The Presidential Election
The Aug 27 Presidential election was the most keenly contested ever with four candidates; and won narrowly with 35.2 per cent by Dr Tony Tan, who was sworn in on Thursday. We present here views on the election, including a call to do away with direct voting of a president in the first place.
By Ho Kwon Ping & Janadas Devan
THE means employed should be commensurate with the ends desired. If the end is an apolitical presidency, then the means Singapore employs in choosing the president must themselves be apolitical.
This year's presidential election was anything but that. Instead, it was a divisive and highly politicised affair. Two words describe its outcome: confused and unfortunate.
Confused because the victor, though accepted by the majority of Singaporeans as eminently qualified to hold the office, emerged from the election with no clear mandate. His presidency began amid suggestions that if one or the other of the two worst losers - Mr Tan Jee Say or Mr Tan Kin Lian - had not contested, Singapore would on Thursday have probably inaugurated President Tan Cheng Bock, not President Tony Tan.
Confused also because at least a quarter of the voters saw the presidential election as a re-run of the past general election. They voted for a former opposition candidate, Mr Tan Jee Say, who felt that the president need not be 'restricted' by the Constitution, and should act as a 'check and balance' on the Government and Parliament.
Confused too because a sizeable number voted for anybody but Dr Tony Tan because they were frustrated with the first-past-the-post system, which saw opposition parties receive 40 per cent of the votes in the last general election but less than 7 per cent of the parliamentary seats. They saw the presidential election as an opportunity to correct an anomaly in the general election.
Unfortunate because the race ended up diminishing somewhat two distinguished men - Dr Tony Tan and Dr Tan Cheng Bock - who have devoted the best part of their lives to public service. While the victory of one Dr Tan has been diminished by his wafer-thin margin, the near-victory of the other has been overshadowed by his failure to achieve his long-held dream.
Unfortunate also because the only clear political winner in the race was Mr Tan Jee Say. He saw what the framers of the constitutional provisions establishing the elected presidency perhaps did not: You cannot hold an election for an apolitical office and not expect politics to intrude.
Mr Tan grasped that the race for the presidency could be politicised. He saw in the presidential campaign an opportunity to extend the campaign he had launched in the May General Election. And he made himself a household name - perhaps better known now than his erstwhile party boss, Dr Chee Soon Juan, and perhaps as well known as the de facto leader of the opposition, Mr Low Thia Khiang.
If Mr Tan wishes to set up his own party now, his campaign for the presidency has equipped him with the wherewithal to do so.
[Post GE2015 note: Yes he did. Fat lot of good it did him.]
So the only candidate who benefited politically from this race is someone who will be able to further his political ambition in the next general election. Whether or not he set out with this objective in mind, this fact will surely not be lost on other politically ambitious persons among those currently eligible to run for president - a class commodious enough to include Mr Tan.
What can Singaporeans expect from future presidential elections as they are currently constituted?
Depending on the calendar, each presidential election will either be a curtain-raiser for a general election or a continuation of one. The primacy of Parliament as the arena of political debate will be diminished, and the dignity of the presidency will be tarnished. The apolitical presidency will become the pursuit of politics by other means - to the detriment of both politics and the presidency.
Few, if any, minority candidates will be able to win a presidential race. As one commentator on the Internet put it, the GRC system was devised because Parliament realised that a system consisting only of single-seat constituencies may well result in a single-race Parliament. Ironically, the presidential election is in effect a giant single-seat race - and what is more, was, in the last election, a single-race affair. Former president S R Nathan may well have been our last minority president for a very long time.
[Heck, it was a single surname race!]
Few, if any, people with a reputation for personal integrity and fiscal prudence but zero political experience will be willing to subject themselves to the politicking that Singapore has just witnessed. It is unlikely that individuals like Mr Chua Kim Yeow, the former accountant-general who offered himself as a presidential candidate in 1993 - or any other eminent elder, whether previously from the civil service, business or civil society - will come forward in 2017.
Few, if any, candidates without prior political party affiliation - and with the requisite experience, resources and organisation to run a campaign - will come forward. It will only be politicians from now on at the Istana.
How might the system be reformed?
One way would be to return to Parliament the right to elect the president. Numerous democracies in the Commonwealth do so, as did Singapore before 1993.
The disadvantage of that is that Parliament would be choosing the very same person whose chief role would be to act as a check on it and the Government in certain key areas - in particular, the use of past reserves and crucial public sector appointments.
