The promise and perils of direct elections

To lower risk of rogue leaders being elected, educate and expose voters to election process to help them vote wisely

My first introduction to the promise and perils of democracy came in secondary school. That was when we students came together to elect our head prefect .

The head prefect worked with the principal and teachers to enforce discipline and to organise activities for the school. Yet, in seeking our vote, she would have to be a representative of the students and champion our welfare. She would have to be both advocate and regulator.

I remember the quietly competitive campaigning that went underway, as each candidate and her supporters put up campaign posters and organised "rallies".

Even within the confines of a school election for head prefect, we somehow knew there was an "establishment" candidate, a girl from the top Science class said to be favoured by the principal and teachers. Then there was a "grassroots" candidate, a girl from a humble background with a likeable demeanour.

As I recall it, it was bread and butter issues like recess time and canteen food - not education policy - that dominated campaign talk.

The grassroots candidate won. She proved to be a steady head prefect and school life carried on as usual, without dramatic changes.

I have often reflected since on how progressive it was of the principal and teachers to have a head prefect elected by the student body. To be sure, the risk of having a feckless or reckless head prefect is small, compared to the risk of having one such national leader. But it would have been irksome, to say the least, for the teaching body to have to deal with a troublesome head prefect for a year.

Yet, the adults at Raffles Girls' School in the 1980s, when I was a student, saw fit to entrust a bunch of over 1,000 teenagers with the vote to choose their student leader.

I have been thinking about the RGS head prefect election since news broke about impending changes to the Elected Presidency in Singapore. The Elected President in our system acts as a custodian to safeguard Singapore's stability, as he has veto powers over spending of past financial reserves and key public sector appointments. The idea is that he should act as a check on the elected government of the day and prevent the latter from squandering hard-earned past reserves.

To weed out frivolous candidates, criteria were set to make sure only people with vast management or financial experience will qualify. The finely balanced mechanism is meant to act as a "second key" to protect Singapore's inheritance.

But the last presidential campaign troubled many Singaporeans, including myself. We saw with deep concern how even candidates from the requisite backgrounds campaigned as though the Elected President was the head of an alternative government which could institute alternative policies.

Such candidates behaved as though they did not understand the constitutional limits to their role - or if they did, were unwilling to be constrained by them. The result of such wrong-headed thinking was a confused campaign that confused voters.

To avoid a repeat of such confusion, the institution of the Elected Presidency clearly needs fixing, and urgently, before the next election is due by August next year. It was no surprise then, that this was among the top items of the Government after winning a handsome mandate in the September 2015 General Election.

A few people, including my colleague Warren Fernandez and eminent diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, have argued in The Straits Times that it is worth considering going back to the practice of having Parliament choose someone to become the President.

Warren argued last week: "Sooner or later, a president with his own electoral mandate will inevitably emerge as an alternative source of power, at odds with an elected government. No amount of tinkering with the selection criteria or process will address this."

Kishore wrote: "While we worried about a rogue government in the past, we did not consider the possibility that a rogue president could be elected. It is true that democratic electorates can display wisdom. They demonstrated this when they gave the People's Action Party government a solid mandate in the 2015 elections. Sadly, it is also true that democratic electorates can display a lack of wisdom."

I agree with both that the current set-up for the Elected Presidency turns it into a huge political risk, a point many observers noted after the Aug ust 2011 presidential election. The Presidency has become Singapore's Achilles heel in politics.

This is due, in part, to the nature of elections and politics. The perils of direct democracy are all too evident this season, as the contest for presidential nominees gets underway in America. The world watches in horrified disbelief, as the extreme antics of Republican candidate Donald Trump help him trounce rivals; and gasps at the way Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders promises free healthcare and free college tuition, as they try to clinch their respective parties' nomination.

In a frank commentary in Huffington Post, Professor Robert Reich, who was Secretary of Labour in the Clinton administration, warned about "The Perils of Circus Politics". In the eponymous article, he wrote: "Paradoxically, at a time when the stakes are especially high for who becomes the next president, we have a free-for-all politics in which anyone can become a candidate, put together as much funding as they need, claim anything about themselves no matter how truthful, advance any proposal no matter how absurd, and get away with bigotry without being held accountable. Why? Americans have stopped trusting the mediating institutions that used to filter and scrutinise potential leaders on behalf of the rest of us."

He identifies these mediating institutions as political parties (now disdained), the mainstream media (seen as biased), and opinion leaders (none of which can sway a broad swathe of public opinion).

Singapore is not the United States and the solution to our flawed presidential system must be our own. I think the solution must be two-pronged. The first prong of measures - already being undertaken by the Constitutional Commission on the presidency - is to raise the bar to ensure quality candidates, and to embed the powers of the president more tightly within the embrace of the Council of Presidential Advisers.

The second prong must be targeted at voters: to inculcate in Singaporeans an understanding of what the vote means, so they will not support demagoguery or bigotry.

A campaign to explain the presidency's limited role is essential so they can see through candidates who try to win them over on false premises. Beyond that, we can introduce Singaporeans to elections at a young age.

Educate students on politics in school. Hold elections for class monitors and head prefects, and give them power to decide on things that students care about, like canteen food, school uniform, hair lengths and outings. Have elections for mayors, town councillors and Residents' Committee members.

Then, we see elections up close and live with the consequence of our vote in the school, neighbourhood or town. When it is time to choose national leaders, we would hopefully have lived through and learnt from the folly of supporting incompetent or populist leaders, and learnt to cast our vote more wisely.

The way to deal with the dangers of democracy is not to back away from it by withdrawing suffrage, but to get people to see and experience both its potential and its limits - and as early on in life as possible.

I admit my view is based on an optimistic view of human nature and of politics. There will be risks, and certainly much time and effort will be spent on school and local elections.

But the alternative - reducing the franchise, or removing the vote, because of the risk of a rogue candidate being elected - leads us down a far worse path.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2016, with the headline 'The promise and perils of direct elections'. Subscribe