Some Singaporeans might yearn for simpler arrangements after weighing the various proposals heard by the Constitutional Commission to review the elected presidency. A rotational system by appointment would depoliticise the office and emphasise its unifying role, it has been argued. While that role remains as important as ever, it evolved from a purely ceremonial to a custodial one as well in 1991, following many years of debate. There is no turning the clock back now as the rationale for the change remains relevant. However, given the disquiet that has surfaced, it was useful for Singaporeans to hear an elaboration of the political concerns related to the presidency in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's speech at the National Day Rally on Sunday.
In the Republic's particular context, it is the political system which upholds the multiracial edifice within which everything else, including the economy, must function to fulfil shared national goals. A key component of that system is the elected presidency. The President is the symbolic head of the nation. He or she is also the custodian of the reserves and crucial civil service appointments, among other important roles. Hence, all the races should be represented in the presidency over time so that these roles can be fulfilled with the multiracial resolve that one expects to undergird all spheres of action.
This imperative notwithstanding, meritocracy must never be short-changed just so as to have a nominally representative president. Eligibility criteria ought to be adjusted to keep in step with the times, of course. At the same time, they should not be set so high that they would adversely narrow the pool of candidates. The Singapore system as a whole can help to ensure the pool is always large enough by offering the talented of all races opportunities to rise to the top in all sectors.
A reformed scheme should help overcome any propensity that might arise to treat race as a factor of endearment. If this tendency surfaces in electoral contests, however subtly, that would undermine the President's important role of bringing people together, especially when society is put to the test - for example, when shaken by external events or home-grown acts of terrorism.
As important as it is for people to understand the demands of the office - particularly the oversight of crucial national decisions - they should also appreciate the risk of vesting it with supervisory roles that are not in the Constitution at all. Any emergence of two centres of power would tie up the political system in knots. Instead, what would be desirable are refinements that strengthen certain checks and balances but do not unduly hamstring the executive. A sound combination of its functional and symbolic functions would help elevate the elected presidency to an abiding custodian of Singapore's political future.