June 25, 2017

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elected presidency

by Bertha Henson

AND so it begins.

From tomorrow (June 1), Malays who want a shot at the presidency can start picking for forms from the Elections Department in Pinsep Street. Be warned that they are pretty lengthy forms, requiring plenty of information, especially from a prospective candidate from the private sector. Data demanded includes the financial performance of the corporation he led over a period of at least three year’s of service.

Also be warned that the applicants who clear the expanded six-member Presidential Elections Committee chaired by Mr Eddie Teo, head of the Public Service Commission, will have their forms made public for all to see. The G has picked up a recommendation made to the Constitutional Commission looking into changes to the presidency last year, that such transparency would have a “salutary effect” on those who think they can fudge their credentials.

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Given that this year’s presidential election is reserved for members of the Malay community, applicants must, after clearing the credentials hurdle, go through a committee to confirm their ethnicity, much like candidates competing in parliamentary elections as members of a Group Representation Constituency. The chairman of the Malay sub-committee is Mr Imran Mohamad, who was the former chairman of the Association of Muslim Professionals.

Details of the technical process were gazetted earlier today, with the election expected in September. President Tony Tan’s term ends on August 31. The G press statement makes no mention of the court challenges that have been filed, including over the concept of a hiatus-triggered reserved presidency.

Another new feature is a statutory declaration by prospective candidates that they have read and understood explanatory material in the nomination paper on the role of the President. You can read it here. This is to prevent a repeat of 2011 presidential election campaign, during which candidates strayed into areas beyond the constitutional role of President.

While not mandatory, applicants will also be asked to voluntarily undertake to conduct their campaign in a “dignified” and “decorous” manner that reflects the office of Head of State.

Yes, even if two or more Malays vie for the post, it will be a very tame election.

Read more on what we wrote about Tan Cheng Bock’s and M Ravi’s legal challenge.

 

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Johannes Tjendro

THE notable thing about Mr M Ravi’s application that the recent amendment to the Elected Presidency (EP) scheme is unconstitutional is that not a single Member of Parliament (MP) raised this point during the two-day debate. Presumably, since they were sitting to discuss changing the Constitution, the thought did not enter their minds.

The closest that anyone got to was Workers’ Party’s Ms Sylvia Lim’s opinion that Parliament should not “arrogate to itself the right to decide such fundamental matters concerning the political system and state power” (Hansard 8 Nov 2016). She further suggested that the constitutional amendment on the Elected Presidency be put to a national referendum instead. She did not, however, provide a clear legal basis as to why a national referendum would make a more appropriate platform than Parliament.

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The Challenge

In a Facebook post dated May 22, Mr Ravi summed up his challenge as claiming that the amended EP scheme deprives citizens of their right to stand for public office. As a matter of fact, Section 45(1) of the Constitution does stipulate categories of people who are disqualified from running for office, such as those who are “declared to be of unsound mind”, “undischarged bankrupts”, or have been convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for a term of one year or more, or not less than $2,000.

But Mr Ravi also added that the amended EP scheme discriminates specifically on the ground of ethnicity. He is convinced that this renders the EP scheme amendment unconstitutional.

This places Mr Ravi’s challenge to the amended EP scheme in much broader terms than Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s challenge. Dr Tan objects to the Government’s counting of the five presidential terms that is needed to trigger a reserved election. He contends that the counting of five terms should start with Mr Ong Teng Cheong, who was the first elected president, in 1993, rather than from the term of Mr Wee Kim Wee, the first president vested with the powers of the elected presidency. He was in office when the elected presidency took effect in 1991.

Mr Ravi contends that the reserved presidential election violates Article 12 of the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination against Singapore citizens on the ground “of religion, race, descent, or place of birth in any law or in the appointment to any office or employment under a public authority”.

However, the EP amendment makes it clear in Section 19B(5) that a reserved election cannot be struck down “on the ground of inconsistency with Article 12”. Furthermore, Article 12 provides for exceptions so long as they are “expressly authorised by this Constitution”.

Hence, it does seem that the amended Elected Presidency is precluded from any constitutional challenge. Mr Ravi himself acknowledged this in a live video on Facebook yesterday (May 23): “I know they made one amendment in the Constitution… to exclude the judicial challenge on this.”

When TMG asked him about this, he said that he would address it in his court submission.

The Basic Structure Doctrine: Is Parliament above the Constitution?

Mr Ravi also evoked the Basic Structure Doctrine, which originated from a ruling by the Indian Supreme Court that no constitutional amendment should “destroy the basic structure of the constitution”, with the help of Prof Andrew Harding of National University of Singapore (NUS), who is “a leading scholar in the fields of Asian legal studies and comparative constitutional law”.

It is noteworthy that the first articulation of the Basic Structure Doctrine in Singapore was rejected by the Singapore High Court in Teo Soh Lung v Minister of Home Affairs [1989].

In 1987, Ms Teo was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA), but was subsequently released following a successful judicial review in the Court of Appeal. She was then served with a new detention order signed by the President. A month later, Parliament enacted amendments to the Constitution and ISA. Ms Teo’s counsel argued that the Parliament had retrospectively usurped “judicial power exclusively vested in the judiciary, in breach of the separation of powers”.

Justice F.A. Chua ruled that, on the contrary, if Courts had the power to impose limitations on Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution, they would be “usurping Parliament’s legislative function contrary to Article 58 of the Constitution”. He further held that since Parliament gave the constitution, Parliament could also take it back.

Nevertheless, in 2012, the then Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong delivered a lecture where he conveyed his belief that the Basic Structure Doctrine does apply to the Singapore Constitution. In his notion of the basic structure of the Constitution, he specifically included judicial power and the exercise thereof through judicial review, which is the means by which the courts check the illegality of legislative or executive acts.

Finally, while the High Court is bound by decisions made by the Court of Appeal, a High Court judge is not bound by decisions made by other High Court judges. On this note, he pointed out that the Court of Appeal, which upheld Justice Chua’s ruling, had declined to decide whether the High Court was correct to hold the basic structure doctrine inapplicable.

