PM Lee on elected presidency

Changes may be hard to accept, but are necessary

PM Lee at the TV recording for The Prime Minister on Race and Politics programme.
PM Lee at the TV recording for The Prime Minister on Race and Politics programme. PHOTO: MCI

It will be difficult to convince Singaporeans that changes to the elected presidency are necessary, particularly for a minority candidate to be elected from time to time, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a TV interview aired yesterday .

But they must be made even if the reasons are not yet obvious, because "by the time it's obvious it's too late", he added.

Mr Lee said it is "psychologically hard" for people to accept a system that is new and "it takes time for people to understand why it's necessary and to see that it's necessary".

It is also "legally difficult" to craft the provisions, which are complicated. And they are also "politically delicate" to explain, he added.

"People must understand what the purpose is, people must not feel patronised, they must not feel that you have some ulterior motive and you've got to put across honestly why you are doing this and how this is supposed to work and why it's good for them," he said.

He cited how there were considerable doubts and resistance when the idea of group representation constituencies (GRCs) was mooted in the 1980s. Some felt they were patronising and undemocratic.


Somebody who can identify with all Singaporeans, whom all Singaporeans will look up to, respect and, at the same time, has the experience and the weight and the judgment to look at what the Government is putting up to them, and to say, yes, or no, depending on whether or not that's the wise thing to do. You need the experience, you need the personality. You also need that trust which people must build up in you. So when you say, 'I have made this decision after consulting my conscience and consulting wise people', it carries weight and people respect you and they feel proud to be Singaporean. That's what we want.


First, we knew this problem was there when we made the elected presidency. Everybody sensed that this will make it much harder to have a Malay president or an Indian president. But we felt that we had time. We've seen how it's worked. We've had one minority elected president, Mr Nathan, who served with distinction. But he was elected both times unopposed and he won the hearts of Singaporeans. But when he first came out, without Singaporeans knowing him well, I'm not sure how an election would have turned out. It's difficult to say.

(In) 2011, the election was a hard-fought one, very fierce and I don't think in that kind of election a minority will have a fair chance and I expect in future there will be future presidential elections which will be as hard fought, as tense, and I think that will make the problem more acute. That's the second reason.

The third reason I'm doing it now is because it's something which I feel I ought to do and I ought not to pass this on. I'm familiar with the system, I helped to design it, I've been part of operating it and mending it, improving it, crafting it as we have gone along, changing the provisions to make them work. So I know this problem and I have a responsibility to deal with it. And I can tell Singaporeans, I believe this is something which needs to be done and I believe it and I want to do it and I will persuade you that it is something that we should do and which is good for Singapore.

But after nearly 30 years of GRCs, they are accepted as what Mr Lee called a "very valuable stabiliser in our system". If GRCs were done away with, Mr Lee added, the impact would be seen immediately in the next election.

"If we don't have GRCs, you may well end up with minority MPs being targeted and you will have fewer minority MPs in Parliament.

"And if in the next election you have significantly fewer minority MPs in Parliament, I believe there will immediately be a reaction from the Malays and the Indians in Singapore, straightaway," he said.

Mr Lee also cautioned that without GRCs making political parties cater to all races, the parties could "start playing chauvinist lines".

While one could argue that minorities' chauvinism would not win elections as they do not have the numbers, Chinese chauvinism could, and "that can be very, very troublesome for Singapore".

Having GRCs has pushed politics here to be multiracial, Mr Lee said.

As candidates are compelled to have a minority member in the GRC team, they cannot make their own team members lose face and have to make sure they have policies that meet the needs of all races.

Mr Lee added: "It's become a stabiliser and a valuable part of our system and I think in the same way, if we do that for the presidency, in time it will be seen as an important stabiliser in our system which so far has been missing."

Chong Zi Liang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2016, with the headline 'Changes may be hard to accept, but are necessary'. Subscribe