Workers’ Party lied in their monthly online newsletter “Blueprint” —
“This once again highlights the very skewed political balance in Singapore where the PAP, which has an overwhelming majority in Parliament, can rush through controversial Constitutional changes with no fear of being checked by legislators.”
Workers’ Party was actually invited to speak at the Constitutional Commission hearings which were chaired by Chief Justice Menon months before the Parliament but Workers’ Party declined to do so, intended to debate the matter in Parliament instead.
The Constitutional Commission that was tasked to review the system by which Singapore’s President is elected announced on Wednesday (Aug 17) that they have completed their work and have submitted their report to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
“The Commission wishes to thank all contributors for the thought and care put into their submissions and representations. The diversity of views expressed greatly benefited the Commission in its work,” the Secretariat of the Constitutional Commission said.
In a separate press release, the Prime Minister’s Office said Mr Lee has received the report. He also thanked the Commission’s Chairman, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, and other members for the deliberation and care with which they have carried out their tasks.
“The Government will study the report,” the PMO said. “It will publish the report and give its response in due course.”
It is understood that Mr Lee will speak about the Elected Presidency among other issues in his National Day Rally on Sunday.
The review of the Elected Presidency system was first announced by Mr Lee in Parliament on Jan 27.
A Constitutional Commission, chaired by Chief Justice Menon, was tasked to study if the qualifying criteria for candidacy should be updated. It was also asked to look at the framework governing the exercise of the President’s custodial powers, including whether the views of the Council of Presidential Advisors can be given more weight – and if so, how.
The commission was also asked to consider including a mechanism to ensure minorities have a chance to be elected as President, with Mr Lee noting in his Jan 27 speech that Singapore has not had a Malay President since the Elected President system was introduced in 1991.
EIGHT MEMBERS APPOINTED TO COMMISSION
Along with CJ Menon, eight other members were appointed to the commission, including Supreme Court judge Tay Yong Kwang; Public Service Commission chairman Eddie Teo; former Speaker of Parliament Abdullah Tarmugi, who is a member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights; and former ambassador to the United States, Professor Chan Heng Chee, who is chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at Singapore University of Technology and Design.
The private sector was represented by Ho Bee Land chairman and CEO Chua Thian Poh; Far East Organization CEO Philip Ng; DBS Bank chairman Peter Seah; and Venture Corporation chairman and CEO Wong Ngit Liong.
The commission invited submissions from the public on specific aspects of the Elected Presidency and received more than 100 written submissions. Of these, it invited 20 contributors to expand on their submissions at four public hearings in April and May.
Of the 20, 19 groups and individuals gave their views on the proposed changes, including included former Cabinet minister S Dhanabalan as well as academics and non-governmental organisations like AWARE.
The opposition Workers’ Party (WP) declined the commission’s invitation to do so, saying it intended to debate the matter in Parliament instead. In its submission, it reiterated its call to abolish the office of the Elected Presidency, saying that it undermined parliamentary democracy and could potentially cripple a non-People’s Action Party Government as many people who meet the current qualifying criteria are “senior officials appointed under the PAP Government”.
MINORITY REPRESENTATION “COULD NEVER BE GUARANTEED IN AN ELECTION”
The question of safeguarding minority representation took centrestage at a number of the public hearings.
At his hearing, Mr Dhanabalan – who is a member of the Presidential Committee for Minority Rights – proposed measures to ensure a minority President for at least four out of every 20 years, even as he acknowledged that it was not ideal to engineer minority representation.
Nevertheless, Mr Dhanabalan said that “the fact we (are considering) special measures already concedes the point that some action is needed” and urged the commission to adopt a realist approach.
Law professor Kevin Tan also supported minority representation, but went a step further to suggest that Singapore revert to the pre-1991 system, in which Parliament nominated the President.
“It is no accident that we had, as our first President, a Malay President, Yusof Ishak. The second President was Eurasian, Benjamin Sheares; then (Indian) Devan Nair; then Peranakan Chinese Wee Kim Wee,” Dr Tan said, adding that the symbolic value of the President could be maintained through the nomination process. “This could never be guaranteed in an election.”
The Eurasian Association, while not in favour of a minorities-only Presidential Election, proposed a “GRC approach” to Presidential Elections, in which elections would be contested in groups of two or three, with at least one minority candidate among them.
