Fine-tuning the presidency to make it work for the future

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday explained why he felt it was his personal responsibility to introduce changes to the elected presidency during the second reading of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill in Parliament. Below is an excerpt from his speech on the changes needed to ensure the presidency remains a multiracial institution.

A television screen grab of PM Lee addressing Parliament yesterday. He said if deliberate arrangements to ensure a multiracial outcome are not made, the presidency could well become a single-race office because minorities do find it harder to win in a nat
A television screen grab of PM Lee addressing Parliament yesterday. He said if deliberate arrangements to ensure a multiracial outcome are not made, the presidency could well become a single-race office because minorities do find it harder to win in a national election.PHOTO: MEDIACORP

For the past quarter century since we have implemented the scheme, the elected presidency scheme has worked well and become a valuable part of our political system.

It is a unique system, very difficult to get right, because the balance is a delicate one. A symbolic head of state, but elected through a national ballot with a popular mandate, but not a mandate to govern. He can use his mandate to say no in certain areas but not to push for policies or to initiate action.

The presidential election itself presents some difficulties. In a fiercely contested campaign, emotions build up, and issues that have nothing to do with the role of the president can become hot. Candidates may then make claims, promises and declarations which go beyond the president's powers and competence under the Constitution.

We saw that happen in the 2011 Presidential Election.

But for all these difficulties, I am convinced that the elected president has been a plus for our system. Having this stabiliser is critical and has already made a difference. Even though it is not easy to get right, we should persevere to improve the system.

Among all the changes in this complicated Bill, the one which we thought hardest about, and where the most is at stake, is the question of ensuring multiracial representation in the elected presidency.

To raise the qualifying criteria is relatively straightforward because it is an objective bar. To strengthen the CPA (Council of Presidential Advisers ) is a matter of fine-tuning. The provisions on veto and entrenchment are essentially a legal drafting problem, setting the right balance between flexibility and rigidity in the Constitution, but it can be done.

A television screen grab of PM Lee addressing Parliament yesterday. He said if deliberate arrangements to ensure a multiracial outcome are not made, the presidency could well become a single-race office because minorities do find it harder to win in a national election. PHOTO: MEDIACORP

But whether to ensure that people from different races can and do indeed become president is the most difficult question because it goes right to the core of our fundamental belief in a multiracial society.

As the head of state, the president is the symbol of our nation. He represents all Singaporeans. Therefore, the office must be multiracial.

At the same time, whichever ethnic group the president belongs to, he has to be multiracial in his approach. He has to reach out to all races, connect with every Singaporean. Fortunately all our presidents, so far, have done that.

Many of us want to be race-blind. We feel that we ourselves are race-blind. We are understandably uneasy about any suggestion that perhaps we are not so. I am heartened that is our ideal and aspiration but at the same time we have to be realistic about where we are today.

If the president, who is the symbol of a multiracial nation, always comes from the same race, not only will he cease to be a credible symbol of our nation, but the very multi-racial character of the nation will come under question. Every citizen, Chinese, Malay, Indian, or some other race, should know that someone of his community can become president, and in fact from time to time, does become president.

This is not a theoretical matter - for us, race is a very live consideration, with real world implications.

We have made enormous progress in our racial harmony, certainly, but we are not completely there. As a small, open, multiracial country, our ethnic groups are always subject to different external pulls and influences. Our racial harmony can be affected by developments in other countries and this applies to all our ethnic groups.

Take the rise of China, with which we have substantial relations. China's rise is a tremendous plus for Singapore, and for the world. Our companies do a lot of business in China, and many Chinese companies participate in our economy.

We work on government-to- government projects - Suzhou, Tianjin, and now the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative. We have been to-ing and fro-ing intensively - tourism, culture, education.

Every Chinese New Year, without Chinese artisans, we will not have all the lanterns at the Riverside Hong Bao. Every community event, there is some engagement, some flow, some connection, with some part of China which can add some extra colour and vividness to our Singapore Chinese culture. We want to grow this cooperation with China and take full advantage of our familiarity with the culture and language.

Yet, there is a risk. Because of our population composition and cultural familiarity, people may misunderstand us to be a Chinese country, and forget that Singapore is an independent sovereign country, cooperating with other countries on the basis of our own national interests and positions.

It can lead to misunderstandings, unrealistic expectations and it can lead to us being carried away, even domestically, and forgetting this fundamental fact about Singapore.

We are not a Chinese country, but a multiracial, multireligious South-east Asian country with an ethnic Chinese majority, but not a Chinese country. We have to show this domestically, to our own population, the Chinese population as well as the non-Chinese population. We have to show this externally to other countries too. So that is one important way in which the external world influences our domestic racial cohesion and considerations.

Secondly, among our closest neighbours, race and religion are hot issues. We look at Indonesia, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, you may know him by another name, Ahok, is running for re-election as governor of Jakarta. Ahok is a Chinese and a Christian. His opponents cited a Quranic verse to tell Muslims not to vote for Ahok. They called him a "kafir", an infidel, a strong word. Ahok responded in a YouTube video and accused them of lying and misinterpreting the Quran. Then they attacked Ahok for blasphemy. Ahok was forced to apologise but his opponents staged a huge demonstration in Jakarta last Friday. The protesters yelled "We want a Muslim governor!" and "Burn Ahok!" There was violence and rioting. They (the police) are investigating whether he committed blasphemy.

In Malaysia, politics is based on race and religion. It is the antithesis of the way politics is conducted in Singapore. Political Islam is a dominant feature. PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia) has tabled a hudud Bill in Parliament. The Barisan Nasional government has allowed it to be put on the order paper. Non-Muslim parties are deeply upset about this, but they know that in such matters, they do not decide. The divide between the races is very deep.

In Singapore, we worry about race and religion ourselves too. What will happen to our society if we have a terrorist attack? What more if the attack is by a Singaporean, self-radicalised after visiting extremist websites? Will we stand together, or will we split along racial and religious lines? A terrorist attack is frightening but if it comes from outside, I think it is not so hard to understand, we pull together. If it should come from within, are we sure that we can heal back together so easily, unless we work very hard at it before the fact? These external events and influences will affect our social cohesion.

We are building a radically different society in Singapore than other countries in the region. We are seeking to be multiracial, equal and harmonious. Gradually enlarging our shared Singaporean identity, while celebrating our different cultures and faiths. Allowing minority communities ample space to live their own ways of life, never forcing everybody to conform to a single norm set by the majority. We have to work consciously and systematically at this. It will not happen by itself, nor will we get there if we blithely assume that we have already arrived and do not talk about it, do not do anything about it, and we are okay. That is not the way to be okay.

The president is the most important unifying symbol of the nation. Singaporeans look up to the president as the personification of all that Singapore stands for and all that we stand for in Singapore. So it is a fundamental necessity that the presidency be multiracial.

If we do not make deliberate arrangements to ensure a multiracial outcome, the presidency could well become a single-race office because minorities do find it harder to win in a national election.

This is not an easy subject to speak about openly. Many of us want to be race-blind. We feel that we ourselves are race-blind. We are understandably uneasy about any suggestion that perhaps we are not so. I am heartened that is our ideal and aspiration but at the same time we have to be realistic about where we are today.

You have seen the surveys. They show that at least a significant minority of Singaporeans consider race as a factor when they vote, and will not vote for somebody of a different race to be president.

That puts the minority candidates at a disadvantage in an election.

Mr Murali (Pillai) spoke about this yesterday, and he knows this from personal experience. I knew this when I sent Mr Murali to Bukit Batok to fight a by-election in an SMC (single member constituency), knowing that it is not so easy for a non-Chinese to do that. I did it because he knew the ground, I knew him, and I judged that this was a risk that I was prepared to take. He fought hard, he won, but he can tell you, and I can tell you, that he had to fight harder than if I had sent a similar Chinese candidate familiar with the ground to go and fight and win. It is a reality of Singapore society and Singapore politics.

It is not just Singapore. This is so in every country, including the US. In 1992, when Bill Clinton first stood for president, he ran against George H.W. Bush, the senior George Bush. The blacks voted for Bill Clinton. Toni Morrison, who is a black female Nobel laureate for Literature, described Bill Clinton rapturously as "the first black president".

Years later in 2008, Hillary Clinton, his wife, ran against Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination in the primaries. Bill Clinton repeated this phrase and described himself as "the first black president", to shore up Hillary. He thought it would help. Instead, he caused an uproar in the African-American community. The blacks voted overwhelmingly against Hillary, for Obama.

Then Obama became president. It was a real breakthrough for African Americans. People said marvellous - race no longer matters in US politics, but they were too optimistic.

After eight years of a black president, in the current election you have two white candidates, Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump. What is the election about? At one level, it is about globalisation, jobs, insecurity, but on another level, race is front and centre. Trump supporters are overwhelmingly white, lower- and middle-income voters. They feel threatened by the demographic changes happening in America. Theirs is a white protest vote.

The moral of the story is that race and religion are very deep-seated realities in every country. We must take them very seriously. So even though there is no pressure, and the minority communities have not pressed for it, we should make arrangements now, to ensure that the presidency will be multiracial.

We have decided to do this through what the Constitutional Commission has called the hiatus-triggered model, which means that presidential elections are generally open to candidates of all races, but if we have not had a president from a particular community for five consecutive terms, then the next term will be reserved for candidates from that community.

