Singapore Reviews Elected Presidency

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Singapore Reviews Elected Presidency

The city-state is mulling some potentially significant changes.

A minority-only presidential election might be a possibility as Singapore reviews changes to the elected presidency.

Speaking in Parliament earlier this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called for a review of Elected Presidency law, kickstarting close to eight months of robust discussion and debate. In his National Day Rally Speech on August 21, Lee announced that he had, “in principle,” accepted the recommendations submitted by the Constitutional Commission, which had been tasked with reviewing the Presidency Constitution. How the government intends to translate the recommendations into legislation will be revealed in a soon-to-be released White Paper.

The Commission has made recommendations to raise the qualifying criteria for presidential candidates and introduce special provisions to ensure that ethnic minorities are elected into office from time to time. It will also strengthen the role of the Council of Presidential Advisors, whom the President is obliged to consult when exercising his executive powers.

The office of President is a largely ceremonial role, with executive powers in four specific areas. The first is government spending. Designed as an institutional check on the executive, the President holds the ‘second key’ to the nation’s financial reserves. The government of the day cannot draw down on its reserves without the President’s permission, thus acting as a safeguard against rogue governments.

The second is public service appointments: the President can veto appointments to key posts in the public service. The third is preventive detention laws. The President has discretionary powers regarding detention and further detention under the aforementioned laws. Fourth and last is the maintenance of the Religious Harmony Act. The President has discretionary powers in issuing prohibition orders under this Act.

The Commission recommends tightening the eligibility criteria for private sector candidates such that the most senior executive of a company with at least $500 million in shareholders’ equity can qualify. Currently, a presidential candidate must be at least 45-years-old and have either held high public office or is the Chairman/CEO of a company with a paid-up capital of at least $100 million.

The raising of the bar was proposed due to concerns over whether current standards adequately reflect the financial expertise required for the management of Singapore’s growing reserves. The Commission proposed replacing paid-up capital with shareholder equity, as the latter is a more comprehensive measure of the value of the company and its assets under management. Furthermore, the $500 million benchmark encompasses the top 0.2 percent of firms in Singapore, a similar proportion of companies the $100 million benchmark set out in 1991, was designed to capture. Nonetheless, it remains unclear if this quantum will be enshrined in the Constitution, or if provisions will be made to ensure that future modifications avoid triggering a constitutional amendment.

In addition, the Commission proposed reserving elections for a particular ethnic group if that racial group has not had a President for five terms. Each term of office spans five years.  Since the review was called, the need for ‘regular’ minority representation in the Istana has been the centerpiece of debate. Though none dispute the importance of minority representation, many have questioned the need for it to be enshrined in the Constitution, citing fears of affirmative action and a blow to meritocracy.

The government though, remains adamant that constitutional provisions have to be introduced. Minorities need to “regularly have a chance to become President so they feel assured of their place in society,” said Lee in his National Day Rally Speech. Since the elected presidency was introduced in 1991, Singapore has had only one non-Chinese President, the late S.R. Nathan, who was elected unopposed. This ‘hiatus-triggered’ model is, in many ways, a preventive mechanism. Less intrusive and prescriptive, it stands as a silent safeguard of racial equity.

Perhaps the most substantive of proposals concerns the Council of Presidential Advisors. Besides raising the criteria for presidential candidates, the Commission suggests augmenting the size and structure of the CPA by appointing two additional members to the CPA, bringing the total size to eight members. The President should also be required to consult the Council on all fiscal matters. Currently, the CPA consists of six members and two alternate members. The President is legally required to consult them only on matters relating to past reserves and public service appointments.

The Commission also proposed having the CPA disclose their votes alongside their advice to the President and Parliament. Included is also a provision that if the President acts contrary to the CPA’s advice, Parliament can override the President’s decision. By broadening the mandate of the CPA, enhancing transparency in the institution, and according Parliament greater flexibility to override the Presidential veto, it signals a growing expectation of the importance of the Presidential Office in acting as a check and balance to the Government.

The ensuing debate and subsequent recommendations underscores the increasing complexity and impending challenges faced by the President’s Office. With the bar raised higher, it reflects the Commission’s expectation that the president will have to rule on increasingly complex decisions and exercise the Office’s custodial powers more frequently.

As Singapore waits for the government’s response to the proposed changes, what has emerged over the past 8 months is perhaps a more defined role of the highest office in the land – keeper of national reserves, guardian of the public service, and most of all, the symbol of racial equity in a multi-racial society.