If the group wins the election, the front-runner would become President, and his running mates would be appointed to the Council of Presidential Advisors.
Dr Mathew Mathews, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), suggested that Singapore hold a “minority election” if it has not had a minority President for a substantial period of time. The minority presidential hopeful would still have to meet the eligibility criteria, he added.
However, another two IPS researchers, Dr Gillian Koh and Tan Min Wei, argued that the eligibility of candidates should be based on merit rather than on ethnicity. Even in a situation where an election has been reserved for minority groups, and the candidates have qualified after undergoing stringent checks, some voters may view such as contest as unrepresentative, Dr Koh said.
Singapore Management University (SMU) law don Eugene Tan too, urged the commission not to attempt to “fool-proof the system” by “engineering certain outcomes”. Instead, he said that a minority President should be an outcome of a free and fair election. “It is worrying that it has been 46 years – or about two generations – have passed since (Singapore has had) a Malay President, but my view is that that the solution is not to engineer an outcome.”
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN
Women’s rights group AWARE took issue with the lack of gender diversity in the President’s office. At its public hearing, AWARE executive director Corinna Lim noted that the President as well as the six-member Council of Presidential Advisors (CPA) are all men, despite there being “many highly qualified women (and) female talent at the highest levels”.
Ms Lim criticised the all-male CPA and the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC), saying these groups are not representative of Singaporean society. She noted that while the Presidency is occupied by one person, the CPA and PEC are heavily involved in the office as well.
AWARE also called for the eligibility criteria to be relaxed, as currently, the “gate is too narrow” and unable to capture a range of candidates who could be more representative of society, including more women.
RELOOKING THE QUALIFYING CRITERIA
To qualify as a presidential candidate, a person must have held office for a period of not less than three years in position of seniority and responsibility in the public or private sector. These include ministerial positions, and CEO or directorship roles in companies with a paid-up capital of at least S$100 million or its equivalent in foreign currency.
The rationale was to ensure that candidates had the competence and experience in making financial decisions involving billions of dollars, and assessing the fitness of people slated for key appointments.
In their submissions, AWARE as well as National University of Singapore adjunct law professor Kevin Tan said that too much emphasis has been put on the qualifications of, rather than the mandate, or representativeness of the elected president.
To address this, Dr Tan proposed relaxing the qualifying criteria, and instituting “a system where the elected candidate must score at least 51 per cent majority or be subject to a run-off (revote) among the top two candidates”.
In the last presidential elections in 2011, Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam narrowly won with 35.2 percent of the votes. Mr Tan Cheng Bock garnered the second highest number of votes at 34.85 per cent.
A trio of NUS law students – Ms Grace Teo, Ms Carina Kam and Ms Amelia Chew – suggested that the qualifying criteria be relaxed. They said the current criteria was too narrow and the candidates the current criteria throws up – mainly “key position holders” – do not fully represent Singaporean society.
However, others like lawyer Ranvir Kumar Singh suggested tightening the criteria. He proposed that the paid-up capital requirement be raised to S$500 million, five times the current amount, saying that this broadly mirrors the increase in Singapore’s CPF balances – from S$41 billion in 1990, to S$275 billion in 2015.
GIVING MORE WEIGHT TO PRESIDENTIAL ADVISORS
Currently, the Council of Presidential Advisors (CPA) has six full members. Two are appointed by the President, two are nominated by the Prime Minister, one by the Chief Justice, and the last by the Public Service Commission’s chairman.
At his hearing, Assoc Prof Eugene Tan proposed strengthening the CPA, suggesting that the current system “loads a lot of emphasis on the President”.
“I want to strip that off from the candidate and require competence in the advisory body instead,” Dr Tan said, adding that a lowering of the threshold for President may induce more minority candidates to come forward, thereby solving the issue of minority representation as well.
In his submission, fellow SMU law don Jack Lee suggested that the qualifications required of the members of the CPA be amended, so that they are the same, or more stringent, than those applying to be President.
Four SMU law students called for greater transparency regarding the CPA, which is currently “shrouded in mystery”, as student Alexander Kamsany Lee put it. In their submission, the students proposed publishing the CPA’s advice and the breakdown of their votes on a matter.