Eugene K B Tan – Singapore’s First Reserved Presidential Election: More Haste, Less Speed, and A Missed Opportunity?

This is guest post by Eugene K B Tan, Associate Professor of Law at the Singapore Management University School of Law. He served as an unelected lawmaker between 2012 and 2014 in Singapore’s 12th Parliament.

After much hype and anticipation that preceded it, Singapore’s sixth presidential election in September 2017 quickly reached an anti-climatic end when the Presidential Elections Committee in pre-qualifying three presidential hopefuls determined that only one person, Madam Halimah Yacob, was eligible to contest.

Madam Halimah Yacob, who was Speaker of Singapore’s Parliament between 2013 and August 2017, made history by becoming Singapore’s first-ever woman President. She is also Singapore’s first ethnic Malay President in 47 years since Yusof Ishak (1965-1970), and will hold office for a six-year term until 13 September 2023.

The 2017 election was the third time (after 1999 and 2005) that the presidential election was uncontested since 1993. Earlier, in 1991, the presidency was converted from a ceremonial appointment to a popularly elected one.

This year’s presidential election was unique. Prior to the election, the government had embarked on the most significant re-engineering to Singapore’s constitutional architecture since the introduction of the Elected Presidency (EP) in 1991. In the 1991 constitutional changes, the head of state became a popularly elected office.

The EP institution was born out of the fears of a popularly elected ‘rogue government’ that could send Singapore down the road to ruin and perdition through populist measures that are financially unsustainable and the corrupt appointments of cronies to key leadership positions. However, the EP does not, in any way, detract from the fact that executive power and responsibility resides with the Cabinet. Singapore remains fundamentally a parliamentary system of government.

Under the Singapore Constitution, the EP is not a separate, countervailing power to the elected government. The EP’s role has been likened to a ‘second key,’ a watchdog, and a custodian. Through his custodial powers, the EP provides an additional layer of checks and balances, an “intra-branch” check on the Cabinet, which did not exist prior to 1991, in specifically defined critical areas including the drawdown of past national reserves, key appointments in the Public Service, corruption investigations, preventive detentions without trial under the Internal Security Act, and restraining orders under the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.

To enable the president to stand up to the popularly elected government, the constitutional designers in 1991 decided that the head of state should possess the requisite authority and legitimacy through a popular mandate obtained in a presidential election.

Where the EP institution did not fare as well as its predecessor was for the office to be rotated among the different races. Prior to 1991, Singapore had consciously sought to rotate the presidency among the different races. For example, the successors to Yusof Ishak (Malay) were Benjamin Sheares (Eurasian), Devan Nair (Indian), and Wee Kim Wee (Chinese). With the introduction of elections for the presidency, no Malay had been elected in the four elections between 1993 and 2017.

The constitutional review process on the EP began in February 2016 with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appointing a high-powered, nine-member Constitutional Commission, headed by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, to work on three tightly scripted terms of reference. They sought to update the eligibility requirements for presidential hopefuls, as well as 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.

The Commission, only the second in independent Singapore’s 52-year history, invited submissions from the public on specific aspects of the EP. It received more than 100 written submissions. Of these, 20 contributors were invited to expand on their submissions at four public hearings in April and May 2016. The Commission completed its work in August 2016 and its report was publicly released in early September 2016.

The Government followed up with a White Paper on 15 September 2016 outlining its agreement with many of the Commission’s recommendations but also noting some of the differences in implementation and ideas.

A critical proposal it made was to have “reserved elections”, to pre-emptively manage the potential issue of race marginalisation and the need to have a person from every major race for the head of state office. The Commission recommended a “hiatus-triggered” mechanism in which a reserved election is activated only after there has not been a president from a major racial community for five continual terms, or 30 years. Clearly, the Commission viewed the reserved election as an inter-generational safeguard for minority representation.

Besides providing for reserved elections, the amendments to the Constitution made in November 2016 also raised eligibility thresholds for candidates from the private sector to qualify to run for the presidency. Such candidates must be the most senior executive with executive control and being accountable for the entity they run. Such an entity must be at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity, and the candidates must have a track record of running these entities well.

Second, the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) was strengthened. The unelected CPA advises the President on matters pertaining to the exercise of the custodial powers, such as whether the government’s budget would draw on Singapore’s fiscal reserves not accumulated by the government of the day, and key appointments in the Public Service. This constitutional duty to consult the CPA applies to these decisions.

The President can exercise his discretion to veto the budget but if he does so against the advice of the CPA, then Parliament can vote to overrule the President. The November 2016 constitutional amendment increased the number of CPA members from six to eight.

In making consequential legislative amendments in February 2017, the government also announced that the 2017 presidential election would be a reserved election for the Malay community as the hiatus-triggered model came into play. (Whether the 2017 election ought to be a reserved election was the subject of an unsuccessful constitutional challenge.)

Historical Significance Overshadowed

Unfortunately, the historic significance of Madam Halimah’s election was overshadowed by the unhappiness among large segments of Singaporeans.  The public unhappiness cohered around two factors: (1) That the presidential election was uncontested, and (2) the apparent affirmative action provided for in a reserved election runs contrary to meritocracy, a key tenet of the Singaporean society which is almost sacrosanct for public office.

On the unhappiness over the uncontested election, the perception was that the enhanced eligibility criteria were unfair and sought to restrict the pool of eligible candidates to establishment figures and so strengthening the ability of the powers that be in ensuring that their preferred candidate would have a significant electoral advantage.

