White Paper spells out significant changes to be made to elected presidency scheme

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Major changes to the elected presidency proposed by a constitutional commission have been largely accepted by the Government, but with significant differences which it spelt out in a White Paper.
President Tony Tan Keng Yam opening the first session of the 13th Parliament, flanked by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon (far left) and Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob on Jan 15, 2016. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Major changes to the elected presidency proposed by a constitutional commission have been largely accepted by the Government, but with significant differences which it spelt out in a White Paper on Thursday (Sept 15).

The qualifying criteria for private sector candidates will be updated to the top executive of a company with $500 million in shareholders' equity, to reflect the growth of the economy and the reserves.

Under current rules, a person can qualify as chairman or chief executive of a company with at least $100 million in paid-up capital.

But the Government rejected the commission's proposal that candidates, whether from top public or private sector posts, should have served for at least six years, up from three.

It also modified the proposal that a candidate's qualifying tenure fall entirely within 15 years before the election, saying it is OK if it falls at least partly within 20 years before the poll.

The White Paper said a "cautious approach" was preferred, given other changes to the eligibility criteria. By doing so, it will maintain a broader pool of potential candidates.

Echoing this view in a media interview, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said: "We think that might narrow down the field too much, might be too drastic."

He added that someone who has been a top executive for three years would have accumulated substantial experience.

In another key change, the Government will reserve elections for candidates from a particular race, if no one from that racial group has been elected president after five consecutive terms.

This approach "strikes an appropriate balance" between the long-term goal of multiracialism, and ensuring a president from minority races, the Government said.

The White Paper also addressed concerns that a minority candidate in a reserved election might be a "token" president, saying he or she will still have to meet the eligibility criteria and be elected.

In its 48-page policy document that set out its response to the commission's report, the Government also outlined the other ways it will revise the scheme for future elections.

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A six-man council that advises the president will be strengthened.

The Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) will have eight members in future, and the president will have to consult it on all fiscal matters on the reserves and all key public service appointments.

But the Government rejected another proposal that would adjust the threshold needed for Parliament to override a veto based on how much support the president has from the CPA.

While acknowledging that this approach is more "calibrated", it said the move may unintentionally emphasise or even politicise how members of the council voted.

It thus prefers to stick to the present arrangement, where Parliament can override a veto with a two-thirds majority if a simple majority of the CPA disagrees with the president.

A Bill to amend the Constitution will be tabled at the next Parliament sitting, and there will be a full debate at the following sitting, in November.

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Most of the changes should be in place before the next presidential election, which must be called by August 2017.

The commission had also made several suggestions outside its terms of reference, such as urging that the Government decide whether to invoke or repeal a suspended provision to safeguard the powers of the president.

This rule lets the president veto any law that aims to curtail his powers, and a national referendum has to be called to overturn the veto.

On this point, the Government said it will revise the entrenchment framework to factor in views from the CPA. For instance, if a presidential veto is not supported by a majority of the council, it can be overridden with a two-thirds majority in Parliament instead of having to call a national referendum.

But even as it moves to make these changes, the Government will continue to suspend this provision.

The commission also suggested a return to an appointed president, and hiving off the president's custodial powers to a body of experts.

Rejecting this, the Government said the president needs a direct mandate to have the moral authority to veto an elected government.


While there may be tension between the president's custodial role and his historical one as a unifying figure, all elected presidents to date "have been able to perform these two roles with distinction".

"A custodial president democratically elected in a national election remains the most workable and effective solution for Singapore," it said.

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