Elected Presidency: Constitutional Commission unveils key recommendations

The Constitutional Commission at the Elected Presidency (EP) public hearing on 18 April 2016. Photo: Nicholas Yong

The Constitutional Commission on the Elected Presidency released on Wednesday (7 September) its report of key recommendations on the eligibility criteria, minority representation and composition and role of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA).

On the eligibility criteria, the Commission recommends that a qualifying candidate from the private sector should be a senior executive managing a company with at least $500 million in shareholders’ equity. Currently, such a candidate has to be a chairman or CEO of a company with at least $100 million in paid-up capital.

For a qualifying candidate from the public sector, the Commission recommends that the length of time that the candidate has held office be increased to six years from three years currently.

To ensure minority representation from time to time, the presidential election should be reserved for a racial group if it is not represented for five terms, or 30 years.

If there are no eligible candidates from that group, the election would be opened to candidates of all races, and the “reserved election” would be deferred to the next Presidential election. The eligibility criteria for candidates would be the same for all races.

On the composition of the CPA, the commission recommends two additional members to be appointed. Currently, the CPA consists of six members and two alternate members.

The commission also proposes boosting the powers of the CPA, with the President having to consult the CPA on all monetary issues related to the financial reserves and all key public service appointments.

Tension arising from a President’s symbolic and custodial roles

In its 183-page report, the Commission also addresses the prospect of “undeniable tension” pertaining to the symbolic and custodial roles of the President. The Commission noted that the tension could manifest in several ways.

“First, the President’s historical role as a symbol of the country’s unity is premised on the President being non-partisan. However, in discharging the custodial role, the President faces the prospect of having to confront the Government of the day – a task which might appear to be at odds with a non-partisan unifying role.”

To have the legitimacy of being able to fulfill the two roles, the President has to get an electoral mandate.

“This requires that candidates undergo an intensely political and potentially divisive election process. It may fairly be asked whether a person who emerges victorious after a sharply contested election can convincingly lay claim to being the nation’s symbol of unity.”

On the Presidency being an elected office, the Commission notes that two contributors to its report submitted that the Elected Presidency should be abolished and that there should be a return to the system of Parliament appointing a President.

The views of the contributors are that “there was no assurance that there will continue to be individuals who are capable of discharging both the custodial and symbolic roles of the Presidency in the future. Some also thought that having the President appointed by Parliament would be the way to ensure minority representation in the Presidential office.”

But the Commission said that the issue should be left to the Legislature or even the electorate voting in a referendum.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a letter on Wednesday to Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Chairman of the Commission that the government has accept in principle the key recommendations. The government is studying the recommendations and will give its response through a White Paper on 15 September.