Why Singapore’s next elected President should be one of its last

Academic Views / Saturday, July 15th, 2023

It is tempting to blame candidates and voters when Presidential Elections get too heated and threaten the dignity of the office. But the fault lies mainly with the system, argue Kevin Tan (National University of Singapore) and Cherian George (Hong Kong Baptist University). They note that Lee Kuan Yew designed the new-style Presidency to check a future profligate government. But many Singaporeans want the President to balance the present-day PAP’s dominance. These irreconcilable differences in expectations necessitate a Constitutional overhaul, reverting to a ceremonial Westminster-style Head of State and building a new body to check on the Executive.

Whoever wins, Singapore’s Presidential Election is destined to disappoint. This has little to do with the quality of the men who want to run, and everything to do with the lack of consensus about the rules of the race and the nature of the prize. Many Singaporeans are unhappy that the field is so tightly managed by the establishment, undermining the Presidency’s potential as an independent check on Government. To Singapore’s technocratic leaders, it’s not the President’s job to interfere with good government, so such criticism just confirms their suspicions that the public is ill-informed and unreliable. The Head of State, which in a Westminster-style system is meant to smooth out the rough edges of Parliamentary politics, has thus become an additional bone of contention. Singaporeans who take that ceremonial, unifying role seriously — including the writers of this article — wonder if we would be better off reverting to the system under which the first four Heads of State were appointed.

This fundamental question will no doubt be shelved as attention turns to the more urgent task of picking a new President to replace Halimah Yacob by the time her term ends in mid-September. At the time of writing, Tharman Shanmugaratnam has just resigned from Government to make his bid for the post. Businessman George Goh has announced his intention to run. Tharman prequalifies by virtue of his long service as a Minister, while Goh and any other outsider candidates will have to satisfy the Presidential Elections Committee that they have the requisite experience. This verdict will be announced in the coming weeks, as will Nomination Day and Polling Day, if there is to be a contest.

Halimah Yacob, seen here in Parliament, flanked by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, came to office in an uncontested Presidential Election in 2017. [Photo: MCI] MAIN PHOTO: The Istana [Photo: Qingwu Zhou]

Lee Kuan Yew’s Nightmare

Even in the midst of campaigning — which has already informally commenced — the larger existential questions about the institution are bound to loom large. To understand its flaws, we need to go back to its origins four decades ago. When J B Jeyaretnam broke the People’s Action Party’s total monopoly of Parliamentary power in 1981 and Chiam See Tong doubled the Opposition’s seats to two in 1984, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was incensed that Singaporeans could be seduced by candidates and parties who were, to him, obviously inferior to his own. Seized by the danger of unworthy opponents ousting the PAP in what he famously called “a freak election”, he introduced major reforms to Singapore’s political system in the 1980s. The Town Council Act of 1988 put Members of Parliament in charge of municipal services that were previously centralised, which he hoped would encourage Singaporeans to vote more carefully. Also in 1988, the Constitution was amended to institute the Group Representation Constituency system that required multiracial slates, protecting the PAP from attack by a party organised around ethnic nationalism.

The biggest change, however, was to the Presidency. First mooted by Lee in 1984, direct elections for a Head of State with certain blocking powers were written into the Constitution in early 1991. The basic principle of tempering the power of legislatures is not a radical one. For this purpose, many countries’ parliaments have an upper house that is either not directly elected (such as Britain’s House of Lords or India’s Rajya Sabha) or elected in a different way (such as the United States’ Senate). When the reforms were being discussed, there were several calls counter-proposing an upper house or some other specialised body to do the job that Lee had in mind. These critics of Lee’s proposal were uncomfortable with the idea of politicising the Presidency, which many Singaporeans saw as a very important unifying figure, above the political fray. They turned out to be more prescient than Lee.