Ravi’s rant: A puppet President?

Mr Ravi went live on Facebook yesterday (May 23) to talk about his constitutional challenge against the EP scheme. Although his application was that it was unconstitutional for the presidential election to take into account race, he also lambasted other criteria for being unmeritocratic. He said that these criteria include being “wealthy” and having “$500 million or so”, being “well-connected”, and “being in certain institutions”.

He was perhaps referring to the private sector service requirement that says that presidential candidates must have served as the chief executive officer of a company with at least $500 million in shareholders’ equity for a minimum of three years. Alternatively, presidential candidates must fulfill the public sector service requirement.

He also veered into other matters such as the President being “a puppetry role”, especially judged by the fact that the President does not actually have the power to pardon death penalty cases. He recounted that he challenged this in court in 2010 only to find out that the President only has the said power “in theory”, but “in practice, it is actually the cabinet (who has it)”.

In October 2016, Mr Ravi was barred from applying for a practising certificate for two years by the Court of Three Judges — comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, and Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang and Tay Yong Kwang. The judges said that Mr Ravi, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2006, had conducted himself “deplorably in relation to the judiciary, his clients and the profession as a whole”, including making “baseless, racially-charged allegations”.

Meanwhile, the hearing for Dr Tan’s challenge will likely be held in June, reported The Straits Times.

 

Featured image from Mr M Ravi’s Facebook page.

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by Bertha Henson

MAVERICK politician Dr Tan Cheng Bock has gone to the High Court to contest the G’s calculation of when a reserved election should be held.

He has consulted a Queen’s Counsel (QC) in Britain who shares his opinion that the G did wrong by specifying that the calculation should start from the term of the late Mr Wee Kim Wee, who exercised the powers of an elected president when the Constitution was first changed to allow for this.

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According to the G, this means that Singapore is currently in the fifth presidential term without a Malay in the top job. The coming election due in September should therefore be reserved for candidates from the community.

Dr Tan held a press conference on Mar 31 contesting this calculation, which was the advice that was given to the G by the Attorney-General (AG). By his reckoning, the start date should be from the first open election held for the presidency, which would make the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong the first elected president. If so, this would mean that only four terms have passed without a Malay president and the coming election should therefore be open to candidates of all races.

The G has maintained that it was abiding by the AG’s advice and that Dr Tan raised nothing new in his press conference. Opposition politicians who had asked the same question in Parliament were also told that the AG, the G’s top lawyer, had looked at all legal issues surrounding the timing.

In his Facebook post announcing the legal challenge today, Dr Tan did not say what the QC had advised in terms of calculation except to give his view that “section 22 Presidential Elections (Amendment) Act 6 of 2017 as it stands is unconstitutional’’.

The relevant clause in the legislation which was approved by Parliament on Feb 6 this year, reads:

Dr Tan wants the court to decide if the clause is consistent with Articles 19 B (1) and 164 (1) of the Constitution which introduced the mechanism of a Reserved Election. You may read the clauses here.

“After receiving Lord Pannick’s reply, I felt I could not keep his legal opinion to myself. It would be in public interest to have the Court decide which legal view is correct – Lord Pannick or the AG,’’ he wrote.

Through law firm Tan Rajah and Cheah, he filed his application to the High Court on May 5. The application was accepted and the first pre-trial hearing will be on May 22.

Said Dr Tan: “I believe this question can be answered without confrontation or hostility. Both the Government and I have the nation’s best interest at heart. It is in nobody’s interest to have a Reserved Election that is unconstitutional.’’

 

Featured image from TMG file.  

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Dr Tan Cheng Bock speaking at the press conference.
Speaking at the press conference at MHC Asia Healthcare building today, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, 75, announced his intentions to run for the next presidential election.

by Suhaile Md

MONTHS after constitutional amendments were made to the Elected Presidency (EP), we finally hear from former presidential candidate Dr Tan Cheng Bock. He called a press conference on Friday (Mar 31) and questioned the timing of the reserved election.

Unlike the G, he thinks that the presidential election later this year should be an open one, not reserved, as was announced on Feb 6. This is important to address, otherwise “the Elected Presidency will always be tainted with the suspicion that the reserve elections of 2017 was introduced to prevent my candidacy,” said Dr Tan.

At the heart of the matter is the definition of who the first EP is. If there has been five consecutive presidential terms where a Chinese, Malay, and Indian or Other minority race member does not become President, the next Presidential Election would be reserved for a qualified member of that race. Singapore has not had a Malay President since Mr Yusof Ishak, who died in office in 1970.

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So who’s the first Elected President?

The G said the late Dr Wee Kim Wee is the first EP. Yes, he was not elected, but the EP came into effect in 1991 during his term, making Dr Wee the “first President who exercised the powers of the Elected President,” said Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong last year in Parliament (Nov 8). Following Dr Wee, was Mr Ong Teng Cheong, Mr S R Nathan, and Dr Tony Tan. Mr Nathan served two terms. PM Lee also mentioned this was in line with the Attorney-General’s Chamber’s (AGC) advice.

Dr Tan disagreed on Friday, and questioned if the “AGC’s method of counting was in line with the spirit of the Constitutional Commission’s Report”. The report, said Dr Tan, talked about a reserve election being triggered only “if open elections” do not produce presidents from a particular community for five consecutive terms. That is, an election that is open to candidates of all races. He emphasised the word “elections”. Simply put, Dr Wee was nominated, not elected, but Mr Ong Teng Cheong was, therefore Mr Ong is the first President from an “open election”.

I question whether AGC’s method of counting is actually in line with the spirit and purpose put forward by the Constitutional Commission for having a reserved election.

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A familiar argument

It’s an argument that was raised in parliament by the opposition earlier this year (Feb 6). The AGC’s advice to count Dr Wee as the first EP “was surprising and illogical to many Singaporeans, given that President Wee Kim Wee was never elected to office,” said Workers’ Party Chairman Ms Sylvia Lim. Minister in Prime Minister’s Office and Government Whip, Chan Chung Sing replied that the G was “confident of the advice” from the AGC, and not going to rehash the arguments made by PM Lee in Parliament on Nov 8.

On Nov 9, Ms Lim had also asked if the G was “prepared to publish that advice” from the AGC. To which, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean responded that “it was not normal… to publish a lawyer’s advice because that is something which is provided to the Prime Minister.” If Ms Lim felt that the AGC had not advised correctly, she could “challenge judicially”.

Although Dr Tan Cheng Bock did not mention these exchanges specifically on Friday, he did say this: “Unfortunately, there was no debate on whether AGC advised the Government correctly. The Government also declined the opportunity to explain this in Parliament.” Furthermore, he said that “a recent high profile” Court of Appeal case showed that the AGC can be wrong in their legal opinion. He did not specify the case he was referring to.

Unfortunately, there was no debate on whether AGC advised the Government correctly.

He added: “If the Government double-checks the AGC’s advice with the Court, then Parliament and the people of Singapore can be satisfied beyond doubt that the constitutional changes they are making stand on strong legal foundations.”

Otherwise, he concluded, the 2017 reserved elections will be “tainted with the suspicion” it was introduced to prevent him from running.

When asked if he would go to the courts himself if the G declines his invitation. He replied: “The courts should be the last resort. Good politics… not everything should go to the courts.”

When TMG asked if he thought the G made the changes to affect his candidacy, he said, “I hope they didn’t plan it that way, but it seems to be that way because” of feedback from “the ground”.

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Why speak up now?

Last March, Dr Tan had announced his intention to run for President. The report was out last August. The G’s response was out the following month. And on Nov 9, the amendment bill was passed.

Dr Tan Cheng Bock said he was initially “resigned” to the fact that he would not qualify for the Presidency due to the changes proposed in the report, and later accepted by the G (read more here). However, the lack of clarity in parliament spurred him to look into the issues deeper. He added that when he’s “silent, always remember that I’m thinking”, not doing nothing.

A Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) spokesman, in response to media queries later in the day, said that the issue “has been considered and debated extensively for more than a year”, and that “Dr Tan has not raised any new points that require response.”

Dr Tan has not raised any new points that require response.

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The press conference

The press conference on Friday was a humdrum affair – no rallying cry or rousing speech. Instead Dr Tan stuck to script throughout his presentation, driving home his point about who the first EP should be. He came prepared, with multiple references to the Hansard to back up his assertion that in all his “26 years in Parliament we had always referred to Mr Ong Teng Cheong as the first elected President”.

Former presidential candidate Mr Tan Kin Lian, who was in the audience, thought Dr Tan “made a convincing case”. He had run for the 2011 elections against Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Dr Tony Tan, and Mr Tan Jee Say.

Added Mr Tan Kin Lian: “He (Dr Tan) and his team did a lot of work to research… and found many instances where the MPs referred to Ong Teng Cheong as the first elected president. I agree with his interpretation of the intent of the Commission. I am surprised at the incompetence of the government.”

There was a smattering, albeit enthusiastic, applause later during the question and answer session when Dr Tan talked about what he thought should define a President: “You must define (the) presidency by people who believe in multi-racialism, people who have the… character, who have served this country for a long time, who believe in the people… but if you want to define the Presidency by money…it’s very sad for this country.”

if you want to define the Presidency by money… It’s very sad for this country.

Dr Tan did not specify, but he was likely referring to the qualifying criteria, where potential candidates from the private sector must have experience at the senior-most executives levels in companies with shareholder equity of at least $500m.
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The Constitutional Commisson

The qualifying criteria was one of three issues related to the Elected Presidency scheme that the Constitutional Commission was set up to review, early last year. The other two areas had to do with the framework governing the President’s custodial powers, and ensuring that there was minority representation time to time. Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon led the nine member commission.

Public feedback was sought but notably, Dr Tan Cheng Bock had not submitted any suggestions or proposals. This fact was not missed by the MCI spokesman who said, Dr Tan “did not… give his views to the commission”.

When TMG asked Dr Tan on Friday why he did not, he smiled and said: “I’m an interested party… let them (commission) decide.”

I’m an interested party… let them (commission) decide.

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Can Dr Tan run for election again?

In 2011, he had lost the race to Dr Tony Tan by just 7,382 votes. Dr Tony Tan won with 35.20 per cent of the votes while Dr Tan Cheng Bock secured 34.85 per cent of votes.

This time round though, even if there is no reserved election, Dr Tan would find it hard to qualify. He was a non-executive chairman of Chuan Hup Holdings – not a company with $500 million in shareholder equity.

For Dr Tan to successfully qualify to run for the President this coming September, a few things must happen. First, race must no longer be a factor. So either the G reverses its stand that the election this year is reserved, or if there is no qualified Malay candidate. But that’s unlikely (read more here).

Second, Dr Tan must convince the Presidential Elections Committee that he is qualified, through the deliberative track. That is, his past roles in the public or private sector were of sufficient complexity to prove that he can handle the responsibilities of the President.

When asked if he was speaking up too late in the game, he replied: “I think it’s never too late for anything.”

He later added: “Anytime you call an election, my men is ready. I have a team now… I am prepared to assume that role, to look after your reserves, to make sure the appointments of people in the government are in the right order… If I can’t, well, I suppose there’s other ways for me to contribute.”

 

Featured image (taken during press conference in 2016) from TMG file.  

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by Bertha Henson

WHAT if someone who doesn’t look Malay and speaks bad Malay, but Malay is clearly stated on his or her identity card and both parents are Malay, wants to stand in a presidential election reserved for Malays? What if he or she doesn’t belong to the Sunni majority? What if he or she is married to a non-Malay who doesn’t practise Islam?

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Chan Chun Sing, talks about taking an “inclusive approach” in the presidential election. By that, he means that the Community Committee screening candidates will probably be more indulgent towards those who declare their affiliations to a community.

“By adopting an inclusive approach, we are allowing more people to be identified with a certain community. Our approach is quite different from the approach suggested by some other members who want to be even more clearly defined as to who forms what community,” he said.

By that, he means that the Community Committee screening candidates will probably be more indulgent towards those who declare their affiliations to a community.

Nicely said but the G cannot suppress more visceral, even primitive, feelings from surfacing just on its say-so. You can just imagine what voters will say, especially now that there will be a photograph of the candidate on ballot slips: “But he doesn’t look like a Malay!” Or what television viewers well-versed in the language will say about his vocal skills when he goes on television to make his pitch.

That’s the problem when race is a factor during elections. Mr Chan said that the Group Representation Constituency format which includes a minority member hasn’t faced such problems. But the GRC is a slate of candidates presented to a constituency. There might be rumblings if the non-Chinese candidate in a GRC doesn’t look the part, but it’s a whole different ball game when someone is put before the whole electorate as belonging to a certain race. The Malays might say: “Okay, he’s Malay”. The Chinese and Indians will wonder: “What sort of Malay is this?”

As Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh said: “Should there be residual doubts about how the Community Committee makes its decisions, the presidency could be anything but a unifying office not just for Singaporeans in general, but the respective minority race in particular.” He had asked about religion and language being part of the mix in determining ethnic identity.

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There’s the flip side too. What about a Chinese candidate who doesn’t speak Mandarin and looks more like a Malay than a Chinese? The G can argue that the candidate is standing in an “open” election so it doesn’t matter, but that somewhat overturns the principle that “all communities” must be represented, no? After all, there is a Chinese sub-committee for screening as well.

There’s the other opt-out option: the candidate who is standing in an “open election” can declare that he DOESN’T belong to any race according to changes to the Presidential Elections Act approved yesterday. That makes everything even weirder. So a candidate can deny the CIMO category on his pink IC, yet presume to speak for all races, none of which he belongs to?

According to ST, MP Vikram Nair asked if the “other minority communities” would be a catch-all for those who do not fit into the Chinese, Indian and Malay ethnicities? Mr Chan replied that Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean had made clear in Parliament last November that this referred to groups with some degree of history, permanence and established presence in Singapore, such as the Eurasian community. A check with Hansard showed that Mr Teo also said that a person who does not fall within one of the three racial groupings may still contest in open elections. So that means an American-born Caucasian who became a Singapore citizen can still stand for election, although what this does to the five-term hiatus trigger for a reserved election is not said. It doesn’t matter?

I have always maintained that highlighting race as a quality for eligibility is a dangerous thing. Merit and credentials for the job should be good enough. The G might think that it is catering to communities’ wishes and that we should acknowledge that race is never too far from the surface.  What it has done, however, is simply to entrench the differences among Singaporeans rather than lay stress on commonalities.

Merit and credentials for the job should be good enough.

This is, I supposed, part of the activist approach to managing race relations that Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam talked about at a forum last week. “It is anything but laissez-faire. And I think one of the reasons you’re seeing the reactions you’re seeing in the West today is because of a laissez-faire approach to ethnic relations.” He pointed as examples of activism the HDB integration policy to prevent ethnic enclaves from forming, and the wearing of school uniforms. He didn’t mention the presidency in his speech but it can safely be presumed that it is another such action.

The thing is, those examples can also be viewed as not giving in to racial sentiments and to make sure that Singapore looks like one country regardless of race. The presidency brings race right smack into an individual’s face, multiplied by the number of voters.

In a column published in ST today, an ST journalist said that it would be “a pity” if questions like those Mr Singh raised surfaced again “among a vocal few”, “[for] it would detract from the presidency as a unifying symbol, and the fact that a president, regardless of which community he is from, is, above all, a president for all Singaporeans.”

It is, of course, too late to do anything about the presidency. Come September, we will have a Malay president. The majority Chinese population, most of whom are probably not following the issue will wake up one day and suddenly realise that a Malay has walked into the top post without opposition, or that he has a choice between two Malays.

The same questions will be asked all over again. And they might not be as polite as questions asked in Parliament.

 

Read our past reports on the elected presidency here:

  1. Constitutional changes: More NCMPs, smaller GRCs and changes to elected presidency
  2. Elected Presidency: Sacred cow or sacrificial lamb?
  3. Proposed changes to the EP: All you need to know
  4. EP changes: Can we not have reserve elections next year?
  5. EP changes: Is shareholder equity the best way to judge a potential President?
  6. EP changes: When to stop clipping the President’s wings
  7. White Paper on EP changes: Council of (powerful and private) Presidential Advisers
  8. White Paper on EP changes: Not cast in stone
  9. White Paper on EP changes: A bigger presidential pool
  10. White Paper on EP changes: The short version
  11. Elected President: Debate on changes starts today and we hope it won’t end soon…
  12. Next Presidential Election for Malay candidates
  13. Elected Presidency: All tied up with a multi-racial bow
  14. Senate, not elected presidency, the way to go: Workers’ Party
  15. Elected Presidency: Who cares?
  16. September date with a Malay president

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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A Tissot wristwatch with clock hands pointing at 8:30
8:30 Clock face

IT’S an ambitious target – to have nine out of 10 people who are infected to know that they are, and so on. But on World Aids Day today (Dec 1), this goal, known as the “90-90-90 Treatment Goals” and set by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids, is a timely reminder of how much more work needs to be done to de-stigmatise the illness in society.

One way is to tell stories. In The Straits Times (ST) today, there’s a touching account of two patients from Dr Wong Chen Seong, a doctor at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, who cares for these patients.

The consultant at the hospital’s Institute of Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology describes a life of shame and regret, recently made a little better because of advances in medical treatment. HIV testing and treatments these days are now much more effective and affordable, lifting what was once thought of as a death sentence and offering patients a period of “hopeful living”, he said.

“People with HIV are living longer, healthier lives than could ever have been imagined during the dark early years of the epidemic,” said Dr Wong.

One such medical advancement is the availability of the HIV Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, also known as PrEP. More on this coming up later today.

Speaking of hopeful living, look on the bright side if your pay isn’t going to go up this or next year – at least you’ve still got a job in this lousy economy.

