The Changing Nature of the Singaporean Presidency

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The Changing Nature of the Singaporean Presidency

Since the city-state’s independence in 1965, the office has undergone a number of significant evolutions.

The Changing Nature of the Singaporean Presidency

Singaporean President Halimah Yacob dines with Dr. Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah (right), the Sultan of Perak, Malaysia, June 6, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/Halimah Yacob

President Halimah Yacob of Singapore has announced that she will not stand for the 2023 presidential election (PE), which is due to be held by September. This essay will reflect on the roles of the presidents of Singapore and the issues related to the PE.

Singapore’s first president, Yusof Ishak, was appointed as head of state in December 1959, and become president upon the country’s independence in 1965. He was an effective and well-respected president, who promoted multiracialism and helped to build trust and goodwill during the challenging initial years of nationhood.

Singapore had an outstanding Eurasian medical doctor, Benjamin Sheares, as its second president. Sheares served faithfully from January 1971 to May 1981. Both he and Yusof died in office and are buried at the Kranji State Cemetery.

The city-state’s third president – and its first of Indian descent – was Devan Nair, one of the founding leaders of the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC). He was the only PAP member of parliament who was elected in Malaysia, before Singapore’s independence.  After serving in Bangsar Constituency, he returned to Singapore and was appointed the first secretary general of NTUC. He served as president from October 1981 to March 1985.

Straits-born Chinese Wee Kim Wee subsequently became Singapore’s fourth president, in August 1985. Wee started his career as a journalist and rose to become a leading diplomat. He was a much-loved president during his two terms and is widely known as the “people’s president.”

Singapore’s first four presidents were appointed by the government. In 1991, during Wee’s second term, the country shifted to an elected presidency. The change aimed to help safeguard the country’s sovereign financial reserves and protect the integrity of the public service. The elected president would serve a six-year term, with veto powers regarding the use of the foreign reserves and the appointments of key positions within government-linked companies, statutory boards, and the public service.

The discretionary powers of the president serve as a check on the government by preventing the misuse of the national reserves and safeguarding the impartiality of the civil administration.

Wee retired in August 1993. For the first PE in 1993, former Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong contested against a reluctant candidate, Chua Kim Yeow, who once served as accountant general and chairman of the Post Office Savings Bank. Ong won 58.7 percent of the votes and became the fifth president of Singapore in September 1993.

Ong served his full six-year term, which ended in August 1999. Towards the end of his term, he developed a set of working principles to facilitate constitutional safeguards, with the support of the government.

The sixth president was S.R. Nathan, a public official who had previously served as Singapore’s ambassador to the United States. As there were no eligible candidates, he served two terms from September 1999 to August 2011. In 2009, Nathan approved the Government’s request to draw $4.9 billion from the national financial reserves to help businesses and preserve jobs during the global financial crisis. This was the first time the discretionary powers of the president were exercised in this aspect.

In 2011, there was a hotly contested PE involving four candidates. It was indeed a very narrow contest between former Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Tony Tan and former PAP MP Dr. Tan Cheng Bock, with the former winning by less than 7,300 votes.  Tony Tan served as the seventh president from September 2011 to 2017. In February 2016, the Constitutional Commission was appointed by the government to review and propose recommendations for the elected presidency.

In August 2016, the commission submitted its report. The proposed changes were made swiftly. The following month, the government issued a white paper on the changes proposed by the committee. In October, the first reading of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill was made, followed by the second reading on November 7. The amendments were approved and passed on November 9.

One significant change was that presidential candidates from the private sector must have served for a minimum of three years in the most senior position at a company that has at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity. Another key change was reserving the presidential election for candidates from a racial group that has not occupied the elected president’s office for any of the last five terms of office.

Between a choice of the 2017 or 2023 PEs, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated in November 2016 that the 2017 PE would be designated solely for Malay candidates. In 2017, the nominated members of the responsible committees approved Halimah as the only candidate eligible for this presidential election. With the additional requirements, the two other interested potential candidates from the Malay community were deemed ineligible and hence, the last PE was uncontested. A former Speaker of Parliament Halimah became the eighth President of Singapore in September 2017.

The tightening of criteria for candidates from the private sector has further narrowed the pool of suitable candidates for future presidential elections. In this aspect of the 2017 PE, meritocracy and democracy might not seem to be as evident, as presidential candidates were limited to a pre-approved elite few (in this case, a single candidate), and citizens were not able to vote and participate in the PE. Some citizens felt disenfranchised as a result of the developments arising from the changes made prior to the last presidential election.

Due to the changes to the PE criteria, Tan Cheng Bock, who narrowly lost to Tony Tan in the 2011 PE, was unable to run in the 2017 PE. He subsequently set up the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), which contested in the general election of 2020. Two of its members are in parliament this term as non-constituency members of parliament.

Supported by the government of Singapore and advised by the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA), President Halimah fulfilled her ceremonial and custodian duties. During her term, she approved twice in 2020 government requests to draw billions from the national reserves to help the country and people during the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic downturn.

Singaporeans will have the opportunity to participate as voters in the upcoming PE, which will be open to qualified and approved candidates from any ethnic group. It is important that Singaporeans have the opportunity to vote and choose their next president.

Former deputy prime minister and current senior minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has stated his intention to take part in the upcoming elections. Former political leaders who have declined to participate in the PE include ex-ministers Lim Boon Heng, Khaw Boon Wan, and George Yeo. The potential private sector candidates who may meet the stringent requirements include two members of the Council of Presidential Advisers.

Few eligible private sector candidates will be keen to contest against the PAP-endorsed candidate, Tharman, who is internationally respected and highly regarded as a capable and committed leader. George Goh, an entrepreneur, business leader, and former non-resident ambassador to Morocco is one private sector candidate who has recently expressed his intention to run for the PE as an “independent candidate,” without political party affiliations.

The above potential candidates have all contributed actively to Singapore’s development, in their respective roles in the public and private sectors. The government and community should play a role in encouraging suitable candidates, including those from the private sector, to stand for the PE. Citizens also appreciate a need for active checks and balances in the system. If qualified and suitable candidates are allowed to run in the election, citizens will have the option to choose their candidate, as in the first PE in 1993 involving Ong Teng Cheong and Chua Kim Yeow. Though Ong was a former deputy prime minister, he demonstrated his independent thinking as president, winning the appreciation and respect of citizens.

The government-appointed committee will approve of Tharman to run as an establishment-endorsed candidate and grant him the certificate of eligibility. Technically, George Goh’s Singapore Exchange-listed company has a market capitalization of S$45 million, which does not meet the stated threshold. However, Goh’s media team stated that his various companies have a collective market capitalization value of S$3.15 billion over the last 40 years.

The Singapore government has in the past approved of Goh’s appointment as a non-resident diplomat representing Singapore. There is the possibility that the government committee may approve of Goh as an alternative candidate. Tharman himself has expressed that he would like to have a contested PE.

If there is more than one approved alternative candidate to the establishment-endorsed candidate, the votes for these alternative candidates may get diluted as in the case of the 2011 PE, which was won narrowly by Dr. Tony Tan, who contested against three other candidates.

Taking into consideration the importance of democracy, it will be beneficial to have a meaningful PE where suitable candidates can share with citizens how they would like to serve as the potential president and Singaporeans will get the opportunity to vote for the president of their choice. Singaporean citizens are indeed looking forward to exercising their right to vote in a successful PE this year and into the future.