Why was the elected presidency changed?

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Singaporeans will elect a president this September, in the first election since changes to the Constitution were passed last November.

All the candidates will have to be from the Malay community this round, under a new rule that reserves presidential elections for candidates from a particular racial group, if there has not been a president from the group for a period of time.

The criterion to qualify to run for president was also tightened, and candidates from the private sector will have to have experience helming companies that are worth a lot more.

Political observers have called these amendments to the elected presidency one of the biggest political changes in recent years.

Why were they made in the first place, and how big a deal are they?


Singaporeans did not always elect their president. Before 1990, presidents were appointed by Parliament and had a mostly ceremonial role, save for some discretionary powers.

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But as Singapore prospered, first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew feared that the reserves Singapore had accumulated so far could be "ruined in one election term".

So the Government made the case for an elected president, to protect Singapore's national reserves and the integrity of its public services. For the president to be able to stand up to the elected government of the day, he would need a popular mandate.

The late Mr Lee likened an elected president to a goalkeeper, the last line of defence against a rogue government wanting to squander the country's hard-earned reserves or install cronies in key public positions.

The Constitution was amended in 1990 to set up the elected presidency, under which the president is elected for a term of six years and can veto the Government's drawdown of past reserves and the appointment of key public-office holders.

He or she can also block, among others, preventive detentions under the Internal Security Act and refusals of corruption probes.

The elected presidency went beyond just one man or woman, and was an institution that would ensure stability for Singapore.

At the same time, the president would continue to be a unifying symbol for all Singaporeans.


Since then, the elected presidency system had been tweaked along the way. But 25 years later, three political and socioeconomic trends have prompted the Government to make a major update.

First, presidents and candidates from minority communities have been relatively scarce. Singapore has not had a Malay president - or even a Malay candidate for president - since the elected presidency took effect in 1991.

The only Malay president so far, the late Mr Yusof Ishak, was appointed head of state in 1959 and became the first president from independence in 1965 till 1970.

Singapore had an Indian president, the late Mr S R Nathan, from 1999 to 2011, but he was unopposed in the 1999 and 2005 elections.

In 2011, all four candidates in the presidential election were Chinese.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said a minority candidate who runs for president will find it hard to beat a rival from the majority race, all else being equal.

Race still matters at the ballot box, he said, and a significant number of people prefer a president or prime minister to be of their race, as a Channel NewsAsia-Institute of Policy Studies survey last year found.

If the system went unchanged, Singapore would not have a non-Chinese president for a long time, and national cohesion would be harmed if minorities felt they had no chance of being president, said Mr Lee.

To the Government, this under-representation of minority communities is exacerbated by the second trend - that elections these days are hotly contested.

The 2011 presidential election saw President Tony Tan Keng Yam elected in a four-way contest by a slim margin of 7,382 votes.

A third and separate trend was identified: that the size and the complexity of the economy and the organisations safeguarded by the president have grown tremendously.

Originally, candidates from the private sector were considered to have enough experience, if they have run large and complex companies that have at least $100 million in paid-up capital. But this threshold of $100 million is outdated and too low to guarantee that anyone who meets it will have the experience to make complex decisions, said Mr Lee.

Today, the total value of Singapore's reserves is more than $700 billion. And as of last year, there were 2,114 companies that met the threhold, compared to 158 in 1993.

To study these issues, a Constitutional Commission was set up in February last year. It received submissions from the public and held public hearings in April and May last year to hear from some of the groups and individuals who submitted their views.

The panel also looked at strengthening the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) and giving its advice greater weight.


Three key changes were made to the elected presidency.

One, an election will be reserved for a particular racial group if there has not been a president from the group for the five most recent presidential terms.

This applies to the Chinese, Malay and "Indian and other minority" communities.

Any non-reserved election will be open to people of all races.

For the purpose of determining when a reserved election must be held, the Government started counting from the term of former president Wee Kim Wee, who was the first president to exercise the powers of the elected president.

As there has been no Malay president for the latest five presidential terms - after Mr Wee were Mr Ong Teng Cheong; Mr Nathan, who served two terms; and Dr Tan - candidates for the upcoming election must be from the Malay community.

Two, a candidate from the private sector must have helmed a company with at least $500 million in shareholder equity to qualify.

This threshold will be reviewed at least once every 12 yearsby the Presidential Elections Committee.

Three, the CPA will be enlarged to include two more members, bringing the total to eight. And the president must now consult the CPA on all matters related to safeguarding Singapore's assets and appointing key public officers.


Campaign rules were also changed to discourage divisive electioneering. There will no longer be designated election-rally sites. Instead, candidates who want to hold rallies can pick their preferred sites, but must apply to the police for a rally permit.

They will also have more TV airtime, and can hold indoor private meetings with specific groups of voters.

Explaining the rationale for the changes, Minister Chan Chun Sing said campaigning "must not inflame emotions and must be in keeping with the decorum and dignity of the office of the president".

A presidential hopeful must also make a statutory declaration that he understands the role of the president as spelt out in the Constitution. This arose after several candidates made certain claims and promises in the 2011 election, suggesting that they may not have been clear about the powers and scope of the president.


The idea of reserved elections was by far the most contentious change.

One key concern of some law dons and political scientists was that a president chosen in such an election may be viewed as a token president who lacks legitimacy.

They also felt it is a form of affirmative action that could undermine meritocracy.

But the Government stressed that the eligibility criteria will not be lowered for minority candidates. Ministers also pointed out that reserved elections will kick in only if a community goes five terms without seeing one of its own as president. This may not happen as Singapore becomes more race-blind.

Another concern, voiced by the Workers' Party (WP), which voted against the changes in Parliament, was that raising the eligibility criteria may shrink the pool of candidates and limit it to senior public officers.

This dovetailed with the criticism levelled by some on social media that the changes were meant to keep out non-establishment candidates.

The tighter criteria could mean those with a public sector background are more likely to get elected, and such a person might find it harder to be a check on the Government, they argued.

But others countered that the late Mr Ong's background as a deputy prime minister and former member of the People's Action Party (PAP) did not stop him from being an independent president.

Lastly, the debate highlighted the disconnect between the purpose of the elected president and the process of electing one.

The commission noted the contradiction between a necessarily apolitical president, and choosing him via an election, an inevitably political process.

There were also contradictions between his role of being a symbol of national unity and acting as a check on the Government.

Hence, the panel raised the question of whether the president should eventually be an appointed post once more.

During the debate in Parliament on the changes, the WP proposed splitting the symbolic and custodial roles of the president, and having an appointed president and an elected eight-member senate that would oversee the reserves.

But the PAP called the idea flawed and unworkable, saying that having eight elected individuals will lead to more politicisation.

While an election could be politicised, the changes to campaign rules will go some way towards lowering temperatures.

And while the review generated a fair amount of public debate and interest over the past year, the changes generally appear to have been accepted by the public.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 10, 2017, with the headline Why was the elected presidency changed?. Subscribe