Given the widespread consensus that the elected president ought to be, above all, a unifying symbol for all Singaporeans, it would be most unseemly if elections for the office were conducted in an incongruous manner. Indeed, divisive electioneers would be unwelcome in parliamentary contests, too, especially when they target racial, linguistic and religious fissures in society. But even a subtle hint of such efforts by presidential candidates would demean the highest office of the land.
During a keen contest, there might be an inclination to look more independent than thou in one's capacity to check a government. But in so doing, candidates should not pitch an alternative political vision or governing style as the elected president does not exercise any executive or policymaking powers. Unfortunately, some candidates at the 2011 election had suggested they could offer an alternative locus of power. That would go beyond the boundaries of the Constitution. The law gives the president a custodial role relating to the spending of reserves and key appointments in the public service. That calls for an impartial judgment on what's in the best interests of all Singaporeans, both present and future. The president must weigh the financial impact of any large drawdown of the nation's savings proposed by the government of the day, and the overall economic and social impact if such funds were not expended for urgent national needs.
That calls for a wise head on seasoned shoulders. One need not be ideologically at odds with the executive branch of the government in order to check it. Rather, Singaporeans need trustworthy judgments from the president, drawn from many years of leadership experience at high levels and a sound understanding of public finances.
Eligibility criteria will help ensure candidates are capable of making high-order decisions. But how are voters to make a sound choice? Certainly, they will want to learn about candidates' views and convictions on a range of issues, among which politics cannot be exempt. Yet one would not want the election process to be politicised.
Hence there is merit in distinguishing parliamentary election rallies from those held by presidential hopefuls. Giving them flexibility to pick venues and hold indoor private meetings will help to set the right tenor for the contest. If too "political", it might deter some dignified and eminently qualified persons from stepping forward. Many voters, too, might prefer to see gentlemanly, thoughtful exchanges rather than the populist, knee-jerk impulses evident in politics at times. Democratic processes demand a vigorous contest of ideas but if a candidate is overly combative or strident on the campaign trail, he or she can scarcely hope to win the respect of all Singaporeans. That's important as the president must be capable of bringing the nation together.