Parliament: Model to ensure minority representation in presidency hits 'right balance'

The President's office must continue having direct elections, and the need for multiracialism must be balanced with the country's meritocratic ideals, said DPM Teo Chee Hean. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The provision of a minority safeguard in the office of the Elected President must help, and not impede, Singapore's progress towards its long-term goal of greater multiracialism, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in Parliament on Monday (Nov 7).

The President's office must continue having direct elections, and the need for multiracialism must be balanced with the country's meritocratic ideals, he said.

In this regard, the Government found the five-term hiatus model, which the Constitutional Commission recommended, to be an ideal model as it balances the above factors.

Under the model, if a particular racial community has not produced a President for the most recent five terms, the next election will be reserved for candidates from that group.

This model is ideal as it "involves minimal intervention and will come into play only if open elections fail to periodically return presidents from different races", said Mr Teo.

A period of five terms also strikes a good balance, he said.

If the hiatus is too long, the system may not meaningfully ensure that the president's office is accessible to the various communities.

Yet if it is too short, the system may come close to designating successive elections for different races - which would be inappropriate given the system of direct elections, said Mr Teo.

Public attention on the Elected Presidency is often focused on the "technocratic aspects of (his) custodial function", and the office's symbolic role is sometimes overlooked, he noted.

But the symbolic role remains of vital importance, said Mr Teo.

The four presidents prior to 1991 - the year the Elected Presidency came into effect - collectively represented all the different racial groups.

It was a point that President Tony Tan had made as well, in his message read by Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob earlier in the day.

The message read: "It was not a coincidence that Singapore's first four appointed presidents - Mr Yusof Ishak, Dr Benjamin Sheares, Mr Devan Nair and Dr Wee Kim Wee - represented... the Malay, Eurasian, Indian, and Chinese communities respectively."

Quoting then-Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Teo said the rotation was meant to remind Singaporeans that the country is a multiracial one. The elected President has to continue to be a symbol of a multiracial community.

Mr Teo added that it is necessary to continue emphasising this role of the President, "particularly because once we have direct elections, it is difficult to ensure that the presidents will continue to collectively represent the different racial groups".

Some critics have argued that the minority safeguards detract from meritocracy, saying that a president must be elected on the basis of merit, and that race should be irrelevant to this determination, he noted.

But Mr Teo said meritocracy will not be compromised if the eligibility criteria apply equally to candidates of all ethnic groups, which is the case with the changes.

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