New discretionary powers were added to the Presidency during the tenure of Wee Kim Wee, photographed here with S.R. Nathan, who served two terms under the new system without having to fight an election, and Ong Teng Cheong, the first President directly elected by the people of Singapore. [Photo: National Archives]

Ong Teng Cheong Stress-tests the System

Lee can also be faulted for his single-minded focus on the threat of a freak election result that could usher in a profligate government. The elected President, in his mind, would embody the PAP’s values: a one-person repository of prudent instincts and long-term orientation. Like generals who prepare their armies to fight the last war, Lee and his successors were blindsided by challenges to PAP governance that came from new directions. The first surprise came from the first elected President, Ong Teng Cheong. Despite serving almost 30 years in Government, eight of them as a Deputy Prime Minister, Ong showed himself to be an extremely independent President, determined to stress-test the new system. Armed only with a Principal Private Secretary, Ong worked hard to establish the extent of his remit and found himself on a collision course with the PAP Government.

He wanted to know the extent of the reserves he was constitutionally mandated to protect and was told by the Accountant-General that it would take 52 man-years to compile the figures. They must have put some 18 persons on the job as they finally gave Ong the figure after 3 years. In one instance, when he sought to exercise his discretion in favour of the Government’s plan to draw down the reserves, the relevant Ministry kept revising its budget so that his discretion would not be invoked. Oftentimes, senior civil servants found him “a pest” and told him that the scheme only required him to check “the bad guys”, not the current government. But things needed checking.

The system had been implemented without preliminary fundamentals being ironed out. This led ultimately to the drafting of a White Paper setting out the “Agreed Principles” for “Determining and Safeguarding the Accumulated Reserves of the Government and the Fifth Schedule Statutory Boards and Government Companies”.[1] This 40-page document is not for the faint-hearted. It is extremely technical and crafted in language which only accountants can understand. It sets out the definitions for “reserves” and how they are valued; the meaning of “past” and “current” reserves, when “past reserves” are being drawn down, how budget surpluses and deficits are dealt with, what happens when state assets and investments are disposed of, how income is to be treated, and the treatment of land as an asset. This White Paper is not law, but establishes what the Government and President regard as “conventions” in their interactions with each other in respect of the President’s role.

Ong highlighted many of these teething problems in a press conference he gave on 16 July 1999, just before he stepped down. And in March 2000, he told the now-defunct Asiaweek that he had worked hard to test the system because he “had a job to do” and he was elected to do that job “whether the government – or anyone else – liked it or not”.

Ong was succeeded by S R Nathan, who tried to reset the Presidency, downplaying the office’s discretionary powers as being largely irrelevant as long as there was a good Government in charge. In 2011, however, another flaw in Lee’s strategy revealed itself. He had designed the new Presidency to mitigate the disaster of a governing party antithetical to his values, but it turned out that the Presidency could itself be captured by the same forces he feared. Far from stabilising the system, Presidential Elections opened a new flank for anti-government politicking.

Ong Teng Cheong (middle), like Goh Chok Tong (left), was a Deputy Prime Minister in Lee Kuan Yew’s final Cabinet. Although people questioned whether Ong could exercise sufficient independence as President, he proved naysayers wrong. Photo: National Archives]

In the 2011 Presidential Election, candidates opposing the Government’s man, former Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan, claimed 64.8 percent of the total votes. Only their three-way split gave Tony Tan the win.

Lee seemed to assume that the stringent qualifying requirements for candidacy would limit the field to individuals who would be no threat to the PAP. Only senior office holders from the public sector or former heads of large corporations would prequalify. This ensured that the President would be a member of the elite. There was never any guarantee, however, that members of the elite would remain loyal to the PAP Government. This was a curious oversight on Lee’s part, considering that, during the very period when he was designing the new Presidency, he had under his nose an active case of a comrade-turned-President-turned-enemy, Devan Nair. Through ruthless character assassination, Lee prevailed against Nair, but it is unclear why the experience did not deter him from placing faith in elite cohesion.

Breakaway establishment figures have been the main disruptors of the PAP’s scripts for Presidential Elections. In 2011, a former PAP Central Executive Committee member (Tan Cheng Bock) and a former Principal Private Secretary to the Deputy Prime Minister (Tan Jee Say) challenged the Government’s candidate and received one-third and one-quarter of the votes respectively. More recently, the former chief of one of Singapore’s largest government-linked companies, Singtel, also appeared to flirt with the idea of using a Presidential bid to challenge the Prime Minister’s hold on power. Not even family ties, let alone a sense of elite loyalty, has kept Lee Hsien Yang in line.