If one of them is elected, we will have a president from that community. This means that in the course of six presidential terms, there should be at least one Chinese president, one Malay president, and one president who is either Indian or other minority, provided qualified candidates appear.

Which means that out of six terms, there will be at least two non-Chinese presidents, which means one in three presidents will be non-Chinese, which is bigger than the proportion of non-Chinese in our population. Some people have objected that this arrangement goes against the principle of meritocracy. I understand their concerns, but I would like you to consider two points.

First, the candidate in a reserved election must still meet the same qualifying criteria. He must be competent for the job of wielding the custodial powers. He must be as qualified as any other candidate who stands and wins in a non-reserved election.

Secondly, the symbolic role of the president is just as important as his custodial role. As a symbol of the nation, the race of the candidate is relevant. So while individually, a good candidate of any race will be satisfactory, collectively, over a period of time, we need that mix of presidents of different races, and the election mechanism must be designed to produce such a mix over time, and that is what the hiatus-triggered model delivers.

When should the racial provision start counting? The Constitutional Amendment Bill states that the Government should legislate on this point and the Government intends to legislate when we amend the Presidential Elections Act in January next year.

We have taken the Attorney-General's advice. We will start counting from the first president who exercised the powers of the elected president - in other words, Dr Wee Kim Wee. That means we are now in the fifth term of the elected presidency. We will also have to define the ethnic group of each of the elected presidents we have had so far. There is no practical doubt, but as a legal matter we have to define it because you cannot convene the committee retrospectively to certify them.

The Act will deem Dr Wee Kim Wee as Chinese, Mr Ong Teng Cheong as Chinese, Mr S R Nathan, who served two terms, as Indian, and Dr Tony Tan as Chinese.

Therefore by the operation of the hiatus-triggered model, the next election, due next year, will be a reserved election for Malay candidates and that means if a Malay candidate steps up to run, or more than one Malay candidate step up to run, who are qualified, Singapore will have a Malay president again.

As Minister Yaacob Ibrahim observed yesterday, this would be our first after more than 46 years, since our first president, Encik Yusof Ishak. I look forward to this.

These are practical arrangements we must make, in order to make our multiracial system work. We recognise where we are and we will work to strengthen our multi-racial society. Our ideal is to be race-blind. We "pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion", and we must continue striving towards this goal.

As we get closer to this ideal, and minority candidates are regularly elected president in open elections, we will need the hiatus-triggered reserved elections less and less.

We have spent a lot of energy and time on the changes to the elected president this year. I personally have paid a lot of attention to this. I feel strongly that this is my responsibility and something that I need to do now.

Let me explain why. I have been involved with the elected presidency almost from the start. As a young minister, I helped Mr Goh Chok Tong and his team develop Mr Lee Kuan Yew's concept into a complete scheme, and I helped Professor (S.) Jayakumar to draft the white papers in 1988 and in 1990.

Since the elected presidency began, I have been operating the mechanism that we designed, and discovering its glitches. I helped to refine and amend the scheme as we went along. And after becoming prime minister, I have worked closely with two elected presidents, Mr S R Nathan and Dr Tony Tan, including asking Mr Nathan for permission to draw on the reserves during the global financial crisis.

So I think I can say that I know the system; what the design intent was, when we first formulated the scheme, how it has worked in practice, how conditions have changed, how our ideas have evolved and how we should fine-tune and improve the scheme, to make it work for our long-term future.

These changes are my responsibility. I am doing it now because it would be irresponsible of me to kick this can down the road and leave the problem to my successors. They have not had this long experience with the system, and will find it much harder to deal with.

I am sure the result will not be perfect. I fully expect that one day, my successors will find it necessary to make further improvements and adjustments to the elected presidency scheme but I believe the changes in this Bill will make the elected presidency work better for Singapore, now and in the future.

But please understand that whatever we do, it is not cast-iron and foolproof - things can still go wrong in Singapore, with Singapore politics. A government may be elected with good intentions, only to find its policies turn out badly. A president may be elected on a basis different from his Constitutional role. Relations between the president and the Government may become strained, or even break down.

Most fundamentally, Singaporeans may become split along fault lines of race, religion, income or class, and then no political system will produce a stable government for the country. All these are possible, despite all the safeguards we put in place and yet we know that without the elected president, we have more cause to worry about things going disastrously wrong.

Strengthening the elected presidency will reduce the chances of this happening but ultimately our safety, and our future, lie in the hands of Singaporeans. We must rely on Singaporeans to remain united so that our politics can be constructive and cohesive. To get people to come forward to serve the nation in many different ways. To elect good people into Parliament and government, and to serve as president, and then we can all work together with those entrusted with authority and responsibility to deliver the results that we know Singapore can achieve.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2016, with the headline 'Fine-tuning the presidency to make it work for the future'. Subscribe