Singapore

PM Lee on Elected Presidency: Minority president a 'necessary' symbol

We may have made great strides as a multiracial society, but race still matters in politics.

So minority candidates may start off at a disadvantage during elections, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

This could lead to a minority candidate of good standing, perhaps better than a Chinese candidate, losing in an election.

And that's why it is necessary to amend the Constitution to ensure a president from Singapore's minority races is elected from time to time.

"Then people see that yes, this is my country.

"Someone like me can become the head of state, can represent the country," he said in an interview broadcast by Mediacorp last evening.

Mr Lee also said that the qualifying criteria for the Elected Presidency (EP) needed to be reviewed to keep up with the times.

For example, the threshold of $100 million of paid-up capital for private-sector candidates would have to be "revised up substantially", he added.

Mr Lee did not finish speaking on the issue of race and the EP during his National Day Rally last month after feeling ill.

In yesterday's TV interview, he took the opportunity to explain his thinking on the subject, ahead of this week's expected release of a Constitutional Commission's report on proposed changes to the EP, including ensuring that a minority candidate is elected from time to time.

These are his main points:

RACE MATTERS

Voters will say that they voted for the best candidate. But the definition of "best" depends on which voter you ask, and race is one of the factors, Mr Lee said.

It means that a Malay or Indian candidate for president will inevitably face difficulties that someone from the majority race might not.

"Not everybody will rule him out, but some will find the hurdle higher, and so he starts off at a disadvantage - and in a close election, that will make a big difference," he said.

But it is important for someone from a minority community to be President from time to time, because the head of state represents all Singaporeans.

Asked if provisions to ensure a minority president might be seen as tokenism, Mr Lee said: "I don't think it's tokenism. I think it's a very necessary symbolism of what we are as a multiracial society, what Singapore means, stands for and what we aspire to be."

He was confident the Chinese community would accept such a measure as "the majority (of) Chinese accept that we cannot be a Chinese-Chinese society, and that was so right from the beginning".

Among the many proposals to ensure minority representation, Mr Lee said the least intrusive and "most light-touch way" is a mechanism "where if you've had a long gap, then the next election, if you have a qualified minority candidate, then the election is held only among a minority group".

No matter what race the candidate is, the same qualifying criteria and standards will apply, he added.

WHY NOW?

When the EP scheme was introduced, the problem (of not having minority representation) was already present. But it was not an immediate problem, said Mr Lee.

"Immediately, we were not having fierce elections. We were looking for candidates to become president and looking very hard, and so we had the luxury of time to see how the thing would unfold, would develop," he said.

Over the years, things have changed. The 2011 Presidential Election saw a four-way fight.

"The election was a hard-fought one, very fierce, and I don't think in that kind of election a minority will have a fair chance, and I expect there will be future presidential elections which will be as hard-fought, as tense, and I think that will make the problem more acute."

Mr Lee said he decided to do the review instead of leaving it to his successor because he knows well what needs to be fixed, since he helped to design it and has been part of operating it.

"So I know this problem, and I think I have a responsibility to deal with it, and I think I can tell Singaporeans, I believe this is something which needs to be done."

HOW TO CONVINCE?

It is "politically delicate" to explain the need for the changes to the EP, and it could be difficult for the public to immediately understand the need for these changes, Mr Lee acknowledged.

He said: "People must understand what the purpose is, people must not feel patronised, they must not feel that you have some ulterior motive, and you've got to put across honestly why you are doing this and how this is supposed to work and why it's good for them...

"There's also a psychological level to this, which is that it is psychologically hard… takes time for people to accept because it's a different idea, it's something which we have not had before, particularly the requirement or the arrangement for minorities to become president.

"And it takes time for people to understand why it's necessary and to see that it's necessary. It's not yet obvious but by the time it's obvious, it's too late."

He cited the group representation constituency (GRC) as an example. There were doubts and resistance when the GRC idea was first floated, but it has since become a "very valuable stabiliser".

If the same is done for the presidency, it will be seen as an important stabiliser - which so far has been missing, said PM Lee - in time to come.

RAISING THE BAR

Since the EP was introduced 25 years ago, the size of the economy has gone up seven times. So has our GDP, reserves and the net worth of Temasek Holdings.

In the same vein, the bar for presidential candidates will have to be reviewed to keep up with the times, with Mr Lee looking at one every two terms.

Under current laws, candidates from the private sector must have experience running large and complex companies with at least $100 million in paid-up capital.

That will be "revised up substantially", said Mr Lee. The $100 million threshold was significant back then because no more than 200 companies had that amount of paid-up capital.

"But today, there are 2,000 companies which are $100 million and above. And so... I should have five or six thousand people who are qualified and capable of being president.

"But I don't believe all five or six thousand of them actually have the experience and the relevant competence in their work in order to do the president's job," he said.

The public sector is self-adjusting, where responsibilities grow with the economy. But this is not the same for the private sector, he added.

Changes to the EP are expected to be in place before the next presidential election.

Citing the public hearings held by the Constitutional Commission as well as their report submitted last month, PM Lee said: "So I think we have done not just the homework but also the public consultation, and we are about ready to legislate."

People must not feel patronised, they must not feel that you have some ulterior motive, and you've got to put across honestly why you are doing this and how this is supposed to work and why it's good for them

- PM Lee

Review of Elected President system

In January, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong first floated the idea of reviewing the Elected President (EP) system in Parliament.

A Constitutional Commission led by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon was appointed to study changes to the system.

Public hearings were subsequently held, where 19 individuals gave their views on the proposed changes to the EP.

Three broad areas were looked at: eligibility criteria, minority representation, and refining the Council of Presidential Advisers.

Last month, the commission submitted its report, which is expected to be published this week.

The Government will then publish a policy White Paper on the exact proposed changes.

Following that, it will introduce a Bill in Parliament to amend the Constitution to include the changes to the elected presidency.

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