Lee Kuan Yew tried to focus Singaporeans’ minds on his nightmare scenario of a profligate, populist party coming into power by pandering to the people, justifying the emplacement of a PAP clone in the Presidency to stop it from ruining Singapore. The situation in Singapore has flipped. For many or most Singaporeans, the bigger danger is an overly dominant and unaccountable PAP Government that is insensitive to people’s needs; they want a more empathetic and responsive President. At the very least, many want to use their votes to remind the PAP not to take ordinary Singaporeans’ support for granted. The last time a Government-backed Presidential candidate won a majority of votes was the first election 30 years ago.

YearGovernment-backed candidateVote share
1993Ong Teng Cheong58.69%
1999S.R. Nathan (uncontested)n/a
2005S.R. Nathan (uncontested)n/a
2011Tony Tan Keng Yam35.20%
2017Halimah Yacob (uncontested)n/a
Presidential Elections in Singapore

The Government’s response has mainly been to tighten the qualifying criteria and to trim the President’s powers while handing more to the unelected Council of Presidential Advisers.

Qualifying criteria

From the scheme’s inception in 1991, there were two routes to qualifying as a presidential candidate. The first is the easier public sector route. If a person has held office in one of several key public sector jobs — such as Minister, Public Service Commission chairman, Chief Justice and Temasek Holdings chairman[2] — for at least three years, he or she would automatically qualify. There is no performance criterion for such qualification, so it matters not how well the office-holder performed while in office. A non-performing or lack-lustre former Minister would automatically qualify.

The second route is for private sector candidates and is by far the harder one. Between 1991 and 2016 (when the Constitution was amended), the private sector candidate is a person who, for a period of three years, served as the chief executive (or equivalent) of a company with a paid-up capital of at least S$100m. After the 2016 amendments, this threshold has been raised. To qualify under this head, the candidate must now be the chief executive of a company with shareholder equity of $500m and, additionally, must have shown profits for at least the three preceding years. If the candidate can satisfy these criteria, he or she automatically qualifies.

Then there is what is referred to as the “deliberative track”. Under this track, the candidate must satisfy the Presidential Elections Committee that he or she has the experience and ability “comparable to the experience and ability of a person who has served as the chief executive of a typical company” with shareholder equity of at least $500m. Candidate George Goh appears to be relying on this deliberative track for qualification, as he cobbles together a suite of companies under his management to meet the $500m threshold.

Both public and private sector requirements serve as proxies for a potential candidate’s experience in handling large and complex financial matters, but they are not consistent nor congruous proxies. It is hard to see what financial experience the Chairman of the Public Service Commission or for that matter, the Chief Justice has, when compared to a Minister or a corporate chief. The raising of the corporate threshold in 2016 is thus illogical and serves little purpose other than to simply reduce the number of potentially eligible candidates.

In the last contested election, held in 2011, a four-cornered fight resulted in Tony Tan being declared the winner with around one-third of the votes cast. [Photo: Cherian George]

Cribbing the President: The CPA

Back in 1991, when the scheme was first introduced, the President’s discretionary powers were wide and generally not subject to parliamentary override. From 1991 to 2016, the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) was made up of 5 members – 2 appointed by the President, 2 by the Prime Minister, and 1 by the Chairman of the Public Service Commission (PSC). Then as now, the President may appoint one of them as the Chairman of the CPA.

Prior to 2016, the President was obliged to consult the Council when exercising some of his discretionary powers.[3] The President may also, acting in his personal discretion, refer any matter to the CPA. In either case, the President is not obliged to follow the recommendations and advice of the CPA. And only in the case where the President withholds his concurrence to a financial Bill[4] contrary to the CPA’s advice can Parliament, with a two-third majority vote, override the President.[5]

With the 2016 amendments, the size of the CPA has expanded to 8, with the President and Prime Minister appointing 3 members each, and the remaining 2 being appointed by the Chief Justice and the Chairman of the PSC. Now, the President is obliged to consult the CPA before exercising any of his discretionary powers except for his discretion in appointing the Prime Minister or declaring the Prime Minister’s office to be vacant, his consent for CPIB investigations,[6] the issue of Restraining Orders under the MRHA[7] and continued detentions under the ISA (Art 151(4)). The Constitution now requires the President to act expeditiously. He is required to refer any matter in which his assent, approval or concurrence is sought to the CPA immediately. Thereafter, the President must exercise his discretion within 30 days (in most instances) and within 6 weeks (where the discretion involves a constitutional amendment affecting his Presidential powers, or ISA detentions, or MRHA restraining orders).

