NDR 2016: PM Lee says changes to Elected Presidency needed to preserve multiracial ideal

Just as the Group Representation Constituency system ensures that members of minority races are represented in Parliament, so the government is looking into the same issue for the elected president, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Speaking in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday (21 August), which was delivered at the ITE College Central, Lee said that this was important in order to ensure the preservation of the Republic’s multiracial ideal.

His address came three days after the Constitutional Commission submitted its report on a review of the Elected Presidency system on Thursday (17 August), six months after the nine-member commission, led by chief justice Sundaresh Menon, was formed.

The Constitutional Commission was tasked to study the qualifying criteria for presidential candidacy, how minorities can be given the chance to be elected, the framework that governs a president’s custodial powers, and whether the views of the council of presidential advisors can be given more weight.

“Previously, when the president was elected by parliament, we could ensure that all groups of Singaporeans could become president from time to time. So, we had past presidents like Encik Yusof Ishak, Professor Benjamin Sheares, Mr. Devan Nair and Mr Wee Kim Wee. But now, the president is elected in a national election. It is harder for a non-Chinese to get elected as president. If a non-Chinese can be elected like president S.R. Nathan, that is good,” he said, during his Malay speech.

“But if this process does not allow a minority to become president in a long time, it will cause disappointment and cause ill-feelings in minority communities… we must make the changes now while it is peaceful and society is united,” he added.

PM Lee also assured that while Singapore must make sure that a president from the minority race must be elected from time to time, the government will maintain a stringent qualifying criteria, to ensure that every president who gets elected would meet the high standards.

The support of the Chinese community

Lee also called on the Chinese community to support constitutional changes that would ensure the election of a minority president.

While the government has practised racial and religious harmony, Singaporeans are not completely race-blind. It is only natural, said Lee, for voters to ask if a candidate can speak to them in their mother tongue, or understand their culture and unique circumstances.

“All things being equal, a minority candidate contesting in a Chinese-majority constituency is at a disadvantage,” said Lee, pointing out that all constituencies in Singapore are Chinese-majority.

And while some may ask why there is a need to make provisions for minorities, Singaporeans must face up to the reality that there may not be a non-Chinese president for a long time. This may affect the country’s cohesion, and even its safety,

Lee pointed to former president S R Nathan as a “shining example” of a president who was able to unite all Singaporeans. While he is Indian, he reached out to all races and looked after the interests of all Singaporeans.

Regarding the Constitutional Commission’s recommendations to strengthen the Council of Presidential Advisors, PM Lee calls them “incremental” and “straightforward”.

In principle, the government accepts the Commission’s main recommendations, but is still studying its report and will subsequently publish a White Paper on how the system will change, Lee said.

Thereafter, a constitutional amendment bill will be tabled in Parliament and a full debate will take place when the bill comes up for the second reading, he added. 

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