Eligibility criteria

Elected Presidency: Raising the bar for candidates

President Tony Tan Keng Yam (centre) and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (second from right) in a group photo with cabinet ministers after the presidential swearing-in ceremony at the Istana on Sept 1, 2011.
President Tony Tan Keng Yam (centre) and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (second from right) in a group photo with cabinet ministers after the presidential swearing-in ceremony at the Istana on Sept 1, 2011.ST PHOTO: LIM WUI LIANG

The current eligibility criteria for presidential hopefuls may no longer be a good way of vetting how suitable individuals are for the job.

This is because the economy and large corporations here have grown exponentially in size and complexity since the introduction of the Elected Presidency in 1991, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

Reviewing the eligibility criteria for presidential candidates is therefore timely, he added.

Mr Lee said that the Elected President must be capable of carrying out his custodial duties, and needs experience to be able to judge and to make decisions.

"They have to assess and decide on financial proposals which will involve billions of dollars, and they must decide, judge and decide to approve or reject appointments of people into posts which will involve running big organisations," he said.

This is why candidates from the public service are required under the Constitution to have held key appointments like judges, ministers and permanent secretaries.

Those from the private sector must have comparable experience running large and complex companies with at least $100 million in paid-up capital.

"The principle remains valid but I think the details may need to be brought up to date," said Mr Lee.

He pointed out that based on inflation alone, $100 million in 1990 is equivalent to $158 million today.

Furthermore, in the past 25 years, government spending and the national reserves have increased.

Mr Lee cited figures that showed how the Government Budget has increased six times from $11 billion in 1990 to $68 billion today.

The size and the complexity of the organisations safeguarded by the President have also grown tremendously. For instance, Temasek was worth $10 billion in 1990 but now has a net portfolio value of $266 billion.

On the other hand, the $100 million paid-up capital threshold may no longer be a good benchmark against which organisations should be compared for size and complexity. In 1993, there were 158 companies that fit the criteria, a number that climbed to 1,200 in 2010 and 2,114 today.

"So more and more people on paper are qualified to do this job," said Mr Lee. However, the smallest companies in Singapore with a paid-up capital of $100 million today are neither large nor complex enough to give their chiefs the experience needed to be President.

This was a concern voiced by Mr Eddie Teo, the chairman of the Presidential Elections Committee, which vets presidential candidates, at the 2011 presidential election.

Mr Teo wrote to PM Lee after the election: "The criterion of $100 million paid-up capital... was set more than 20 years ago. It is, therefore, unclear whether or not with inflation, the threshold continues to reflect the original intent of the requirement."

Mr Lee said he agreed with Mr Teo - the chairman of the Public Service Commission - on the need to review this.

Constitutional law expert Thio Li-ann zeroed in on the need for presidential candidates to have some financial competency, given the primarily financial bent of the President's supervisory powers.

What was more important was the need for mature and competent judgment, she said, which should be written into the Constitution.

But given the expertise and advice from the Council of Presidential Advisers, she said: "The candidate should have financial literacy, not financial wizardry."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2016, with the headline 'Raising the bar for presidential candidates'. Print Edition | Subscribe