Wage growth is slowing. The median income went up only 2.7 per cent in June, compared to 4.7 per cent a year ago, according to figures released yesterday by the Ministry of Manpower. Economist labour executives said they don’t expect the situation to be better next year.

Said National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Zainal Sapari: “It’s more important to make sure workers continue to have jobs.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave an interview to Malaysian news agency Bernama on Monday, in which he reiterated the challenges of building the high-speed rail between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and pledged to get the job done.

“It is a very ambitious, very complicated and very expansive project,” he said in the interview, according to the transcript that was released yesterday. “We have to try our best to anticipate what the likely issues are… and have a clear understanding of how we will deal with it if a situation arises.”

He said both Singapore and Malaysia have made “very good progress” on the agreement, but did not give details about how the costs would be shared when asked. It was one of the items that made the project complicated, he acknowledged, but added: “We are almost there.”

Mr Lee was also asked about the presidential election, and if the G had a list of people in mind to run for the position. To that, he said: “There is no shortlist. It depends on who comes forward. It is not for the G to arrange.”

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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Photo By Shawn Danker
Singapore Parliament.

by Bertha Henson

I DID something that changed the lives of several hundred households in my mother’s neighbourhood a few years ago. I’m serious, not joking, although, maybe a bit of boasting. It had to do with the HDB lift upgrading programme for the area.

Residents said yes to having a lift that stopped at every floor and were prepared for noise and dirt to follow. As the construction started taking shape, it dawned on some residents that the column hosting the lift shaft would be encased in concrete, without any opening to the outside world. My mother had visions of getting stabbed or robbed in the dark and claustrophobic confines of the lift landing.

Construction was proceeding apace and it would soon be too late for changes. She asked me to write to the MP. I did, and for good measure and added pressure, said that I was also speaking on behalf of her neighbours. We had a water-tight case; similar blocks in the estate didn’t have their lift columns all cased up; there were openings and nice grilles if the worry was about someone tipping out of the block. I said we were willing to gather other residents for a hearing.

The town council and HDB worked fast, immediately sending officers to my mother’s flat to persuade her that the design was for “safety” reasons. Also, construction had reached a stage where it would be difficult to revise. What nonsense! My mother knocked on neighbouring doors to get other residents to speak. There is nothing like the security in numbers. We got the decision changed and now there are openings on every lift landing.

It might not seem a lot to others, but it meant a lot to people who are living there. You get sunlight and fresh air wafting through. You can put out potted plants. Friends and family can sit outside the flat at the lift landing. Living got nicer.

I raise this point because many people have asked me about my column on Singaporeans’ lackadaisical attitude towards changes in the elected presidency. I had lamented the bo chap way we viewed the changes, in contrast to the passionate arguments put up for or against a Trump presidency in the United States. What, they asked, were people expected to do even if they cared? Protest at Hong Lim park? The usual bogeymen were raised, about people getting sued and criticism thumped down by a draconian G which wants its way. Then there were references to the impotence of Parliament, under the stranglehold of the People’s Action Party as well as jibes at the “70 per cent” of the electorate which voted the PAP way.

Maybe we should examine instead the origins of Singaporeans’ apathy towards politics. I think it is more a case of the belief that the G knows best and that it will do right by the people. There’s a great deal of trust reposed in the G, whatever the vocal minority might say about the “stupidity” of the 70 per cent. I also think that with such a huge mandate given in the last general election, the G believes it has been given a strong hand to push through policies which it believes to be in Singapore’s long term interest.

But this doesn’t mean that Singaporeans should exercise their brains only once every four or five years, especially on matters that affect the Constitution. The Constitution is what we live by and while we might not object to changes in principle, we should at least know what the changes are and whether they are for the good or the bad. Because the changes will be for good.

The Workers’ Party thinks there should have been a referendum, which the G has derided as a costly exercise. I would welcome a referendum not because it gives citizens a say, but it would have brought everyone slap up against the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. They will be forced to know a bit about the changes they are voting for or against.

I would welcome a referendum not because it gives citizens a say, but it would have brought everyone slap up against the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. They will be forced to know a bit about the changes they are voting for or against.

But it won’t be needed if there had been more participation on the part of the people in the process, instead of delegating the thinking to a committee of wise men and one woman. And after the thinking is done for us, it is for us to weigh the merits of the report instead of being overwhelmed by the G’s response which came extremely swiftly. The White Paper, as well as the legislation, took just a couple of months to draw up. You would think that the legal aspects would itself be a tremendous drafting exercise because we know from the experience of similar unique legislation like the Town Council Act how easy it is to exploit loopholes and loose ends. Parliamentary select committees had been set up for previous changes to the presidency. This time, there was none.

And now it is too late.

Going by online views (which should not be dismissed), some people think an elected presidency is a non-office, not deserving of their attention. So why care about who will be president? Yet others have very strong views about reserved elections, with minority members chafing at the condescending gesture made in the name of multiracial stability and the perceived generosity of the Chinese community in making such a sacrifice of its electoral rights. You can read their comments here.

These are some “top line” reactions which will surface again come election time. I am not looking forward to it.

I had hoped that the MPs themselves would ask for a pause in the process to at least comb over the “minutiae” like the Council of Presidential Advisors, veto powers and the relationship between the president and the executive. But evidently they were concerned about meeting the Prime Minister’s time-frame to get things wrapped up for the next presidential election due by August next year. Our representatives should do what the citizens can’t, won’t or can’t be bothered to. Once in Parliament, the MP’s judgment shouldn’t be based on partisan concerns but the wider interest of the Singapore polity; both don’t always coincide. The trouble is, citizens here don’t work that way. We do not, like the Americans, tally who votes or speaks for or against a piece of legislation – so monolithic is our legislature. We do not lobby our MPs to take a certain position. Our MPs are contractors who fix our housing and other problems and who write letters to G agencies.

The intellectual elite and the media must play a leading role in spearheading discussion to bring important issues to the forefront of public consciousness. It is not enough to report the facts but also the views, including contrarian ones. We know more about the American presidency because of media coverage. We’re exposed to varying views, whether idiotic or intellectual and we come to our own conclusions over choice of candidate even though we don’t have the vote.