As for the apparent unhappiness over reserved election, this was not because Singaporeans did not appreciate that the presidency symbolised and embodied the nation itself and was a symbol of national unity. There is no doubt that having a minority President, elected by popular mandate, is a powerful statement of a thriving multiracialism in a polyglot society, where the ethnic Chinese comprise 75 per cent of the citizen population and the ethnic Malay is constitutionally recognised as the indigenous people and accorded a special position within the constitutionally setup.

Rather, Singaporeans were not persuaded that they could not see past a candidate’s race in deciding who to cast their ballot for. Again, the reserved election was seen as excluding candidates who might otherwise be eligible if it were an open election.

To be sure, the reserved election proposal was never popular right from the outset. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that the reserved election “would be unpopular and cost us votes”.[1] For the government, their premise was that Singapore has “not arrived at an ideal state of accepting people of a different race” even where progress have been made “but it is a work in progress”. He added that Singaporeans “should not be shy to acknowledge that in Singapore, the majority is making a special effort to ensure that minorities enjoy full and equal treatment”. The reserved election, in ensuring that minorities regularly have a chance to be the President, would also strengthen multiracialism: “[I]t is one important symbol of what Singapore stands for, and a declaration of what we aspires to be. It is a reminder to every citizen, especially the Chinese majority race, that there is a role for every community in Singapore”.

However, there was the concern that the reserved election was an unfair indictment of nation-building efforts and the strength of the Singaporean-Singapore identity. Furthermore, there was also concern that the reserved election could transmogrify into a vehicle for affirmative action. A race-based election can give rise to the belief that a racial community has a legal right for one of its own to be elected president. Will there be subsequent expectations that other public offices be rotated among the races? If all races must have a chance to be elected head of state, would it also be setting a precedent for the other important public office such as the Prime Minister?

The concern with the erosion of the centrality of meritocracy was palpable. The Commission emphasised that candidates in a reserved election will have to meet the stringent eligibility criteria, similar to an open election. However, as a reserved election is not open to hopefuls from other races, a legitimate argument can be made that the meritocratic principle is not exercised in its full measure.

Furthermore, the reserved election approach also presupposes that only a minority race President can be a symbol of Singapore’s much-vaunted multiracialism. Indeed, it is not race or the colour of their skin that automatically endowed previous presidents as symbols of Singapore’s multiracialism. Rather, it was their practice and promotion of multiracialism that infused into the institution of the presidency the spirit and soul of multiracialism.

A reserved election might just reinforce the alleged tendency of Singaporeans to vote along racial lines. Voters might see that there is no necessity or urgency to vote for an electable minority candidate since the system will provide for a minority president in regular intervals if one is not elected.

Put simply, Singaporeans remained sceptical that they will compromise their own best interests and elect someone who is not deserving simply because they are of the same race. On the other hand, the government was of the view that multiracialism in Singapore needed the nudge of reserved election.

In essence, both sides of the debate saw the value and the power of electoral integration and how it could aid in the nation-building endeavour. The apparent chasm pivoted on whether integration should be allowed to develop organically or whether there should be deliberate effort at constitutional engineering. It probably boiled down to how the presidency can be safeguarded as a true symbol of Singapore’s national unity and to keep her multiracialism sustainable.

The above discussion does not at all deny that race, religion, and language remain fault-lines in Singaporean society. Neither do the above arguments under-estimate that these markers of ethnicity can induce and arouse primordial loyalties. Nevertheless, no amount of constitutional engineering can remove a racial or even a racist mindset and disposition in electoral behaviour.

Instead, the key questions that should arise from yet another uncontested presidential election is whether the reserved election mechanism would nudge and provide “incentives” for candidates and the electorate to think of how their electoral behaviour and their votes can entrench multiracialism and for their self-interest.

Singapore’s constant efforts at constitutional engineering suggest that in institutional design or re-design, process and procedures are not mere contingent tools or instruments by which the invaluable end of a more robust system of governance is realised. The process and procedures must be regarded and treated as necessary components of any system of governance.

How Singapore went about effecting the latest set of changes to selected aspects of the elected Presidency matters as much as the end result itself. Lessons will have to be learned as to why the ostensibly good intentions that formed the basis of the constitutional changes were not seen in similar light. It remains early days yet to determine whether values such as multiracialism, meritocracy, integrity, and the democratic mandate will be nurtured in the new constitutional framework.

The less than enthusiastic response to the no-contest outcome in September’s reserved presidential election suggest that ostensibly good intentions alone are inadequate as Singapore strives to create a system of governance that is robust, relevant, and resilient for the good and betterment of Singaporeans’ common destiny. Perhaps the process of engagement was inadequate.

In a one-party dominant system where the ruling People’s Action Party has governed uninterrupted since 1959, such significant constitutional changes are often perceived to be disguised attempts to maintain the political status quo and buttress the political hegemony of the regime. This is more so when the dominant impression was that of the government proceeding with undue haste especially when the system is not regarded to be broken. The process is as important as the final outcome, which in Singapore’s case is often seen as a foregone conclusion. This is a pity and could breed cynicism since the elected presidency, as the apex office in the city-state of 3.44 million citizens, can be a valuable safeguard in a system of government that has long taken pride in and become known for good governance, multiracialism, and meritocracy.

Notes

[1]  Quotes in this paragraph are taken from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s remarks at the People’s Association Kopi Talk at Ci Yuan Community Club, 23 September 2017. The title of his remarks was, “Race, Multiracialism and Singapore’s Place in the World”.

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