Low turnout for first Elected Presidency hearing as minority issues debated

The nine-member Constitutional Commission, chaired by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon. Photo: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo Singapore

The issue of minority representation came to the fore at the first of four public hearings on proposed changes to the Elected Presidency (EP), which was attended by a sparse crowd.

The hearing took place on Monday (18 April) at the Supreme Court, where around 40 people attended to hear six individuals and groups give their views. They were each questioned by the nine-member Constitutional Commission, which is headed by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon.

Three aspects of the EP are under review: Reassessing the qualifying criteria for presidential candidates, giving more weight to the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA), and safeguarding minority representation in the presidency.

Minority issues

The Constitutional Commission will hold four public hearings. Photo: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo Singapore

Singapore Management University (SMU) law don Eugene Tan, Peter Low LLCl intern Brian Chang and Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) senior search fellow Mathew Mathews all raised the latter issue. Tan opposed constitutional changes that would ensure the election of a minority candidate, as he felt this would undermine the legitimacy of the president, as well as nation-building efforts.

Instead, he proposed that the winning candidate must have a minimum number of votes from minority communities. “It would nudge the electorate to think about which candidate would promote the cause of nation-building through multiracialism,” said Tan.

Mathews, however, spoke in favour of a constitutional guarantee for minority presidential candidates. Citing IPS surveys, Mathews said that the statistics suggest there are limits to interracial acceptance in Singapore. For example, there are still perceptions that Indians and Malays who want to occupy top positions face more barriers.

He added that there is a long-term effect on minorities who do not see themselves represented in the corridors of power. “When people feel excluded, you kind of check out of the system. You feel that the system is unfair.”

Mathews disagreed with Tan’s point that a minority president elected thanks to rule changes would lack authority, “If you carry out your office with great dignity and are distinguished, I think this greatly adds to your mandate.”

Other issues raised

Aware executive director Corinna Lim was among those who spoke at the hearing. Photo: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo Singapore

Corinna Lim and Jolene Tan, senior figures from women’s advocacy group Aware, support broader qualifying criteria to make it more accessible to potential candidates.

Noting that there are no women on the Council of Presidential Advisors, Lim said, “Even though there are no women on the presidential scene, we would not be in favour of gender criteria. Just broaden the gate so that more people can qualify.”

Tan, who was questioned for 1.5 hours by the Commission, also said that any changes made to the EP should only be implemented during the 2023 presidential election. When Commission member Professor Chan Heng Chee pointed out that was a long time, Tan responded that the next election takes place in just 18 months.

“By the time Parliament approves and passes the changes, it would be 12 months before the PE. This brings an unnecessary political edge to the presidential election, and we should do what we can to reduce the political dynamic that accompanied the last election.”

He added, “We all know that the government is not obliged to act on the recommendations. From the last Constitutional Commission, only one recommendation was carried out.”

A total of 19 individuals and organisations will give their views on the EP. They were chosen from more than 100 written submissions to the Constitutional Commission. Human rights group Maruah, former Cabinet minister S. Dhanabalan and the Eurasian Association are among the remaining 13 who will present at the next three hearings, which will end on 6 May.