September date with a Malay president

Feb 06, 2017 09.56PM |

by Wan Ting Koh

MOST times, the G is pretty coy about telling when an election will take place. This time, it’s actually given the month: September. That’s when the Presidential Election (PE) will be held.

It’s a surprise given that President Tony Tan’s term ends on Aug 31. All past presidential elections have been held before the expiration of the six-year term. The writ was issued in the first week of August and elections held in the final week.

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Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr Chan Chun Sing, told Parliament earlier today that the Attorney-General has green-lighted the move. He didn’t say what this was based on but a look at the Presidential Elections Act threw this up:

Any poll for the election of the President shall be conducted as follows:

  1. (a) Where the office of the President becomes vacant prior to the expiration of the term of office of the incumbent, within six months after the date the office of President becomes vacant; or
  2. (b) In any other case, not more than three months before the date of expiration of the term of office of the incumbent.

So it’s probably the first limb which, put in another way, says that the office of President can stay vacant for six months if it was vacated before the term expires. Get it?

But why the change?

Mr Chan said this re-setting of the clock means that future presidential election campaigns will fall after the National Day period. He didn’t elaborate, but presumably, the G wants a clear period of celebration as well as a National Day rally speech that will not be complicated by an on-going election.

Presumably, the election cannot be brought forward to, say, July, because the new process would take a “slightly longer time”. To those who ask why not go with the simpler solution of letting Dr Tan carry on until the election, the answer is: That would be un-constitutional.

A caretaker president can do the job in the interim, which is allowed for under Article 22N, he said. That would be Mr J Y Pillay, who is the head of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA). If, for some reason, he can’t take it up, the role falls to the Speaker of Parliament Madam Halimah Yacob.

There was a moment of levity when Mr Chan addressed Madam Halimah as Madam President. A slip of the tongue but it won’t be lost on political observers who are speculating on which Malay candidate will toss his or her hat in the ring as this PE is reserved for Malays. Madam Halimah is among the front-runners.

His other reason for the delay was the longer and more complicated process of electing a president under changes proposed to the office which cleared Parliament in November last year.

Chief among the change would be the need for aspiring candidates to clear a community committee, much like that set up to vet candidate for Group Representation Constituency.

Two interesting points:

  1. Besides sub-committees to screen those who declare themselves Malays or Indians or belong to the Others category, there is a Chinese sub-committee.
  2. A person can also declare that he is NOT a Malay, Chinese, Indian or belonging to any other minority race. This is only for “open elections”, that is, not reserved for the minorities.

There is also a statutory declaration that candidates must make to show that they understood the custodial role of the President. Clearly, there will be no repeat of the last presidential election in 2011 where candidates touted the office as a second locus of power to check the G.

And instead of three days in the past, candidates applying for the certificate of eligibility have until five days after the writ of election is issued to submit their applications. The minimum interval between the issue of the writ of election and nomination day has also increased from five to 10 days, to give the Presidential Election Committee more time to assess applications.

Also, Mr Chan alerted aspiring candidates to a change in election campaign procedures. No rally sites will be set aside for them but they are free to secure sites for rallies themselves and apply for police permits. This, in an attempt to de-politicise the office. Instead, candidates will be given more airtime on TV to reach out to voters.

No MP raised questions about the timing but focused on points such as:

1. Candidates of mixed descent 

Both MP Vikram Nair and Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Thomas Chua asked which ethnic community a candidate with mixed parentage would be considered under. Mr Nair said that candidates with mixed heritage can belong to both communities, and asked if it was possible to choose the ethnicity that fit the requirements of a reserved election.

Mr Chua said that if an outstanding individual of two ethnicities was willing to serve, both community groups would be “proud of him”. He added that he hoped the committee would be able to make the “correct decision” based on ethnicity.

To this, Mr Chan replied that for a candidate of mixed heritage, the relevant community committee would adopt an “inclusive attitude” when assessing the individual.


2. Assessment of candidate

Opposition MP Pritam Singh said that article 8G was “scant on details” as to how the Community Committee would assess candidates. He asked if a candidate’s competency in Mother Tongue would be considered by the sub-committee as a criteria relevant to his or her race.

Ethnicity of the candidate’s spouse was also a concern for Mr Singh, who asked if this was a factor that would be taken into consideration. The reason he asked, was that if the candidate’s spouse were of a different race, the spouse might not see himself or herself as part of the candidate’s community.

However, Mr Chan said that the committee should consider the candidate’s eligibility “holistically”, rather than home in on one factor. Whether a naturalised citizen or a born-and-bred Singaporean should be president is up to the electorate, said Mr Chan. He added that Singapore did not practice the concept of the “First Lady” constitutionally, but that it was used customarily.


3. On how to count a reserved election

Opposition MP Sylvia Lim asked why the five-term provision for a reserved election started from Mr Wee Kim Wee’s term rather than from Mr Ong Teng Cheong, who succeeded Mr Wee in 1993. If Mr Ong were considered the first elected president, only four terms would have passed and the provision for reserved election would not be triggered, she said.

Said Ms Lim: “We were told that the advice was to count from President Wee Kim Wee who was then the first president to exercise the powers of an elected president. This advice was surprising and illogical to many Singaporeans given that President Wee Kim Wee was never elected to office.”

She suggested that the count was politically motivated, adding that the G “appeared reluctant” to release the result of its consultation with the Attorney-General on the matter. Ms Lim’s words drew a barbed reply from Mr Chan who said that Mr Wee was “the first president to exercise the powers under the new Elected Presidency act.”

Said Mr Chan to Ms Lim: “Are you suggesting the Attorney-General (AG) did not give the government the appropriate advice? Or that the Prime Minister has not been truthful with the Attorney-General’s advice?” He added that Ms Lim could challenge AG’s advice in court and that it was a serious issue to “cast aspersions” on the Prime Minister’s integrity. Whether the G chose to release AG’s advice was also up to its discretion, said Mr Chan.

Nine MPs spoke in all, including Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean who had a brief exchange with opposition MP Leon Perera on whether Mr Perera had agreed to an Elected Presidency during the debate of the Bill last November. For the record, Mr Perera insisted that he had not, saying that the “totality” of what he said indicated his support for an Appointed Presidency. He repeated The Workers’ Party’s (WP) argument that an Elected Presidency would only lead to politicisation.

Clearly not au fait with parliamentary procedures, NMP Kok Heng Leun tried to abstain from giving his decision during the third reading of the Bill at 6pm today, but was told by Madam Halimah that he could only vote for or against it. So Mr Kok chose to oppose the Bill.

He was one of the 10 who voiced their opposition. The other nine were all from the WP.

So it’s all systems go now for a changed presidency.


Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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