Elected Presidency: Better checks, better candidates?

Timing: When should the proposals kick in?

Former Cabinet minister S. Dhanabalan speaking at the Constitutional Commission hearing on elected presidency with (back row, from left) Constitutional Commission members Mr Chua Thian Poh, Mr Abdullah Tarmugi, Mr Wong Ngit Liong, Justice Tay Yong Kw
Former Cabinet minister S. Dhanabalan speaking at the Constitutional Commission hearing on elected presidency with (back row, from left) Constitutional Commission members Mr Chua Thian Poh, Mr Abdullah Tarmugi, Mr Wong Ngit Liong, Justice Tay Yong Kwang, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Mr Eddie Teo, Mr Peter Seah, Professor Chan Heng Chee and Mr Philip Ng Chee Tat on Sept 7, 2016. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

People may not have enough time to understand and support the recommended changes to the elected presidency if the proposals take effect at the next presidential election, say three political watchers.

Indications are strong that the changes are being timed for the next presidential election, which must be called by August next year.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said in a Mediacorp interview last week the changes should be put in place by then.

The Government will release a White Paper in response to the recommendations on Thursday.

The changes are set to be debated and passed by Parliament in November.

This means a period of just under a year from January this year, when the idea was first floated, to the changes being conceived and written into law.

The panel said that while the question of timing was to be left to Parliament, it would be better to introduce changes sooner rather than later.

The process included groups and individuals airing their views at public hearings in April and May, and the release of a report last week by the panel reviewing the presidency.

Observers agree on the rationale for the changes, which include updating the eligibility criteria for candidates and reserving elections for specified races.

But the question is when to carry out the changes, they say.

Some prefer to wait and change the law only after the next presidential election, due next year.

Pushing the changes till then will give people time "to debate and discuss such an important change in the way our country will be governed", says retired People's Action Party MP Inderjit Singh.

The observers point out that the elected presidency was seven years in the making. Then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew mooted the idea in 1984 and it took effect in 1991, after two White Papers were debated in Parliament from 1988 to 1990.

 

Law don Eugene Tan notes that with the current review, "we are barely nine months in the process".

"Why the haste? We have time; perhaps not seven years but certainly not less than a year, as seems to be the Government's timeline," he says.

Political scientist Bilveer Singh agrees, saying that "slow and steady incrementalism" is prudent.

They give two more reasons for calling for more time.

One, it avoids the perception that the Government is "railroading" the changes through. And two, they are not convinced there is an urgent need to carry out the changes swiftly.

Mr Inderjit Singh says that "no matter who is elected as president next year", Singapore is in no immediate danger that its national interests, say, its reserves, are being threatened.

"The current processes are robust enough for Parliament to override the president and the Council of Presidential Advisers if there are major disagreements," he adds.

But Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Zainal Sapari says it would be too long a wait if changes are implemented at the presidential election after next year's, which would be in 2023.

The point of making the eligibility criteria more strict is to ensure that presidential hopefuls are properly qualified for the job, he notes.

"If we delay it, we send the message that there may be candidates at the (coming) presidential election who do not meet the stricter criteria, but we're letting them run anyway.

"As a voter I do not feel comfortable with this," says Mr Zainal.

Delaying the implementation of the provision to reserve elections for particular races would also be a bad idea, he says.

Should the changes take effect before the next election, many observers then reckon that that poll will likely be reserved for Malay candidates. This is because there has not been a Malay president since Mr Yusof Ishak died in office in 1970.

"If you postpone the changes further, it'll be more than the five terms recommended by the commission," he says.

Mr Zainal's sentiments are largely in line with what the Constitutional Commission says in its report.

The panel said that while the question of timing was to be left to Parliament, it would be better to introduce changes sooner rather than later.

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

Charissa Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 11, 2016, with the headline 'Five question: 5. Timing: When should the proposals kick in?'. Print Edition | Subscribe