I agree with Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin who suggested in Parliament that young people be taught basic political concepts as part of civic education. “Introducing young people to the value of a constitution, the meaning of a vote, and the balance of power being executive, legislative, and judiciary will go a long way in helping us build up the rigour of a future electorate.”

For the not-so-young, maybe we can start by viewing policy issues that affect our country the way we view our living conditions, and think of them as having a direct impact on us. We should press our MPs to put up their positions for the people to look over and comment on, before speaking up in Parliament. We should insist that they engage more people, and not just their own insiders – and online as well. It is usual to see the Establishment dismiss online reactions as the rantings of an irrational crowd, but rants can contain seeds of resentment and even grains of truth.

We should press our MPs to put up their positions for the people to look over and comment on, before speaking up in Parliament. We should insist that they engage more people, and not just their own insiders – and online as well.

The perplexing speed at which such important legislation is passed is adding to the political cynicism of a citizenry which views itself as hapless, hopeless and helpless. It cannot be that the citizen is reduced to having a voice only once every four or five years with only the hope of more partisan voices in Parliament to delay the process because we have the extreme opposite of political gridlock.

There’s a selective en-bloc re-development project being constructed in my mother’s neighbourhood. Residents are miserable. High-rise blocks are sprouting up in front of their flats, diminishing the amount of open space. It’s not as though they haven’t been warned. The HDB has been putting up maps of the new development in lift lobbies for years but nobody really looked at them. The few who did, moved away. One neighbour actually went to the HDB Hub to get a closer look at the plans. He is now an ex-neighbour who sold his flat to another family which didn’t realise what the future held for them.

The rest who remained are getting more and more astonished as the blocks come up right in front of their noses; most didn’t realise how cramped their neighbourhood would be.

It’s too late for a petition or a letter to the MP. Maybe, if the residents had taken an interest in it earlier, something could have been worked out.

Things are cast in stone, or concrete, only because we didn’t bother about them earlier.

 

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by Bertha Henson

THE other day, I lamented on my Facebook wall that drivel that takes me 10 minutes to dream up are better read than analyses that I break my brain over. (Okay, correction: the drivel usually has a barbed point somewhere.)

I was referring to the nine articles I have written on the proposed changes to the Singapore presidency, which were yesterday (Nov 9) approved by Parliament. Responses came fast and I will summarise them here:

a. Netizens have the attention span of a gnat; that’s just the way web audiences are. Can’t be helped.

b. Netizens are dumber than most and won’t be able to digest anything longer than a short listicle.

c. Netizens need to be enthused by or emotionally connect to the writer. Which means I’m not passionate or empathetic or funny enough I guess.

But there were also plenty of comments about the nature of politics in Singapore.

The proposed changes are a “done” deal, so why should Singaporeans even talk about it?

Learned helplessness, says one poster. Call it whatever you want: cynicism, reality, lethargy. What I cannot wrap my head around is this: Don’t people think this is an important issue given that it affects the top office in the land and we’ll be electing the President?

Don’t we want to know what an elected president can or cannot do with his powers? Or do we think it’s enough to know that he holds a second key to the reserves – and that’s all that matters?

What if he gets a rusty key, a key which can’t open the lock, and the G has a master key that can?

What if he has to jump over barricades and go through hoops just to get to the door of the safe? What if Parliament sticks out a leg and trips him up while he is on his way to bar the safe?

One line that has threaded the discussion through the whole of this last year is that the changes were designed to keep one man out: Dr Tan Cheng Bock.

Yes, he almost upset the apple-cart in 2011. He almost managed a Trump triumph against the wishes and desires of the establishment and the G. I wish he spoke up on the changes. He didn’t, even though he had thrown his hat in the ring. It would have added some perspective to this argument and given material for people to chew over rather than merely repeating a mantra like a village idiot.

I’ve always thought multiracialism was a moot point and unnecessary, because no one is talking about it but the G.

Another line was thrown up by the G itself: multiracial representation in the office. I’ve always thought it was a moot point and unnecessary, because no one is talking about it but the G.

But you know what happens when you bring race into the mix, everybody becomes an expert. Everybody feels entitled to say something. All arguments for or against reserved elections move towards one point – safeguarding multiracialism. How can it not?

But the changes aren’t only about the two points although the second is a big point.

There are changes to how the president is selected, his powers vis-a-vis those of his advisors and whether the G can willy-nilly change the rules of the game because of its hold on Parliament.

The president is about the people having someone to check the G if need be, not just “work” with the G as ministers are so keen to put it.

Do the new rules make it too difficult for the President to oppose the G? I don’t know. Neither do you, I think.

Do the new rules make it too difficult for the President to oppose the G? I don’t know. Neither do you, I think.

The G wants to move the discussion forward and nail things down for the next presidential election. But I’m not even sure that people are in agreement over fundamental aspects such as whether elections are a good way to pick a custodial president.

The constitution committee had made an observation, very politely, that the G may want to undertake a full-scale review if it so wished at some point or other. Very clearly, that’s in the G’s court. And I doubt very much that it wants to do so.

But who cares right?

I have been reading the news reports on the parliamentary proceedings and I think the MPs merely scratched the surface by dwelling on philosophical points such as the symbolism of the president.

And the Workers’ Party found itself besieged by the People’s Action Party because it hadn’t worked out its “senate” mechanics. What a disappointment!

I had hoped to see MPs go in-depth and compare the differences between the commission’s report and the G’s White Paper, such as the extent of powers given to the Council of Presidential Advisors, and the recourse the President has in terms of going to the public in case of disagreements with the executive and legislature.

That is why I have been persistent in suggesting that a Parliamentary Select Committee be set up to scrutinise the Bill in detail. It’s beyond the ability of laymen to decipher the legalese over Tier 1 and Tier 2 provisions that the G says would be “entrenched” in the Constitution. I bet many people don’t even know what I’m talking about…

If I sound pissed, it’s because I am.

