It would be premature, of course, to foreclose choices related to the elected presidency, ahead of the parliamentary debate on the review of the office by a panel and a forthcoming White Paper on it. At this stage, what is needed is greater clarity of the issues so the public is better equipped to evaluate views on proposals. Forums to be held by the Government's citizen engagement agency Reach on the presidency ought to also contribute to this process.
All credit should be given to the Constitutional Commission that reviewed the office - it even went beyond its terms of reference to discuss other pertinent matters. The impartial nature of the contributions of many Singaporeans who participated in the exercise and the analytical rigour of the commission's report say a lot about the rise of a maturing polity. For its part, the Government has pledged to "study these views seriously".
As much as the institution of the presidency is valued by people, there is also doubt about the basis upon which votes should be exercised during an election. This was jarringly revealed in 2011 when some candidates spoke of political outcomes they simply could not offer voters. If eligibility for office is tightened, as proposed, and all who have cleared the higher bar are deemed suitable, voters might well ask if their choice should then turn on personal factors alone.
Given the subjective nature of such an exercise, the nation might not see presidents of all races emerging as in the past. That prompted the commission to propose a set of rules and timeframe to ensure the election of a minority president from time to time. The refinement is not unproblematic. Taken together with other arguable existing provisions, the weight of inherent contradictions might make the institution "too complicated" for Singaporeans, as some have observed. The tensions arise mostly because the president must serve as a symbol of national unity and also stand up to the Government to protect the nation's past reserves and the integrity of its public service. Further layers of safeguards like criminalising certain electioneering excesses, as proposed, would not only be difficult to properly enforce but could also create needless political dissonance, especially if a minority candidate is involved.
There is merit, therefore, in having a full and forthright discussion of all the issues, with a view to either removing dilemmas or resolving them to everyone's satisfaction, before a decision is made. There is no shortage of ideas in the panel's report on how rules can be updated to take into account the nation's progress. At the same time, one should preserve time-tested aspects of this important office. The special place that the president holds in the life of a nation is worth shielding from any processes that could prove socially divisive in the long run.