EP changes: Can we not have reserve elections next year?

Sep 08, 2016 12.36PM |

by Bertha Henson

THE Constitutional Commission’s report on its recommended changes to the elected presidency (EP) was masterly in marshalling the facts and people’s views into what is an extremely readable, even if thick, document. You can read our reports about it here:

Proposed changes to the EP: All you need to know

Back to appointed President? No chance

Would the three Tans qualify?

I think to myself, that’s what you get when you have eminent intellectuals dissecting an issue.

Of course, the members of Commission had to endure the usual conspiracy theories that it would just do the G’s bidding. In a way, they did – because they had definite parameters to work within. So the focus was on updating the qualification criteria, ensuring minority representation and strengthening the role of the Council of Presidential Advisors (CPA).

The political decisions have been made. Its job was to find the best way to execute the objectives. For example, it’s not its job to find out if people agreed that a way must be found to ensure that a non-Chinese have a shot at the top job or whether the CPA was already strong enough.

So, it was quite strange for the commission to even raise the idea of reverting to an Appointed Presidency.


It’s not surprising that the proposal, so politely and carefully couched as the views of a group of citizens who had the chance to scrutinise the issue, was shot down.

It’s not surprising that the proposal, so politely and carefully couched as the views of a group of citizens who had the chance to scrutinise the issue, was shot down. Not that the argument was joined. The Prime Minister reiterated that a President with custodial powers must have an electoral mandate. But the Commission envisioned an appointed president with only symbolic functions and divesting the custodial powers in an appointed council of elders. That this was not merely a tentative idea was evident. The Commission went to some lengths to discuss how such a council could be picked, with examples of similar structures elsewhere.

Its key argument has to do with this: How do you expect a President who has to go through the political process of elections, to act as a symbol of unity? How to remove the politics from the presidency? It’s no wonder that the commission also went outside its parameters to suggest curbing campaigning excesses,   getting candidates to declare that they understood the role of an elected president and even making it a crime for them to make promises incompatible with the office. Can this work? To gain votes and act as a “check” which is what the people here are used to hearing about the role of such an office, candidates would have to show that they can exercise some degree of independence from the executive. How to put this across in a campaign?

Singapore is famous for its unique solutions to problems that might crop up in the future. The Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system, enshrined even earlier than the EP, has been touted as a “stabiliser” which prevents racial politics. The town councils is another invention tying politicians to estate management. The GRC system has been enlarged, reduced and gone through many permutations. The town council legislation will be revised because politics sometimes gets in the way of administration. The EP is hailed as way to prevent elections going the way of “auctions” with politicians promising goodies that can only be delivered by raiding the reserves.


Good ol’ days?

Now, we’re harking back to a “convention” – having multi-racial representation in the top office. We’re suddenly reminiscing about the days of Mr Yusof Ishak and Dr Benjamin Sheares, both of whom, by the way, aren’t likely to make it through the proposed qualifying door. Mr Yusof was a journalist while Dr Sheares was a surgeon.

This particular parameter of the Commission’s work has consumed the passions of a large majority of Singaporeans, so much so that less attention has been paid to other aspects, such the powers of the Council of Presidential Advisors (CPA). Because it is about race, everyone has a view on it but there’s quite a lot that can’t be said because it is deemed sensitive.

So, we’ve been pussyfooting around the Malay community, like why it hasn’t produced a presidential candidate. We talk about widening the pool, which really means lowering the bar on qualifying criteria. Or we come up with ways for minorities to team up with a Chinese candidate to go for the vote. But a tag team is complicated and a vice-president isn’t going to have much to do.

The Prime Minister said that the lack of a multi-racial guarantee was a problem identified way back when the elected presidency was mooted. Except that people were too polite to raise the issue. “But at the beginning, we felt that we had time. It was a problem, it was not an immediate problem because right… immediately we were not having fierce elections,” Mr Lee said. “We’ve had 25 years. I think we’ve seen how it’s worked.”

This is too odd because Singapore had just come out of a bruising debate over the introduction of GRCs where multiracial representation was a key issue. Nobody was polite then. The concept of an elected presidency as a second key was how the G pitched the idea. It had two White Papers and a parliamentary select committee to deliberate on these changes. So this means that everybody was either very polite or very stupid.

PM Lee added that he wasn’t being pressured by any group to make changes. “I’m pushing this not because I feel pressure from the minorities or because we need to make a political gesture, but because I think it’s a right thing to do. It’s a right thing to do. Nobody is asking but I think it’s something which we ought to do and do now for the long term of Singapore.”

So there’s no pressure, but he thinks there will be. This is even though surveys have shown that the younger generation is more race blind than their elders. The subject of race is being forced to the front of the political consciousness, with the GRCs and now the EP. That people prefer their own kind for the job, all things remaining equal,  is being sold as a “hard truth”. The thing is, in an election, all things are not equal. Candidates have different histories and personalities and will try to distinguish themselves from each other during their campaign.


Standards still hold

So has meritocracy been sacrificed? The Commission thinks not, since the bar isn’t lowered for anyone. That is true, except that voters will not be faced with a choice of candidates and given the chance to judge who is the superior one. It is not a question of picking the best candidate, but rather the best candidate of a race. At least in a GRC system, you pick the better slate of multi-racial candidates.

The Commission said that even those opposed to the introduction of race did not go so far as to suggest that the race of a candidate was “wholly irrelevant” to voting behaviour. Of course race is a factor, just as whether you have a welcoming demeanour is a factor.

It also said that while a 2011 survey conducted after the last Presidential election showed that at least 85 per cent of voters agreed that a minority candidate could be voted through the current system, the Commission pointed to the rest who said no, describing it as a “substantial margin” which might even be under-stated because people will give politically correct answers. So a case of a glass of water that is half-empty or half-full?

As for those who point to minority candidates who win parliamentary elections, this is how the Commission dealt with that argument: people would look at political parties they represent; it is “not analogous” to a Presidential election where the individual is non-partisan and has to stand on his or her own merits.

In other words, you can argue all you like, there will always be counter-arguments.

The report said: “The Commission agrees emphatically that a race-blind society is the only legitimate aspiration for Singapore; but there is a pressing need to ensure that no ethnic group is shut out of the Presidency even as progress is made towards that ideal; lest the office of President loses it vitality as a symbol of the nation’s unity.” Pressing need when no ethnic group is complaining? Loses vitality?


Anyway, it’s a done deal, unless Parliament says no, which is as good as the sun rising in the west.  


Anyway, it’s a done deal, unless Parliament says no, which is as good as the sun rising in the west.

What is heartening is that the Commission proposed a method which might not be used, if the different communities somehow managed to rotate the presidency among themselves. If one community has not held the job for 30 years, then the next round will be reserved for it. When or if this happens, the spotlighted community must bring pressure to bear on its elite, however small the pool, to be its standard bearer. Imagine if none surfaced and the election is thrown open? What will this say about the community?

My own view is that a proud community would always make sure it has a candidate for every election, lest it be seen as merely waiting for a reserved round to get an easier ride. My hope is that the 2017 PE will not be a reserved election and a minority candidate will be thrown up – and elected in a contest. Wow! This would confound all expectations!!

Okay, I’m being sarcastic. Like I said, it’s a done deal. But I still don’t have to like it.


Featured image by Natassya Diana. 

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