6 things to know about Singapore's elected presidency

SPH Brightcove Video
The next presidential election is due to be held on or before August 26, 2017. But before then, here's what you need to know about Singapore's Elected Presidency system.
(From left) Mr Ong Teng Cheong was the first Elected President, followed by Mr S R Nathan and Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam. PHOTO: ST FILE / LIANHE ZAOBAO / MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

This story was first published on Jan 27, 2016, and updated on Sept 7, 2016

SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in a televised interview last Sunday (Sept 5), gave the clearest hint of proposed changes to the law that would ensure a president from the minority races gets elected from time to time.

The special provision would come into play if there has not been a president of a particular race for a long time.

"You want a mechanism where, if you've had a long gap, then the next election - if you have a qualified minority candidate - is held only amongst a minority group," PM Lee explained.

In his National Day Rally speech on Aug 21, he touched on the need for presidents from all races so minorities feel assured of their place in society.

A nine-member panel set up last year to review the elected presidency submitted its report to PM Lee on Aug 17. It is due to be published this week.

Once the report is out, the Government will respond with a White Paper outlining its proposals before moving ammendments to the Constitution. Changes should be in place before next year's presidential election, PM Lee said.

Here are six things to know about the elected presidency.

SPH Brightcove Video
The next General Election will see smaller GRCs, more SMCs, more opposition MPs and more rights for NCMPs, under new changes to Singapore's political system.

Here are six things to know about the Elected Presidency.

1. How was the President previously appointed?

Singapore's first three presidents (from left) Yusof Ishak, Benjamin Sheares and Devan Nair. PHOTOS: ZAWIYAH SALLEH, ST LIBRARY, ST FILE

From 1965 to 1991, the role of the President was largely ceremonial. He was appointed by Parliament and served a four-year term.

Four Presidents were appointed in this manner - the first three were Mr Yusof Ishak (1965-1970), Mr Benjamin Sheares (1970-1981) and Mr Devan Nair (1981-1985).

The fourth, Dr Wee Kim Wee, took office in September 1985 and served two full terms. He was the first President to be vested with the powers of an Elected President when the legislation for an Elected President came into effect on Nov 30, 1991.

Dr Wee Kim Wee was vested with the powers of an Elected President towards the end of his second term. PHOTO: ST FILE

2. How did the new system come about?

The idea of a new kind of President to help safeguard Singapore's financial reserves was first mooted by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew during a walkabout in his Tanjong Pagar constituency on April 15, 1984.

He brought up the topic again during his National Day Rally speech on Aug 19 the same year.

The wheels were set in motion when Mr Goh Chok Tong, who was then Deputy Prime Minister, tabled the first White Paper - which contained proposals to amend the Constitution for an Elected President - in Parliament in July 1988.

With the Government deciding to go ahead with the legislation on the expanded powers of an Elected President, a second White Paper was put up in August 1990.

Following intense debate in Parliament, a Select Committee was formed to look into issues and make recommendations, before it presented its report to Parliament in December 1990.

The new Bill and its amendments for a President to be elected directly by the people were written into law from Feb 1, 1991.

3. What are the powers and responsibilities of an Elected President?

Each term of the Elected President lasts six years.

The Elected President is bound by the Constitution which gives him "discretionary, custodial power" in five areas:

* Protecting Singapore's reserves

* Key public-sector appointments

* Internal Security Act detentions

* Investigations by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau

* Restraining orders under the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act

In these five areas, the President had only blocking powers and was not allowed to initiate decisions or policies.

During the global economic crisis in 2009, the Government sought then President S R Nathan's approval to draw a total of $4.9 billion to help cover Budget expenditure, which focused on keeping workers employed and helping cash-strapped firms get credit.

4. What are the qualifications required to be Elected President?

Besides being a citizen of Singapore and not below the age of 45, the required qualifications as stated in Singapore's Constitution are:

* Name must appear in a current register of electors;

* Must be a resident in Singapore at the date of his nomination for election, and for a total period of at least 10 years before the election date;

* Must not be subject to any disqualifications, such as being an undischarged bankrupt, holding an office of profit or possessing a criminal record;

* Satisfy the Presidential Elections Committee that he is a person of integrity, good character and reputation;

* Not a member of any political party on the date of his nomination for election;

* Has held office for a period of not less than three years either as:

- A minister or a top-ranking official in the civil service;

- Chairman or chief executive officer of a statutory board;

- Chairman of the board of directors or CEO of a company with a paid-up capital of at least $100 million or in any other similar or comparable positions of seniority and responsibility

If elected, the President must not actively engage in any commercial enterprise, must vacate his seat if he is a Member of Parliament and cannot be a member of any political party.

5. How many Presidents have been elected under the new system?

Former presidents Ong Teng Cheong and S R Nathan. PHOTOS: ST FILE

Three. The first was former Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong. He ran against former banker Chua Kim Yeow and received 58.7 per cent of the vote, serving a six-year term from 1993 to 1999.

Succeeding Mr Ong was former civil servant S R Nathan, who was elected unopposed in 1999. He ran for a second term in 2005 - he was again the only eligible candidate - and became Singapore's longest-serving President in 2009.

Mr Nathan's 12-year term as President ended in August 2011.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan was involved in a four-way contest for the presidency that year - his opponents were former People's Action Party MP Tan Cheng Bock, former NTUC Income chief executive Tan Kin Lian, and former civil servant and opposition politician Tan Jee Say.

Dr Tony Tan beat the runner-up, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, by 7,382 votes - a difference of less than 1 per cent.

6. Why is there a need to tweak the system?

(From left) Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Mr Tan Jee Say and Mr Tan Kin Lian. PHOTOS: ST FILE

Some commentators say that the most recent presidential election in 2011 has been viewed as more divisive than unifying, citing the slim winning margin.

Mr Lee, in his speech in Parliament, noted how some of the candidates had campaigned for office as if they were going to form an alternate Government.

Others point to the confusion over the role of the Elected President.

An Institute of Policy Studies poll of more than 2,000 Singaporeans after the election found that four out of five wrongly assumed that the President ensures that the Government manages the economy wisely. Three in four mistakenly thought he was free to speak publicly on national issues he deemed important.

Mr Lee clarified that the President is neither the Government nor the opposition, likening him to that of a "custodian" and "goalkeeper".

"For the system to work, both candidates and voters have to understand this because otherwise if you have a President who thinks that he is the Government, competing with the Government, you have two power centres in the system," he added.

"At the very least you have confusion, you could have an impasse between the two and the democratically elected Government will be undermined."

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