I have been watching the reactions of Singaporeans to the United States presidential election and wondering why passions are so inflamed.

It amazes me that some people are so well-informed about the ins and outs of the American campaign and can cite chapter and verse in favour of their “champion”. Of course, the outcome of the US election is important, not just to the Americans but to the rest of the world as well. All the big questions arise that affect this little red dot, whether over trade, diplomacy or military issues, come up.

Perhaps, we’ve been deluged by media reports and exposed to electoral theatrics, all calculated to get a rise out of voters and by extension, onlookers.

The Singapore way is much more subdued. The Prime Minister sets up a commission, gives parameters. The commission calls for submissions, hears some representation, puts up a report. The G responds with a White Paper and holds some dialogues. Legislation is crafted, read in Parliament, debated and approved.

And next year, we will have a Malay president.

All this in one quick year. The G will say that there were opportunities for dialogue, so it’s not as though the proposals were being rammed through. It will say that it thought long and hard.

The funny thing is, we can’t do a thing about the way the Americans vote, but we get excited about it. We can say something and even do something about our own presidency, but we are not interested. We don’t even think we need be informed. We’re lousy citizens when it comes to our own backyard.

Has it ever occurred to anyone that this is one major piece of legislation that the G and the ruling party has a big self-interest in? And I don’t mean just keeping Dr Tan out. You can knock the G on transport or health or education matters, but it would be hard to say that it was out for itself rather than the good of the people.

But the presidency is a whole different kettle of fish.

I can bet my bottom dollar that when the next election comes around, people will ask: “How come no Chinese?” Or when a candidate gets rejected, people will go: “Criteria so strict ah?” Or when he does something unexpected, we’ll go: “Like this also can meh?”

Can.

Because we allowed it.

 

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by Bertha Henson

EVERYBODY’S all excited now. We think we can predict who will be president (of Singapore, not the United States), even before nominations are called and even before a Bill to allow for changes to criteria for candidacy goes through Parliament.

Madam Halimah Yacob is the name on everyone’s lips, now that the G has said that the next election due by August next year will be reserved for a member of the Malay community. It testifies to her pulling power that so many people are rooting for her.

Or maybe we just don’t know of other Malays who can step up to the plate. Maybe those in the community will have names, but not non-Malays. So why not Halimah? Even the Chinese majority knows who she is.

Her candidacy would kill several birds with one stone. Besides being a member of the right community, she’s a woman – so women’s groups can shut up and sit down. Maybe the liberal types don’t like the idea that she wears a tudung but hey, no foreigner will mistake her for being Chinese if she is in Malay/Muslim garb. Plus she has the gravitas to pull it off.

So all is settled then. Those of us who’ve not been enamoured of the push to get ethnic representation in the top office should just stay calm and carry on breathing. Unless of course, Madam Halimah says: “No, thank you. I don’t want to be president.”

I congratulate the G for making all the pieces fall together so nicely. Conspiracy theorists have got it wrong. The proposed changes aren’t to keep someone out; it’s to put someone in.

Conspiracy theorists have got it wrong.The changes aren’t to keep someone out; it’s to put someone in.

I’ve written quite a bit on this aspect of changes to the presidency, which the Prime Minister has said is the key reform among a whole slate of other proposals.

I don’t believe that the idea of having multi-racial representation has been festering within the G all these years as we’ve been told. If it has been and if it is as important as it is now made out to be, then it is remiss of the G not to raise it sooner.

I didn’t like how the Constitutional Commission was told to find a way to ensure multi-racial representation in the office – instead of examining the need for such a “safety valve”.

Maybe the last 2011 presidential election shook up the G, with its candidate, current president Dr Tony Tan, winning by a whisker. If so, it was more about how the campaign went, with candidates positioning themselves as a separate centre of power, rather than how it was four Tans who put their hat in the ring. No Ali. No Muthu.

Nobody disagrees that the ideal should be a race-blind electorate who pick candidates based on merit. But no one can say that race will definitely not play a part in a vote because who can speak for the sentiments of others?

Attempts to use past electoral victories of minorities have been dismissed as “not analogous” or the “wrong comparison”. Or, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday (Nov 8) of Bukit Batok MP S Murali, he had to work extremely hard to win the by-election.

Of course, there are surveys produced at precisely the right time to back up the point that the Chinese are racist. (Oops, not that they are racist but if every quality about competing candidates remain equal, they would pick someone of the same skin hue.)

That means all minorities would be blacked out (no pun intended) of the job. Then there’s this new argument – minorities themselves want a representative as president.

It’s something they say behind closed-doors though, according to Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim. So we simply have to believe that enough of them think so that it might cause an explosion in race relations further down the road.

The G’s argument that meritocracy is still paramount as the candidate would have to meet criteria says only this: The candidate fits the Bill. In other words, whether there are better candidates around from the other communities is not something people need to concern themselves with.

After keeping people guessing on when hiatus trigger will be pulled – should it date from the term of late president Wee Kim Wee, who was technically the first custodial president? Or from the first elected president Ong Teng Cheong?

Dating it from the time of Dr Wee means that the next election must be reserved for a minority because five terms have lapsed and the Malays haven’t had a representative in more than 46 years. But if Mr Ong’s term was picked, it means we still have one more presidential election for all communities to have a shot at the job, albeit on changed criteria.

Law Minister K Shanmugam has said the G would ask for advice from the Attorney-General (AG) on this technicality. Presumably, the AG has done so, as well as settle this little problem about whether the proposal goes against the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, of which Singapore is a signatory.

And isn’t it fortuitous that President Tan isn’t going for a second term in office although he has a right to?

What might have missed people’s notice is that if the Constitutional Commission’s recommendations on criteria were accepted, Madam Halimah wouldn’t have make the cut.

If the commission’s recommendations on criteria were accepted, Madam Halimah would not make the cut.

It had suggested that the candidate, whether from the public or private sector, should have at least six years in the top job to “capture at least some elements of the applicant’s performance” with 15 years of the elections being called.

