Presidential election set for September

The Presidential chair flanked by the State Flag (left) and the Presidential Standard (right) at the Istana.
The Presidential chair flanked by the State Flag (left) and the Presidential Standard (right) at the Istana.PHOTO: ST FILE

Campaign won't clash with N-Day festivities; new rules to avoid divisive electioneering

The presidential election this year will be pushed back to September to avoid the campaigning period coinciding with National Day celebrations in August.

Campaign rules will also be changed to discourage divisive electioneering. These two main changes to the way the presidential election will be run were announced in Parliament yesterday during the debate on the Presidential Elections (Amendment) Bill.

The Bill gives the nuts and bolts of the presidential election, right down to the number of days for would-be candidates to submit their papers, and the size of the committees that assess if they are eligible to contest the election.

But the changes to the election date and campaign rules are not part of the Bill, said Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing, when he presented the legislation for debate.

This is because the law does not need to be amended to introduce the changes, he said.

 
 
 
 
  • KEY CHANGES TO PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

  • 1 September election: The presidential election for this year and in the future will be held in September, to avoid the campaign period coinciding with National Day celebrations.

  • 2 Less divisive campaigning: There will no longer be specific sites designated for candidates to hold their election rallies.

    They just have to secure their preferred sites and apply to the police for a permit, which will be assessed according to public order considerations.

    Candidates will get more television airtime, can use social media and have indoor private meetings with specific groups of voters.

  • 3 More time for everyone: Presidential hopefuls will get more time to submit their papers.

    The deadline for applying for a certificate of eligibility will be extended to five days after the Writ of Election is issued, up from three days.

    Also, there will be at least 10 days between the issue of the writ and Nomination Day, up from five days. This gives the Presidential Elections Committee more time to go through applications.

  • 4 New committee: A Community Committee will be set up to assess, at every presidential election, which racial group the candidates belong to.

    The 16-member committee will consist of a chairman and three sub-committees for the Chinese, Malay, and Indian and other minority groups.

    All potential candidates must declare to the committee which of the three main communities they consider themselves a part of. They will be issued a certificate if the five-member sub-committee is satisfied they belong to that community.

  • 5 More efficient elections: Singaporeans living abroad will get two more days to register as an overseas voter. The deadline will be extended to two calendar days after the Writ of Election is issued, instead of up until the writ is issued.

    There will also be automatic recounting of votes when the vote margin between the top candidate and any other is 2 per cent or less of the total valid votes. This avoids unnecessary delays while waiting for candidates to ask for a recount.

The Bill was passed by Parliament after almost three hours of debate involving eight MPs.

The Workers' Party (WP) and Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun voted against the changes.

The three WP MPs who spoke argued that there were better ways to ensure minority representation in the elected presidency, and questioned the timing of the changes.

But, Mr Chan said, the tweaks will ensure that the office of the president reflects Singapore's multiracial society, and that the elected presidency continues to be a unifying symbol for all Singaporeans.

The Bill puts into effect broader changes made for this reason to the Constitution last November.

As a result, the September election will be reserved for Malay candidates as there has been no president from the community in the past five presidential terms.

Mr Chan said yesterday: "We are drawing closer to our first reserved election for our president.

"The changes to the system have taken more than a year to be discussed and fleshed out since they were publicly mooted."

Mr Chan also explained why the campaign rules were changed: "Campaign methods for the presidential elections must not inflame emotions and must be in keeping with the decorum and dignity of the office of the president."

In its report last year, the Constitutional Commission that reviewed the elected presidency said campaigning should be consistent with the president's position as a symbol of national unity.

For instance, rallies may not be necessary for a presidential contest, and may even be divisive.

For this reason, Mr Chan said, the authorities will no longer designate election rally sites. Candidates can pick their preferred sites, but they must apply to the police for a rally permit. Also, TV airtime will be increased, he said, adding that this could include at least two televised debates. Candidates can use social media as well, and have indoor private meetings with specific groups of voters.

A presidential hopeful must also make a statutory declaration that he understands the role of the president under the Constitution.

"It will then be inexcusable if he deliberately chooses to disregard the limits of the Constitution and makes promises or statements exceeding this role," said Mr Chan.

He also gave the Government's reasons for pushing back the presidential poll date.

One, to avoid campaigning being carried out during the month-long National Day celebration period in August.

Two, more time is needed between the issuing of the Writ of Election and Polling Day because of the changes to the format of presidential election.

Polling Day typically fell in the last week of August. In 2011, the writ was issued on Aug 3, and voters went to the polls on Aug 27.

Now, the Government will issue the writ later in August, so that if there is a contest, Polling Day will occur in September, not August.

This means campaigning will also likely take place outside the National Day period. If a new president is not elected by the time Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam's term expires on Aug 31, the Constitution provides for an acting president, who will either be the chairman of the Council of Presidential Advisers or the Speaker of Parliament.

The Government will not ask the acting president to draw on the reserves during this interim period unless absolutely necessary, Mr Chan said.

Parliament continues today.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 07, 2017, with the headline 'Presidential election set for September'. Print Edition | Subscribe