Elected Presidency review: Constitutional Commission's task

For just the second time in independent Singapore's history, a Constitutional Commission led by the Chief Justice will be convened.

The task of this year's commission led by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon will be to study changes to the Elected Presidency system.

The panel will involve "distinguished jurists, academics and corporate executives", Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last week.

It will consult with the public, and is expected to deliver its findings by the third quarter of this year.

This will pave the way for any changes to be made in time for the next presidential election, which must be held by August next year.

But the job scope of this year's panel is markedly different from that of the first Constitutional Commission called in December 1965 by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

The work of that commission was centred on coming up with ways to safeguard the rights of racial, linguistic and religious minorities in the Constitution.

It was also to "consider how to constitutionally provide for methods and remedies to guard against legislation considered to be discriminatory against members of any racial, linguistic or religious group", note constitutional law experts Kevin Tan and Thio Li-ann in their book Singapore: 50 Constitutional Moments That Defined A Nation.

The commission was set up against the backdrop of racial and religious sensitivities in a newly independent Singapore which existed despite the vision of its pioneer leaders to build a multiracial society where everybody is equal.

It was chaired by then Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin, and comprised 11 "eminent legal persons" from various racial groups.

It completed its work within eight months and submitted a 31-page report.

Justice Wee said then that the recommendations were the "unanimous view" of all 11 members who "share one vital common belief that peoples of Singapore desire, above all else, to live together as equals in mutual peace and harmony".

Over the course of its work, it held 10 public meetings and received 40 memoranda from individuals and various ethnic and religious groups. The report was debated in Parliament over five days.

But most of the recommendations were not accepted, including the appointment of an unelected ombudsman who would act as a check against malfeasance and discriminatory legislation or policies.

One proposal that was taken on board was the formation of an advisory council to scrutinise laws to ensure they do not discriminate against any racial or religious community.

This is known today as the Presidential Council for Minority Rights.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline Elected Presidency review: Constitutional Commission's task. Subscribe