White Paper reinforces need for caution, balance
Exercise caution and strike a balance - that is the recurring theme in the White Paper on the elected presidency.
Released last evening, the White Paper is in response to recommendations by the Constitutional Commission.
The nine-member panel was tasked to look into eligibility criteria, minority representation in the presidency, and the role and composition of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA).
Dr Mustafa Izzuddin of Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute likened changes made to the elected presidency to a "political minefield".
He told The New Paper: "Treading carefully also means the Government can better sense, review and analyse the fluctuating ground sentiments regarding the elected presidency.
"Erring on the side of caution is the right approach to take as changes to the elected presidency can generate mixed reactions from the general public."
In its report released last week, the Commission proposed to raise the bar for better, suitable presidential candidates.
One suggestion is to introduce a 15-year "look back" period. This means the candidate's relevant experience should be within 15 years of the Presidential Election.
The Government decided to extend it to 20 years.
The reason for this was the need for a cautious approach, said Law Minister K. Shanmugam.
FEEDBACK: The Elected Presidency dialogue session. PHOTO: THE STRAITS TIMES
On the sidelines of an engagement session on changes to the elected presidency, he said: "Today, there's no look back. So from no look back, we are going to one which imposes a look back.
"We think maybe we start at 20 years and we decided that instead of six years, keep it at three. Let's see how it works.
"And you know, a person who has been in a top job for three years would have had to do a number of things in the private sector before he reaches that level.
"There would be substantial experience, so we have taken a slightly cautious approach, taking on board the Commission's recommendation but changed it slightly."
Mr Shanmugam was referring to the Commission's suggestion to double the length of a candidate's qualifying tenure from three years to six, which the Government decided not to change. (See report on Page 12.)
Rather than seeing it as the lowering of standards, political analysts saw the Government's stance as one of setting reasonable standards.
Dr Mustafa said: "The Government's response was less about lowering standards and more about managing expectations on setting reasonable standards for candidates.
"Being reasonable also means there can be a larger pool of eligible candidates, particularly from minority groups, being able to stand in an election to become the next president."
Agreeing, National University of Singapore's Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser felt the eligibility criteria set by the Government can enable the Presidential Elections Committee to "evaluate a candidate holistically".
"For instance, a candidate may score high on all dimensions but is one year short of the qualifying tenure. It would be a waste of talent to disqualify such a person," he explained.
He noted that the Government's more cautious approach would allow room for necessary modifications down the road.
"Whatever it is, the objectives remain the same - to ensure that we have people of competence, character, reputation, track record and stature to take on the role and functions of the presidency," he said.
The balance in the Government's stance also showed in its acceptance of the Commission's suggestion of a "hiatus-triggered" mechanism - a model that guarantees a minority president from time to time.
The Commission recommended that if Singapore does not have a president from a particular race for five consecutive terms (30 years), the next presidential election should be reserved for candidates of that race.
This framework "carefully balances the need for multi-racialism with our meritocratic ideals", the Government said in the White Paper.
"Our nation loses an important element of multi-racialism if particular racial minorities are never represented in the office of President.
"Every Singaporean has to be able to identify with the President, and to know that a member of his community can and will become President from time to time."
The Commission also said that it would be prudent to put safeguards like this in place until Singapore arrives at the "ultimate destination" - where no safeguards are needed to ensure that candidates from different races are periodically elected into presidential office.
The Government agreed.
Some may view this model as tokenism, the Commission said in its report, but the Government said presidents will be elected by a mechanism which gives weight to their proven experience and competence, as well as their ability to represent all the different races.
"A President who assumes office after a reserved election would, like all other elected Presidents, have met the constitutionally prescribed eligibility criteria and been chosen through a national electoral process," it said.
The Government also agreed with the Commission that this mechanism is "race-neutral".
"It is most unlikely that a five-term hiatus will ever arise vis-à-vis the Chinese community, which constitutes a significant majority of our population," said the Government.
"But the approach is significant at a symbolic level as it underscores the importance of ensuring that all races are represented in the presidency," the Government said.
Singapore's progress in building a multi-racial society - "an integral part of Singapore's social fabric and fundamental to Singapore's cohesion and survival" - should not be taken for granted.
Citing the recent Brexit as an example of how easily racial harmony can unravel, the Government said: "The world is, today, seeing a trend of explicitly race-based politics which work up and exploit populist sentiments.
"Decencies and sensibilities built up over the years can easily come undone in an age where populism and appeals to racial impulses are increasingly common."
Another instance of a "workable balance" comes in the form of a recalibrated entrenchment framework.
There is a 25-year-old clause that is yet in force: It allows the President to veto any law that seeks to curtail his powers and which requires a national referendum to override that veto with a two-thirds majority.
The only other instances in the Constitution which require an equivalent two-thirds majority of the electorate relate to a surrender of Singapore's sovereignty or relinquishment of control over our Armed Forces or Police Force.
Once this clause is entrenched, it would be "virtually impossible" to amend the law, the Commission noted in its report.
The Government said it will revise the entrenchment framework to give weight to the CPA's views.
Under the revision, the framework will be divided into two tiers: Tier 1 relates to the institution of elected presidency and Tier 2 to the president's custodial powers.
For Tier 1, if a majority of the CPA supports a presidential veto, it can be overridden by a majority vote in a national referendum. If not supported by a majority of the CPA, it can be overridden with a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
For Tier 2, if a majority of the CPA supports a presidential veto, it can be overridden with either a national referendum or a three-quarters super majority in Parliament. If not supported by a majority of the CPA, it can be overridden with a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
This will strike a balance between "preserving the adaptability of the Constitution to changing circumstances, and providing adequate stability through sufficient rigidity in entrenched areas", said the Government.
But even as it moves to make these changes, the Government will continue to suspend this provision.
Mr Shanmugam said: "Now, if you have a Constitution, specific provisions, I think there's a good reason for making it difficult to amend but you should not make it impossible. We've looked at it, we think we need to redraft the entrenchment provisions in a way that would be difficult to amend but not impossible."
The Government's response was less about lowering standards and more about managing expectations on setting reasonable standards for candidates.
- Dr Mustafa Izzuddin of Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute