Debate on timing of reserved election

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing in Parliament on Feb 6, 2017.
Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing in Parliament on Feb 6, 2017.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM LIVESTREAM

Sylvia Lim asks if there is a political motive; Govt planning for long term, says Chun Sing

The issue of timing came up for debate yesterday during the parliamentary debate on the Presidential Elections (Amendment) Bill.

The Workers' Party (WP) questioned the decision to reserve this year's presidential election for Malay candidates, with its chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) saying she was not convinced by the Government's reasoning.

Meanwhile, Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) noted that the move to push back the upcoming presidential election to September could give rise to talk that the Government has other motives.

In making her point, Ms Lim reiterated the same arguments she raised last November, when the Constitution was amended to reserve a presidential election for a specified racial group if no one from that group has been elected president in the past five terms.

The Government then said the next election will be reserved for Malay candidates, as the five continuous terms started from that of former president Wee Kim Wee.

The late Mr Wee was in office when the elected presidency took effect in 1991.

But Ms Lim noted that Mr Wee was not elected to office. His successor, the late president Ong Teng Cheong, was the first to assume the nation's highest office via a poll.

"Why not count from the first elected president, Mr Ong Teng Cheong? Is it because if President Ong was the first one to be counted, we would have to go through this year's election as an open election and risk the contest by Chinese or Indian candidates who may not be to the Government's liking?" she said.

In response, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing said Mr Wee was the first president to exercise the powers under the elected presidency, introduced in 1991. He added that the Government took advice from the Attorney-General on the matter.

He said Ms Lim was suggesting the Government has "all sorts of short-term political objectives to amend the Constitution and put in place this system", though this was far from the case.

Rather, the Government was planning for the long term, so that the system can overcome potential difficulties over sensitive issues such as race, language and religion.

He also noted the changes carried high political risk and cost. "If this Government led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is for short-term political advantage, would we do it? Would we expend our political capital to do this?" he said.

He also said the changes had been debated for more than a year in a transparent process that involved the setting up of a Constitutional Commission to review the elected presidency.

He also noted that the WP had declined to present its position before the commission, despite being invited to do so.

Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera was later drawn into the debate when Mr Chan referred to his parliamentary speech last November, and said it showed support to depoliticise the presidency.

Mr Perera said he does not support the elected presidency and was speaking in the context of having an appointed, not elected, president.

But Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean rose to read from the Hansard, saying it shows Mr Perera was with him on the need to depoliticise the presidential election.

Mr Perera did not clarify his position then, Mr Teo added.

Mr Ang welcomed having the election in September, and the move not to designate sites for rallies.

But he wondered if having an acting president after President Tony Tan Keng Yam's term ends on Aug 31 would be seen by some as a move to install an interim president who would let the Government dip into the reserves.

"Let me quickly put such rumours to bed," said Mr Chan, adding that the Government would "respect that the rationale of the elected presidency is for an elected president to be the second key to the reserves and to key appointments".

At the end of the debate, the WP MPs and Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun voted against the Bill.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 07, 2017, with the headline 'Debate on timing of reserved election'. Print Edition | Subscribe