Another possibility that we would urge Singaporeans to consider is this: Establish an electoral college to nominate the presidential candidates and elect one from among them.
The college could be large to ensure it is representative - say 50 to 100 people. It could comprise representatives of major stakeholders in Singapore: unions, business federations, combined university student groups, civil society organisations, ethnic self-help groups, political parties with parliamentary seats, and so on. The electors could be chosen by processes to be determined by each stakeholder group.
The college could nominate three or four candidates from among those who offer themselves for the presidency.
We are agnostic on the eligibility criteria - with one of us feeling the current requirements should be tightened further and the other that they should be liberalised. Whatever it is, the electoral college should be the first sieve, and either the Supreme Court or the Public Service Commission might be given the right of final approval as an additional safeguard to ensure that only people of integrity run for the presidency.
[Considering the process in the US, it is likely that the electoral college would be inundated by the campaign messages of the candidates. That is, instead of pandering to the electorate at large, they would be pandering to the members of the electoral college. Or attempting to influence the various members. The composition and role of the electoral college would be critical to the validity of the college, and their selection.]
The shortlisted candidates could be allowed to give short television addresses, be interviewed by the media, do walkabouts - but not hold rallies. In the natural course of things, the media, including social media, would have lots to say about the candidates, all of which the electors could monitor as reflective of the views of the community.
The electoral college might also interview each candidate in depth. After which, it might vote by secret ballot - in three rounds if necessary, with the weakest candidate in each round being eliminated, till only one candidate emerges with more than 50 per cent of the votes.
Politics is vital - but it should also be productive. What we saw in the last presidential election was politics for politics' sake, since none of the candidates who promised to do this or that once in office could possibly have carried out his promises, given the non-executive nature of the office.
Politics should be solely vested where it rightly belongs - in Parliament. If our aim is an apolitical and impartial president, our means for choosing one should be commensurate with that aim. It is not possible in either politics or ethics for bad means to produce good ends.
Ho Kwon Ping is chairman of the board of trustees of Singapore Management University and executive chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings. Janadas Devan is associate editor of The Straits Times and director of the Institute of Policy Studies.
Response to the idea in the forum page.
Sep 6, 2011
Electoral college not the solution
The analysis was excellent but I disagree with the solution they have offered, which is to have an electoral college elect the president.
I was an assentor at the last presidential election. From that vantage point, I was able to see the campaigns of various candidates unfolding. I had three takeaways from this:
- First, 65 per cent of the electorate wanted a president who had no previous close links with the ruling party.
- Second, 70 per cent did not want a hyped-up opposition candidate who may become too confrontational.
- Third, the people enjoyed having the power of electing a president through direct election.
I draw two conclusions from this:
- First, the people are going to be very unhappy if we change the direct election for the presidency, resulting in more acrimony against the Government.
- Second, the electorate will elect a sensible, moderate wise man to be president.
[One swallow does not mean spring. Anyway the rest of the article has other valid points which are not addressed in this rebuttal. Like how an election frames the issue as politics and if the President is not intended to be political, then the means (election) is inappropriate, and the result will be only politically savvy candidates will contest. The worst performer in this PE was TKL who has no political experience at all. ]
The solution lies in accommodating the wishes of the people but modulating it through an independent electoral commission chaired, perhaps, by a retired judge.
A panicked reaction to the current noise level will not help. A well-thought-out long-term solution is what we need.
Way to go
'Commentary hit the nail on the head.'
MR JOHN LEE: 'Last Saturday's commentary ('Let electoral college choose the president') hit the nail on the head. I urge all Singaporeans to consider this proposal - with the selection of a review and implementation panel providing a good working test of the system. The next step would be to consider the role of the president so appointed. It seems many Singaporeans are looking for some checks and balances, but without the added costs, complexities and gridlock risks associated with an Upper House (for example, in the United States and Australia), and without necessarily ousting the current good management. The setting up of an electoral college may provide a good basis for broadening the role of the president.'
Sep 6, 2011
Don't take a step backwards
LAST Saturday's commentary ('Let electoral college choose the president') proposes regression of universal suffrage in Singapore.
A presidential electoral college would strip the citizen of his say in the election to the highest post in the country.
The article described the outcome of the last presidential election as confused and unfortunate. But this is part of the unavoidable growing pains of an electorate that has been politically passive for too long, voluntarily or otherwise.
