Changes to the elected presidency (EP) are aimed at improving the system for Singapore's long-term future, not at barring certain individuals from standing, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.
"The starting point in looking at this is the system. We are doing this for the future, for the benefit of Singaporeans, our children and grandchildren," he said at a dialogue with 1,300 grassroots leaders and residents at ITE College Central.
"You don't look at individuals and then work backwards," he said.
The recommended changes, which the Government broadly accepted in a White Paper last Thursday, were proposed by a Constitutional Commission that felt the eligibility criteria should be raised, as did many of the participants yesterday, noted Mr Shanmugam, who is also the Home Affairs Minister.
Participant Edmund Lim had asked Mr Shanmugam whether the changes might seem aimed at denying candidates like Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who ran in the 2011 Presidential Election, a chance to contest the next election due by next August.
On Saturday, Dr Tan wrote on Facebook that Mr Shanmugam had said at a dialogue last Thursday that he could not qualify with the changes. Wrote Dr Tan: "Is there some truth after all that the changes in the rules were to make sure I would not be eligible? It would be a sad day for Singaporeans if a constitutional change was made because of an individual."
Replying to Mr Lim's question yesterday, Mr Shanmugam said Singaporeans should "start with a set of logical questions on the system, and then apply it fairly".
The questions are:
• Do you believe that Singapore needs a president with specific powers to say no to the Government?
• If so, do you think this person needs to be elected and cannot be appointed by the Government?
• If so, do you think there must be some criteria beyond being a Singaporean aged 45 and above, so he can say yes or no to spending a large sum from the reserves?
• And if so, do you think the criteria need to be reviewed regularly?
Mr Shanmugam asked for a show of hands for each question, and a majority of the participants raised their hands. "Once you look at it like that, you will see that this is not directed at any individual," he said.
The Government was updating the system for the "best possible chance" of having the right person for the job, not making exceptions to ensure a particular individual would qualify or not, he added.
Mr Shanmugam noted that the review of the EP comes 25 years after it was introduced.
And the commission led by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon studied over 100 written submissions and invited 20 groups and persons who made them to public hearings, which were widely covered by the media, before putting out its recommendations.
These include private-sector candidates having been the most senior executive in a company with at least $500 million in shareholders' equity, compared with the current $100 million in paid-up capital.
As the president is a symbol of Singapore's multiracialism, there will also be a mechanism to reserve the next election for a candidate from one of the three main racial groups - Chinese, Malay, or Indian and others - if no one from that group has held the office in the preceding five terms .
Other questions raised yesterday included whether the Council of Presidential Advisers should be elected and if there should still be a vote if only one candidate was eligible to stand for election that year.
Sculptor Elsie Yu asked if the Government could reserve elections for women. Mr Shanmugam said it would likely not go down this route, "but we should try and change attitudes, particularly of our men".
Participants were also divided on whether the provision to ensure minorities are represented in the presidency was necessary - even as some felt five terms was too long.
"There are many different views," Mr Shanmugam said, noting that group representation constituencies to ensure minority MPs were initially unpopular, but have now become a mainstay.
"It shows you the importance of having it (the minority provision), because in some things the Government has got to take the lead."