Constitutional Commission report on elected presidency

Govt broadly accepts panel's main proposals

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean speaks during the 12th Annual Appreciation Lunch for Community Volunteers on 3 Sept, 2016.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean speaks during the 12th Annual Appreciation Lunch for Community Volunteers on 3 Sept, 2016. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

The Government has accepted in principle the main recommendations laid out by a panel that reviewed the elected presidency.

In a statement yesterday, Acting Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said the Government will also provide a detailed response to the Constitutional Commission's report in a White Paper next Thursday.

A Constitutional Amendment Bill will subsequently be tabled in Parliament, and the issue debated.

In its report, the commission recommended, among other things, that a presidential election be set aside for candidates of a particular race, if no one of that race has been elected president after five continuous terms.

In his statement, Mr Teo, the Deputy Prime Minister, said every community in Singapore "must feel that a member of their community has a chance to become president".

  • President Tony Tan: A comprehensive review

  • "The Constitutional Commission recently concluded its review on the elected president scheme and submitted its report to the Government, which has made it publicly available today. It is a landmark review, drawing on 25 years of operating a very important institution that is unique to Singapore. I am confident that the upcoming Constitutional amendments will be a milestone for Singapore in ensuring that the elected president scheme stays relevant with time and our local context.

    "The commission had earlier sought my input as the incumbent elected president to refine its proposals. Having been in office for five years now, I hope that my first-hand perspectives, of what worked and what might not, have been useful to the review.

    "It is commendable that the process undertaken by the commission has been an inclusive one. Despite running on a tight timeline, the commission sought the views of many Singaporeans. Many of the views were thoughtful and constructive. I am heartened that there have been more than a hundred submissions, and that the commission has held a number of public hearings to debate some of the issues. Not only was this process helpful in developing some of these ideas, but it was also a good educational opportunity about the EP and its critical role in Singapore.

    "The commission's work has been a comprehensive review of a very important topic. I will study the report and give my views on the specifics at the second reading of the constitutional amendments later this year."

He was heartened that some people, including those from minority races, argued for a meritocratic approach in which the best person is elected regardless of race.

Even so, the Government has always ensured that "even as we practise meritocracy, all races in Singapore feel that they have a place and equal opportunities". Citing the group representation constituency system which ensures a minimum number of minority-race MPs, he said it has "contributed to maintaining our harmonious multiracial society, though some had objected when it was first introduced".

POTENTIAL DIFFICULTIES

Ironically, the role of the elected president as a 'check' on the Government would seem to incentivise candidates to campaign on an anti-Government platform. This would be inconsistent with the unifying role of the president. In addition, it can also give rise to real difficulties in the day-to-day business of governance.

THE CONSTITUTIONAL COMMISSION, on the tension between the president's historical and custodial roles.

Mr Teo, who is Acting Prime Minister as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is in Laos for the Asean summit, stressed that minority representation does not mean the qualifying criteria will be lowered.

"Every potential candidate, no matter his race, must still meet the same stringent eligibility criteria to qualify for elections," he said.

The commission also proposed changes to tighten eligibility criteria for potential candidates from the public and private sectors. One key change is that a candidate must have had experience running large, complex companies with $500 million in shareholders' equity, up from the current benchmark of $100 million in paid-up capital.

Mr Teo said it is timely to update the criteria now, as the "scale and complexity" of the president's responsibilities have grown.

"The commission has struck a balance in its recommendations on the eligibility criteria," he said.

The panel also proposed that the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) be expanded and its views be given greater weight when the president and Government disagree. While the Government agrees in principle with the proposals on the CPA, Mr Teo said the details must be studied carefully to ensure the council is not politicised.

The commission also made several suggestions outside its terms of reference, such as having laws to ensure presidential candidates do not mislead voters. In his letter to commission chairman Sundaresh Menon, PM Lee said the Government will "study these views seriously".

Royston Sim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2016, with the headline 'Govt broadly accepts panel's main proposals'. Print Edition | Subscribe