She has been Speaker of Parliament since 2013. The G wants to keep to current three years of experience but an even longer look back period of 20 years. This means she’s just about made it.

I reckon that Madam Halimah has a shot at the top job even if it’s going to be an open election. The pity is that now, we’ll never know.

Under a reserved election though, she’s a great choice. It’s not likely that she will suffer the ignominy of being told that she only became president because she’s Malay, so great is her credibility among the people, even the vociferous online crowd.

To those in favour of stable politics, she’s a member of the Establishment who, as a People Action’s Party MP as well, is aligned with the vision and mission of the G. Of course, this is no guarantee that she won’t prove to be as “troublesome” as the late Mr Ong, who went public with his disagreements with the G.

If Madam Halimah is president and wins a second term, this means 12 years of stability within the top political leadership, something the new PM will find comforting.

If Madam Halimah is president and decides to fight for and win a second term, this means 12 years of stability within the top political leadership. That’s something the new Prime Minister, who will be stepping into Mr Lee’s shoes after the next general election due in Jan 2021, will find comforting.

It isn’t clear if the provisions for multi-ethnic representation in the office belongs to those which the G says would be entrenched in the Constitution. Presumably, it is. If and when the G gets around to doing this, it will be pretty hard to remove the clause as it would require a referendum. (Odd isn’t it? You can add it in without a referendum – but you need a referendum to take it out.)

But what if Madam Halimah isn’t around or doesn’t want to be president and the Malay community is pressed to give up a name?

Does the G think that the sleepy Singapore electorate won’t wake up to the realisation that they are not being given a fair range of choices? Truth to tell, a lot of people are bored with the debate on the presidency because they see it as a “done” deal.

Most aren’t interested in the ramifications and implications of the changes. But it will hit them in the face when the vote is in their hands. That is the point at which the non-Malays will wonder what happened – and the whole argument for having reserved elections will have to be reprised.

What used to be a more-or-less colour blind electorate will have the blinders removed. PM Lee said he doesn’t want to “kick the can further down the road”.

I fear he is.

 

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by Suhaile Md

CAN the gatekeeper guard the national reserves and still be able to unite the nation? Not if he’s elected, said Workers’ Party (WP) Chairman Sylvia Lim in Parliament yesterday (Nov 8). Because subjecting the gatekeeper to elections would “necessarily” make him a “partisan figure” due to the political nature of elections.

This is why, according to Ms Lim, the current custodial function of the elected president should be dispensed with. And no more elections for the presidency too, she said. The president should instead be appointed, and hence be above politics, so that he can focus on his ceremonial role as head of state and the national unifier. Furthermore, the problem of having too many successive Chinese presidents in a multiracial society would be alleviated.

Ms Lim was speaking on the second day of the debate on changes to the Elected Presidency (EP), where she also called for a national referendum so that the public can decide on the nature of the presidency. She spoke right after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the next elections, due by August next year, would be reserved for the Malay community should the bill pass.

 

Senate system

What about the duty to gate keep Singapore’s reserves? Ms Lim acknowledged “the fundamental truth” that the country’s reserves must be “strongly safeguarded”. So an eight-member senate – elected by the people – can take over the role of gatekeeper. The president can lead the senate.

The powers of the eight senators would be similar to the custodial role currently held by the president, said WP Member of Parliament Mr Pritam Singh. The most significant of these roles that a Senate can take on are the protection of reserves and approving the appointment of key civil service positions.

Senators would have the ability to veto bills pertaining to these matters. Such bills would then require a 75 per cent parliamentary majority to pass. But, “as part of the legislative arm of the state and not the executive arm, and mandated to fulfil a limited custodial role, senators would be under no illusion of having any executive or policymaking function”, added Mr Pritam.

Currently, the president is advised by the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA). But he alone has decision-making powers – the CPA does not. Members of the CPA are appointed, not elected.

Opposition leader Low Thia Khiang also took issue with the timing of the proposed changes to the EP. He asked why the issue of race came up only recently, a year before the presidential elections are due in 2017, and not in the 26 years since the EP was first implemented in 1991.

Mr Low said the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) had “ulterior motives”. The changes to the EP are being made so that the president’s office can be used to “contain” an opposition-led G in the event that the PAP loses an election. He also reiterated Ms Lim’s call for a referendum as the PAP proposal was a “major reform”.

Minister for Education Mr Ong Ye Kung disagreed. If the WP wants a referendum, it should propose the Senate idea as part of its manifesto in the next General Elections, he said. As for Mr Low’s charge of ulterior motives, Mr Ong said: “It’s not fair.” The G just wants to “enhance the system”.

 

Alternatives

Earlier yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that as the guardian of the reserves, the EP acts as an important stabiliser in the system.

He ran through three alternatives to the current model.

First, a non-elected president with custodial powers. This is untenable because an unelected president will find it “very hard to stand his ground” against an elected G which has the popular mandate.

Second, a non-elected president with custodial powers vested in an elected CPA. This poses its own challenges. During the 2011 elections, some candidates made “claims, promises and declarations which go beyond the president’s powers and competence under the Constitution”. The presidency becomes politicised. Having CPA elections would mean that “instead of having one presidential race risking being politicised, we would have six, eight, or 10 CPA races, at similar risk”, said PM Lee.

Third, make the president ceremonial, remove the CPA and let Parliament decide on the reserves. This would be “very unwise”, he said. In parliament, the “pressure is to do more rather than to spend less”. Therefore, an office not subject to such pressures should guard the reserves.

On the timing of the changes, PM Lee said there was “no pressure to change the system” but it’s the G’s duty to “review” and make “adjustments well ahead of time” because the EP is a “long term stabiliser” for the system.

Another “fundamental reason” for the changes: the president is “the most important unifying symbol” of a multiracial nation. The Chinese may be the ethnic majority here, but Singapore is not a Chinese country. The presidency should reflect that.

Said PM Lee: “Every citizen, Chinese, Malay, Indian, or some other race, should know that someone of his community can become President.”

You can read PM Lee’s speech in full here.

 

You can read our reports on the EP changes here:

 

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