Constitutional Commission Report released; key changes proposed to elected presidency

The Constitutional Commission to review the elected presidency has proposed several key changes to the institution, in a report published on Sept 7, 2016.
The Constitutional Commission to review the elected presidency has proposed several key changes to the institution, in a report published on Sept 7, 2016.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - Significant changes are set to be made to the elected presidency to ensure candidates are amply qualified and representative of the country's multiracial nature.

A Constitutional Commission set up to review three key aspects of the 25-year-old institution has recommended that the bar to contest presidential elections be updated to take into account the growth of the economy and the national reserves.

In its report published on Wednesday (Sept 7), the commission suggested that candidates from the private sector, now required to be chairman or CEO of a company with at least $100 million in paid-up capital, should be the most senior executive of a company with at least $500 million in shareholders' equity to be eligible to contest.

A special provision has also been mooted to guarantee that the highest office in the land is accessible - and attainable - by members of the country's minority communities.

The commission proposed that if no president has been elected from the three racial groups - Chinese, Malay, or Indian and Others - for five terms, the next election will be reserved for a person from that racial group.

 

At the same time, the size and structure of the Council of Presidential Advisers ought to be strengthened, and it should be consulted on all fiscal matters concerning the reserves, among other changes.

These key adjustments to three aspects of the elected presidency were highlighted in the 154-page report of the nine-member commission chaired by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, which the Government published on Wednesday (Sept 7).

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is attending Asean meetings in Laos, said in a letter to C.J. Menon that the Government accepted in principle the main recommendations on these three aspects.

Acting PM Teo Chee Hean also issued a statement on the "comprehensive and thoughtful report".

He said the Government will publish a White Paper next Thursday (Sept 15) setting out its detailed response to the commission's report.

It will then table amendments to the Constitution in Parliament, and have a full debate on the issue.

The report comes six months after Mr Lee appointed the commission to review the qualifying process, find ways to safeguard minority representation in the presidency, and review the framework for the president's exercise of his custodial powers, in particular the role of the Council of Presidential Advisers.

The panel called for views from the public and received over 100 submissions. It also held four public hearings in April and May.

In its report, the commission also cast its eye on some issues beyond its terms of reference, and Mr Lee said the Government will study these views seriously.

In particular, the commission suggested the Government consider returning to a president appointed by Parliament.

In his letter, PM Lee said: "While I appreciate the Commission's reasons for this suggestion, as the Government has pointed out even when the scheme was first conceived, it would be difficult for a President to exercise custodial powers over the reserves and public service appointments, and veto proposals by the Government, without an electoral mandate."

The commission had noted that founding PM Lee Kuan Yew, had, in 1984, said the president has to be elected so he has the moral authority to say no to an elected Government that might wish to spend previously built-up reserves.

But while attention has been given to the custodial powers of the office in recent years, the commission stressed that the importance of the president's historical role as a unifying symbol of the nation remains.


GRAPHIC: MCI

The custodial role appears to have been overlaid upon the historical role of being a president for all Singaporeans, it said, adding that there is an undeniable tension between the two roles - both of which remain fundamentally important.

After 25 years and an evolving environment, strains have emerged, the commission noted, in suggesting that the Government consider unbundling the custodial role "if and when it is appropriate and timely to undertake a more fundamental change to the presidency".

The changes come on the back of a hotly-contested presidential election among four candidates in 2011.

 

The commission also had strong words on the conduct of that election, noting that some candidates did not seem to understand the role and remit of the president, and instead campaigned on policies they would not have been able to pursue if elected.

It proposed that a system of rules be devised to ensure that candidates know what the president can and cannot do, and called for more public education on the presidency.

Some contributors suggested deferring the implementation of proposed changes to the eligibility criteria so candidates who might have previously qualified to contest were not excluded from contesting next year's presidential election.

The commission said: "The question of whether and when any amendments should be introduced is a political matter for Parliament to determine."

However, it added: "It would be incongruous for it (the commission) to conclude that changes are called for to safeguard the nation's vital interests, but for it then also to propose, in the same report, that these be deferred for at least seven years".

Meanwhile, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said the Government is asking the Attorney-General for advice on certain aspects of the commission's proposals to ensure representation of all the major races in the office of the president.

"The Government will announce its position once the AG has given his advice and the Government has considered it," he said.