Elected presidency: Observers' views

Changes to elected presidency: Govt likely to have leeway on when to reserve election, say observers

The President's chair, flanked by the State flag and the Presidential flag at the Istana.
The President's chair, flanked by the State flag and the Presidential flag at the Istana.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Observers expect there will be a minority election only when there is no president of that race for some time

Impending changes to the elected presidency are not likely to tie the Government's hand to rigidly rotate the highest office of the land among Singapore's main races, said observers yesterday.

Neither do they expect a committee to actively seek out eligible minority candidates.

They were commenting on how a provision that reserves an election for a particular minority race could be implemented.

They foresee the law being amended to give the Government broad discretion to declare an election only for candidates of a minority race, in the event the race has not had a president for some time.

Also, they expect the current practice of letting individuals step forward to seek election to remain.

Said Singapore Management University (SMU) constitutional law expert Jack Lee: "I see the Government leaving it to qualified candidates to come forward on their own and put themselves up for election."

He was one of five commentators who gave their views yesterday on how changes to the elected presidency, to ensure all races have a chance of having a president from time to time, would work.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in an interview with Mediacorp on Sunday, said a Constitutional Commission report on proposed changes to the presidency will be published this week. The Government will give its response soon after.


PM Lee said it was important to make the changes now, as he expected future presidential elections to be hard-fought, which would make the difficulty of electing a minority president more acute.

He indicated that "the least intrusive and most light-touch way" would be to reserve an election for a minority race, if Singapore had gone without a Malay or an Indian president for a long time - say, four, five or six terms.

He added that if there is no qualified minority candidate, the election could be opened to candidates of any race. But the following election would have to be reserved.

This flexibility, said former Nominated MP and lawyer Shriniwas Rai, means the Government will not be pinned down to a strict schedule of, say, having to have a Malay president every 24 years, said Mr Rai.

SMU's Dr Lee said the Government can take a leaf from the book of the group representation constituency system, with the prime minister given the powers to reserve an election for a designated race.

Mr Rai said the law should make it very clear each special election will be for a specified minority.

The commentators also called for more lead time between the issuance of the writ of election, which kicks off the process, and Nomination Day. Three to six months give qualified individuals time to decide whether to contest, said Dr Lee, noting that in recent years, it ranged between five days and a month.

Two of the observers cautioned that PM Lee's suggestions need to be carefully managed as they are politically sensitive.

Minority elections could give the impression that the particular community cannot succeed without getting a leg-up, said Dr Lee.

National University of Singapore political scientist Bilveer Singh had strong reservations about opening the election to all if no qualified minority candidate was found.

It would signal to the minority community that none of them is suitable for the post. "This can be very damaging," he said. "Personally, I find it hard to swallow."

As SMU law don and former NMP Eugene Tan put it: The Government has its work cut out for it as it persuades Singaporeans that the changes are crucial.

"The challenge is to persuade Singaporeans that this mechanism is one that is workable and robust, even as it seeks to further the cause of multiracialism," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2016, with the headline 'Govt likely to have leeway on when to reserve election'. Print Edition | Subscribe