Constitutional Commission hearing on elected presidency: GRC model, hybrid system among suggestions made at 2nd session

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon (centre) speaking at the Supreme Court during the first hearing on April 18, 2016. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
First to speak at Friday's hearing was the Eurasian Association and its president, Mr Benett Theseira (second from right). ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
Next was lawyer Rey Foo, who focused on the electoral process for the presidency. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
A group of four SMU law students called for the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) to be restructured. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
Lawyer Ronald Wong suggested a hybrid system where the president is selected from the CPA. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
The last speaker at Friday's hearing was Mr Ranvir Kumar Singh. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

SINGAPORE - A Group Representation Constituency (GRC)-style process, a hybrid system, and more transparency were some of the suggestions made at the second public hearing on proposed changes to the elected presidency on Friday (April 22).

The Eurasian Association suggested a GRC-style process of presidential elections, where two or three candidates, with at least one minority member, run for the office as a team.

The association is among 19 individuals and groups who will give their views at four such hearings held by the Constitutional Commission set up to review the office. The first hearing was held on Monday (April 18).

The commission, led by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, was appointed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in February to review three aspects of the elected presidency.

The three areas are: the eligibility criteria for candidates; provisions for minority candidates to have a chance of being elected from time to time; and changes to ensure members of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) have experience in the public and private sectors.

Mr Benett Theseira, president of Eurasian Association, said on Friday that having a slate of candidates with at least one minority member can ensure that a person from a minority race will be elected from time to time.

In this slate, one person will be the front-runner and will be president if the team wins. The other two will become members of the CPA.

Mr Theseira said this would be a better way to ensure that Singapore has a president of minority race, rather than limiting elections to candidates of minority races if there has been no minority president for a few terms.

He said: "We are not in favour of restricted elections limiting that only minority candidates can stand. It goes against grain of multi-racial philosophy, and may create unhappiness forcing people to vote for a single individual who is an ethnic minority."

He added the GRC-style process is already familiar to Singaporeans and would be more acceptable.

Professor Chan Heng Chee, chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, asked if this arrangement would change the dynamics in the CPA, as it would then comprise of elected members and appointed members.

"You don't think by being elected they feel they have the weight of the mandate behind them?" Said Prof Chan who is a member of the commission.

Mr Theseira said it would not make a difference as long as all members of the CPA had the same powers.

The idea of a hybrid system where the president is not fully elected was also proposed at Friday's hearing.

Lawyer Ronald Wong, who made the suggestion, said the president should be selected from among the six members of the CPA through an internal vote.

Mr Wong, 28, said the CPA will work as one unit in this proposed system to safeguard Singapore's reserves. The member appointed president will then take on the ceremonial and diplomatic functions of the role.

Singaporeans will have some hand in selecting their president, he added, as two members of the council must be elected by voters.

But Far East Organisation chief executive officer Philip Ng, a member of the Constitutional Commission, said there was a chance these two elected members may not become president in the council's internal election. He asked if this would frustrate Singaporeans who have elected them.

Mr Wong said it would not be able to discern the sentiments of Singaporeans, but he added that the council would function as one institution.

CJ Menon noted that this would require a fundamental redesign of the presidency, and asked Mr Wong what he hoped to achieve through the change.

Mr Wong said he envisioned that his proposed system would help ensure at least some minority representation, while also beefing up the CPA and giving it more powers to check the president.

Another lawyer who also spoke on Friday was Mr Rey Foo Jong Han. He focused on the electoral process for the presidency.

Mr Foo, 49, said in his written submission that candidates should refrain from making "grandiose promises" and proposed that candidates must declare they will not be making populist statements or promises that are outside the powers of the president to fulfil.

To enforce this, he suggested that a tribunal be set up to look into complaints of breaches.

CJ Menon noted that this was similar to the role of an Election Judge who looks into wrongdoing during elections.

The Commission then discussed the viability of such an arrangement. Former Parliament Speaker Abdullah Tarmugi said if the public could submit complaints, there could be an overwhelming number. On the other hand, if only candidates could raise complaints, the process could be politicised.

On the CPA, a group of Singapore Management University law students proposed the group should be restructured for more specialisation and transparency in its workings.

They suggested that financial, appointment, and legal wings be formed in the CPA, but each member can serve on more than one wing.

One of the students, Mr Alexander Lee, 23, said the president can consult the specific wings when he requires advice on those particular matters.

But CJ Menon noted that there is value in the way the present CPA considers all issues together, bringing their diverse expertise and perspectives.

The SMU students also wanted the breakdown of CPA members' votes on matters to be made public for the sake of accountability.

When Justice Tay Yong Kwang raised concerns that pressure may be brought to bear on CPA members if their votes were disclosed, Mr Lee clarified that each individual's vote will not be made public, merely how many had voted either way.

The last speaker was Mr Ranvir Kumar Singh whose submission focused on the size and complexity of the potential candidate's organisation.

Friday's public hearing was held at the Supreme Court auditorium from 9.30am to around 1pm. The next hearings will be on April 26 and May 6.

Those invited to speak by the Constitutional Commission had been among more than 100 individuals and groups who had sent in their views on the matter during a public consultation.

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