Rather than blame the process, we should see it as the price to pay for our maturing and catching up on lost time.
The danger in Singapore is not the possibility of minority candidates not winning the presidency; it is the atrophy of voters' sense of responsibility to the nation because they are deemed untrustworthy of directly electing their president.
Mr J.Y. Pillay or Mr S. Dhanabalan could be 'convincing winners'. Sweeping bias under the carpet is not the solution.
The main objection to an electoral college is disenfranchisement. Requiring a citizen to be a member of a business group or civil society organisation in order to have a say - and for most, an indirect say - in the nation's leadership is discriminatory and undermines Singapore's democracy.
[I agree it is a tough sell. After you let the baby lick the lollypop, we now want to take it away. But we must, cos it's not good for the baby.]
Sep 10, 2011
The Elected Presidency is not apolitical
The nature of the president's duties make it a political, though not partisan, office. It should be nurtured as a counterweight to the government
By Cheng Shoong Tat
THE contention that the Elected Presidency is apolitical, above politics or should not be politicised sounds plausible to Singaporeans because many heads of state they are familiar with are above politics. The British monarch cannot intervene, actively or passively, in the running of the British government of the day. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong cannot inquire into the political decisions of the elected Malaysian government.
Nor, until 1991, could the President of the Republic of Singapore. The Constitutional amendment that took effect that year converted the presidency into an elected one and granted it specific powers in several important areas of government.
These powers, though largely passive, are clearly political. They are political not in the narrow sense of party politics, but in the sense that their exercise involves trade-offs and judgments that must ultimately be based on subjective values and ideologies, rather than clear-cut decisions that can be made objectively or scientifically or arrived at after following prescribed rules or processes.
When, for instance, amid a loss of confidence in the financial market, a government proposes to draw on past reserves to guarantee deposits placed with domestic and foreign banks in Singapore, the response of the Elected President, whether positive or negative, must amount to a political judgment on his part.
[Seriously, this is a definition of politics that few people subscribe to. I would argue that it is a policy judgement, not a political judgement.]
It cannot be otherwise, as such and many other issues presented to the Elected President are political in nature, not factual questions for which 'right' answers can be found through competent and diligent analysis, or propositions that can be adjudicated upon after hearing views from interested parties and eminent elders.
Indeed, the constitutional amendment anticipates as much, when it provides that if a government and an Elected President cannot agree on the use of past reserves or appointment of key public officers, the government may take its case to Parliament, which, by a two-thirds majority, may overrule the Elected President. This is as political a resolution as it can be.
Under the Westminster system of government, after which the Singapore system is still largely modelled, the power to decide where and how much to spend public money on goes to the heart of the legitimacy of a government. If a government fails to get its spending Bills passed in Parliament, it is, by constitutional convention, deemed to have lost a vote of confidence and is expected to resign and call fresh elections.
No doubt the power of the Elected President over spending Bills is passive and confined only to use of past reserves, but such power over a domain central to the legitimacy of the elected government of the day cannot be anything but political.
The view that the Elected Presidency is apolitical or above politics may have stemmed from a confusion between politics and party politics. By virtue of the constitutional requirement that the Elected President cannot be a member of any political party, he is above party politics. But he cannot be above politics altogether, as he is duty-bound to exercise vital political judgment as and when the situation arises, even if he is not a member of any political party.
[I think the confusion is all yours and yours alone. The simple reality, is that party politics invaded and infused the PE, when it should not have.]
The Elected President has other less-known but equally important powers that are also clearly political in nature. He can, for instance, overrule the government of the day over detention without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA) if he has the backing of an advisory board formed to review the detention, the members of which being appointed by him, not the government.
Whether a person suspected of posing a security threat should be placed under preventive detention is essentially a political decision. The professionals in the Internal Security Department (ISD) offer recommendations, but, in matters of intelligence and security risk assessment, professional input can never be conclusive and the government of the day must exercise political judgment in finally deciding whether, when and how long to detain. The Elected President must do likewise in deciding whether to concur or not.
That detention under the ISA is an exercise of political judgment was recognised as much by the People's Action Party (PAP) Government when, in 1989, it moved to amend the Act as well as the Constitution to categorically rule out judicial intervention over such detention other than on purely procedural grounds. In a statement preceding the amendment, the then Government made clear its position that the power to detain under the ISA 'rested solely with the Executive, acting on its subjective judgment as to whether detention was necessary'.
Now that the Elected President has been granted a limited share of this sole power of the Executive, how is he going to exercise his 'subjective judgment as to whether detention' is necessary, if not politically?
[Er... I expect him to exercise his subjective judgement independently, judiciously, and courageously. If he acts politically, then he has failed in his duty and in his role as the final arbiter for the ISA detainee. The accusation that the PAP acted politically in detaining people under the ISA must be rebutted by the PAP. The ISA should not be a political instrument. The President is part of the overall check against this. To argue that the President must be political and partial is to argue that the presidency is already corrupted and co-opted.]
The Elected President also has power over an area at the core of public life in Singapore: prevention of corruption. The director of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) can turn to the President if his request to commence a bribery probe is rejected by the Prime Minister.
This authority of the President, coupled with his limited veto power over the director's appointment or its revocation, has the potential to serve as a real check on possible abuse of power at the highest levels. Yet such powers and their exercise scream delicate political acumen and judgment and should never be vested in an Elected President who professes to be apolitical.
The vesting of these important political powers in the Elected President demands that he be armed with a proper popular mandate, a point recognised right from the beginning by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew when he first mooted the idea of an elected presidency in 1984.
For how else can he have the locus standi to look the popularly elected government of the day in the eyes when deciding to differ from it on spending past reserves, detaining someone without trial, or investigating a Cabinet minister for possible corruption?
Without being enabled by a popular political mandate, how can he faithfully discharge his duties 'to the best of my ability without fear or favour, affection or ill-will', now that such duties include making key political decisions?
Suggestions to render the presidential electoral process 'less political' therefore totally miss the point. In particular, indirect election via sectoral electoral colleges with potentially conflicting interests will paralyse the Elected Presidency politically and rob it of the legitimacy it needs to discharge its political duties effectively.
There is no escape from the inexorable logical chain that once political powers are bestowed upon the Elected President, he is, to that extent, politicised. The process by which he is elected must therefore be political, to the extent that his political and ideological views on the specific areas of government over which the Elected President has oversight must be sought, scrutinised and debated.
This, more than nonsensical utterings by some wayward candidates, is the single greatest disappointment in the just concluded presidential election.
Voters should, for instance, have been more concerned with the candidates' ideological positions on public spending than their experience in financial management, as the Elected President has no power to manage public finances but must be prepared to challenge the government's spending priorities whenever past reserves are involved.
They should have probed the candidates' views on what it takes to be, for instance, a Chief Justice or a Commissioner of Police and how they would go about deliberating a nominee's suitability.
They should also have quizzed the candidates on their stances on national security and detention without trial. For instance, would the candidates prefer to nip potential security threats in the bud at the potential risk of detaining some innocent individuals briefly, or would they allow events to unfold a little longer so as to ensure as much as possible that no innocent individual is detained for even a brief period?
All aspirants to the presidency owe Singaporeans answers to these political questions. Those with no answers or who naively believe that the presidency is above such mundane politics should back off, however much men or women of honour, integrity, fiscal prudence or eminence they may be.
If a genial, respectable, apolitical and unifying president is all that is needed, there will not have been a need for election in the first place. The pre-1991 procedure had been effective in producing such presidents.
Yet the Elected Presidency is undoubtedly a step in the right direction in mitigating the potential excesses of a Westminster system of government based on unchallengeable supremacy of a Parliament elected with first-past-the-post voting, and an executive government that overwhelmingly controls and dominates that Parliament.
The late Lord Hailsham, a highly respected former British Lord Chancellor (broadly equivalent to Singapore's Law Minister), called this structure which results in a dominant executive an 'elective dictatorship'. If this famous phrase could be coined out of a bicameral British Parliament with two Houses, what about our unicameral Parliament with just one House?
[Well, just because he doesn't understand (or like) the Westminster system, and because he can turn a phrase, doesn't mean he has a point. And the bicameral or unicameral comparison is... irrelevant without explanation.]
The Elected Presidency must therefore be nurtured and developed into a limited, well-defined and issue-specific counterweight to the government of the day, without compromising the latter's ability to govern effectively.
As Singaporeans gain greater understanding of the Elected Presidency, campaigning and voting can and will become more meaningful. Even in the just-concluded election, where understanding of the presidency was limited, an overwhelming majority of voters spurned candidates who thought they made sense but did not. One underestimates the sophistication of the Singaporean voter at his own peril.
The writer, a former journalist, runs a small business in Singapore
[He should continue to run his small business.]