PM Lee Hsien Loong appoints Constitutional Commission to review Elected Presidency; calls for changes to NCMP, GRC schemes

Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam greeting supporters on Aug 27, 2011, prior to emerging victorious in the presidential election.
Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam greeting supporters on Aug 27, 2011, prior to emerging victorious in the presidential election. PHOTO: ST FILE
  • The president will remain an elected office
  • 3 possible changes to elected presidency: qualifying criteria; give minorities chance to be elected; and whether to give more weight to views of Council of Presidential Advisers 
  • Other changes: more opposition MPs, equal voting rights for NCMPs, smaller GRCs
  • Changes aimed at making political system more open, contestable and accountable 

SINGAPORE - A Constitutional Commission will be appointed to study changes to the Elected Presidency system, including reviewing the qualifying criteria of candidates, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Wednesday (Jan 27).

Mr Lee also listed two other areas it will look at: how to ensure that minorities will have a chance to be elected to the office of president, and whether the views of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA), which assists and advises the president in exercising his powers, should be given greater weight.

The president, however, will remain an elected office, said Mr Lee. If the president is not elected, he will lack the mandate to wield his custodial powers, he told Parliament.

The Constitutional Commission will be chaired by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and include distinguished jurists, academics and corporate executives.

It will look into each of the issues, and take views from the public. It is expected to submit its recommendations by the third quarter of this year. The Government will table the legislation which may be  necessary within this year.

The Elected Presidency was introduced in 1991.

Mr Lee's announcement followed President Tony Tan Keng Yam's address at the opening of Parliament on Jan 15. In his address, Dr Tan said the Government will study if further improvements to the political system are needed for its long-term benefit.

 
 
 

No details were given in the President's speech about the review, but some commentators have said that an obvious potential change is to the office of the Elected President, which was introduced 25 years ago.

In his speech, PM Lee also touched on other changes he plans to introduce, such as having more opposition MPs from the next election and giving more voting rights to Non-constituency MPs.  

These changes would ensure that the political system continues to serve the needs of the country for the longer term.

On changes to the Elected Presidency system, Mr Lee stressed that the Government had a "very good and constructive working relationship" with Dr Tan, and that he was proposing this review not because of any dissatisfaction with the present working arrangements.

The adjustments may be necessary in the future to keep the presidency a robust, effective institution, he said.

Elected Presidency: Review qualifying criteria

While the principle behind the qualifying criteria for presidential hopefuls remained valid, it needed to be brought up to date, he pointed out.

He cited the example of how candidates are required to possess the experience of running a company with a paid-up capital of at least $100 million. Based on inflation alone, that amount in 1990 would be equivalent to $158 million today.

At the same time, much has changed over the last 25 years. Singapore's economy has grown, government spending and reserves have increased, and the size and complexity of the organisations subject to the second key of the president have increased many fold, he noted.

The second key refers to the custodial role an Elected President plays with regard to the country's financial reserves. During the global economic crisis in 2009, the Government had to seek the approval of then President S R Nathan to withdraw $4.9 billion from the reserves for use in its Budget expenditure.

Moving on the second area for review, PM Lee said the Government should study if the CPA's views should be given greater weight, and if so, how it can be done.

In assisting and advising the president in exercising his powers, the CPA and president play the role of "a goalkeeper together with a team of defenders", Mr Lee said, quoting Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.

As new institutions establish themselves over time, it should be considered if the CPA's advice should come to count for more in the president's decisions, so as to make Singapore's governance system more stable.

Currently, the President has to consult the CPA on decisions on supply Bills or key appointments in the public sector. But that is not required in other areas where the President exercises custodial powers.

 

The last area to be looked at, said Mr Lee, is how to make sure that minorities get a chance to be elected president.

A mechanism similar to the group representation constituency

 

(GRC) scheme in a general election should be considered, to ensure minorities can be periodically elected if a member of a particular minority has not been president for some time, he said.

 

The president is the head of state and therefore represents all Singaporeans, so it is important that minorities stand a chance to be elected president, and that it happens regularly.

Mr Lee noted that Singapore has not had a Malay president since the Elected Presidency system was introduced in 1991, and that Mr Nathan, an Indian who served two terms as president, was elected unopposed.

He said: "In future, when presidential elections are more likely to be contested, even hotly contested, I believe it will become much harder for minorities to be elected."

More opposition MPs, more powers for NCMPs

The prime minister, in his speech, also outlined other changes he plans to introduce.

The minimum number of opposition MPs, including NCMPs, will go up to 12 - from the current nine - from the next general election, he announced.

The Constitution will also be amended to give NCMPs the same voting rights as elected MPs,

The NCMP scheme, introduced in 1984 after then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew argued for younger voters to be given a taste of opposition politics, awards seats in Parliament to the best-performing losing opposition candidates at a general election.

Under the current Constitution, NCMPs can debate in Parliament and are allowed to vote on all issues except for certain matters.These matters are constitutional changes, supply and money Bills, votes of no confidence in the Government and removing a President from office.

Mr Lee said the move would mean that NCMPs will be "equal in powers" - though not in responsibility and scope - to MPs. With this change, there will be no reason at all to perceive NCMPs as "second-class", he said.

Smaller GRCs, more SMCs

The next General Election will also see smaller group representation constituencies (GRCs) on average and more single member constituencies (SMCs).

While there are advantages to having bigger GRCs, smaller GRCs foster a closer connection between the MPs and residents. SMCs also give the MP direct responsibility for everything that happens in the constituency.

There are currently 16 GRCs and 13 SMCs. The average number of MPs in each GRC stands at 4.75, down from an average of five in 2011.

Explaining the objective of these changes, PM Lee said: "My aim is to strengthen our system to make it more open and contestable, and to keep it accountable to the people."

He said the system must be one where all political parties, especially the ruling People's Action Party, have to fight hard, stay lean and responsive to people, and win the right to govern at each election.

It must also be a system where Parliament will always be the place to debate and decide important policies where alternative views always have a place, where the opposition will never be shut out, and the Government will be held to account.

This is so "the government of the day - whoever that may be - is always kept on its toes", he said.