suggested.

 
 

Public Service Commission chairman Eddie Teo, a member of the commission, said the same stringent criteria would be applied to all candidates, even those in closed elections.

"Why do you say specifying ethnicity goes against the concept of merit and why should candidate be regarded as a token representative and lacking in gravitas and political legitimacy if he's standing in such (a closed minority) election?" he asked.

Dr Koh said that even if candidates are just as meritorious in such elections, a segment of voters may inevitably view them as "someone who was not open to a complete contest across the nation".

She said that introducing measures to guarantee that minority candidates are elected can also signal that minority communities require help.

Since Singapore is already on the "journey" towards elections where candidates are evaluated based on merit, "we don't want to stop this process of growing that multiracial ethos", she added.

She also said there is no empirical data to show if Singaporeans vote along racial lines at presidential elections.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, who chairs the commission, noted that most of those who spoke at the hearings had said it is important that minority candidates are elected from time to time. He asked if the system should be given a "nudge" from time to time.

Citing another academic who spoken at an earlier hearing, he asked if measures could be put in place to limit elections for a particular community that has not had a president from the community for a few terms.

Dr Koh said this could result in those communities not putting in the effort to put forward candidates during those years where elections are not closed.

Mr Tan, her IPS colleague, suggested simplifying the process of applying to be a presidential candidate to encourage more people to come forward.

On Tuesday, the commission also heard submissions from human rights group Maruah, which argued that the elected president's power to block key public service appointments is more important and should get greater emphasis than his custodial role over the reserves.

This is because the integrity and incorruptibility of the public service is an invaluable asset, the group said, adding that the second key the president holds on the reserves is a "red herring" as it is rare for the president to withhold permission to use the reserves.

 
 

Maruah member Ngiam Shih Tung, 49, said that it would be undemocratic for the president to block Supply Bills or the Budget passed by Parliament, which reflects the will of the people.

But CJ Menon questioned this notion and pointed out that the president is also elected and has a mandate to be a check and balance on the actions of the government.

Mr Ngiam said that if the president was elected from out of a wide number of candidates, it would not be undemocratic.

But he felt that the review of the eligibility criteria would shrink the pool of candidates and therefore limit the choices for Singaporeans to choose from.

This led CJ Menon to note that the Constitutional Commission was supposed to provide recommendations to ensure the relevance of the eligibility criteria. It is not the objective to narrow the pool, he said.

The third submission on Tuesday was by Singapore Management University law professor Jack Lee who called for greater transparency in the workings of the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC), and said that its decisions should be better communicated to prospective candidates.

The candidates for the elected presidency should also have the right to communicate with the PEC to "correct erroneous information about him" and be able to apply for judicial review to challenge the PEC if it decides not to issue a certificate of eligibility, he added.

But Dr Lee agreed with commission member Chan Heng Chee that such a judicial review has to be limited in scope so as not to "surround the whole election with controversy and contestation".

CJ Menon said that Dr Lee's proposal amounted to "vesting a political decision in the courts".

"Those are judgments the PEC makes, and I wonder if the courts are the best body to play that role when you have constructed a group of people in the PEC best-placed to play that role," he said.

Dr Lee also wants the PEC to provide detailed reasons to a candidate when he is found ineligible to run in a presidential election.

"It goes down to having a procedure for the candidate to validate his or her view and understand why he did not qualify," he said.

Also appearing before the commission were National University of Singapore law professors Jaclyn Neo and Swati Jhaveri.

They said that to ensure there is minority representation in the office of the president, the various councils and committees that advice the president and decide on presidential candidates should also have minority members.

This means that measures should be put in place to ensure that people from minority races are appointed to the Council of Presidential Advisers, the PEC and the Presidential Council for Minority Rights.

Dr Jhaveri said this is "part of a holistic view of safeguarding minority representation".

But CJ Menon asked if this approach would be "too interventionist".

He said the reason it is important for there to be a minority president from time to time is because of the president's special symbolic role. He questioned if there was a similar need for minority members to be entrenched in the councils and committee related to the president's office.

The commission was appointed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in February to review three aspects of the elected presidency.

The three areas are: the eligibility criteria for candidates; provisions for minority candidates to have a chance of being elected from time to time; and changes to ensure members of the Council of Presidential Advisers have experience in the public and private sectors.

The public hearings are being held at the Supreme Court auditorium. The fourth and last hearing will be on May 6.

Those invited to speak by the Constitutional Commission were among more than 100 individuals and groups who had sent in their views on the matter during a public consultation. A total of 19 individuals and groups accepted the invitation to give their views at the hearings.

Additional reporting by Lim Yan Liang