With these changes, the President is now under time pressure to act and while this is not unreasonable, it may offer the President insufficient time to conduct proper due diligence and to gather information and data to make his decision. The CPA has thus been rejigged to act as an unelected counter-weight to the President. The elected President was created as a counterweight to Parliament, but to guard the guardian, a wholly unelected CPA is emplaced to help Parliament override the President.

President’s powers

On top of moves to narrow the field and reduce the President’s powers, the Government and its supporters have also tried to educate Singaporeans that the President should remain mostly passive. Such voices have already surfaced in the current cycle. In one commentary, a Straits Times editor chided Singaporeans treating the Presidential Election like a General Election. On Facebook, Ho Ching, former Temasek Holdings CEO and spouse of the current Prime Minister, argued that it was possible to “protect the past reserves without knowing the size or cash value of the reserves”, just as a jaga or watchman can protect property without “going into the house to touch the bed or inspect the bathroom”. While this may be one way to approach the job, the Constitution has, from its inception, empowered the President to request such information — this was an argument that Ong Teng Cheong won against Ministers and civil servants who preferred the mode Ho Ching still advocates.

While it is true that Singaporeans should not overestimate the President’s powers, neither should we assume that a President would necessarily be acting unconstitutionally by being more interventionist than office holders thus far. The President could exercise his or her role in unprecedentedly active but quite legal ways.

Traditionally (even before 1991), the President in a Westminster system of government has two key discretionary powers: (a) to appoint as Prime Minister the person who, in the President’s opinion, commands the confidence of Parliament; and (b) to refuse a request by the Prime Minister to dissolve Parliament. These discretionary powers have always been there, and could have been exercised by Presidents who were not elected.

The 1991 scheme gave the President four new constitutional powers. First, the power to refuse assent to a draw down of our past reserves. Second, the power to refuse concurrence on the appointment of key office holders listed under Article 22. Third, the power to decide on whether a person should continue to be detained under the Internal Security Act where the Advisory Board disagrees with the Cabinet; and fourth, the discretion to confirm or cancel a restraining order under the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. These are all powers which the President has a personal discretion to exercise. In all other instances, the President acts on the advice of the Cabinet.

Beyond these powers, the President has numerous unenumerated duties to perform. Most of these are ceremonial and diplomatic, but there is no legally-mandated list of such duties. The President opens Parliament, makes speeches at various functions and ceremonies, makes presentations, accepts diplomatic credentials, represents the state at home and overseas at major meetings and events (like the Olympics), and also acts as patron of various charities and organisations. In the course of fulfilling these duties and functions, there are numerous opportunities for the President to stake out personal positions. These can be done through speeches made or causes supported. As a unifying figure, the President can also rally Singaporeans through various speeches, writings and deeds. 

Thus, even within legal boundaries, there is room for a President to make things awkward for a Government that is unused to being contradicted by anyone in authority. The PAP Government may be vehemently opposed to using the Presidency this way, but if that is what enough voters want, that is what Singapore will get. Representative politics in Singapore is in a chronic disequilibrium. The four in ten people who want a less dominant PAP are represented by only one in ten Members of Parliament. The national news media funded through their tax dollars, whether in print, broadcast or online, are equally one-sided in their representation of Singaporean public opinion.

As long as this imbalance persists, it is futile for the establishment to lecture Singaporeans not to use their Presidential Election ballots as a protest vote. And, no candidate can afford to ignore the reality that many or most Singaporeans want their Presidents to be independent of the PAP.

Lee Kuan Yew designed the system to keep the Presidency within Singapore’s establishment. But the PAP now has to worry about disaffected elites mounting a challenge to its dominance via Presidential Elections. From left: Tan Cheng Bock, Tan Jee Say and Lee Hsien Yang.

Demonstrating independence

Note that in the 1990 Select Committee hearings, Government Ministers were dismissive of recommendations that candidates should give up their party affiliations before standing. Such gestures were meaningless, Ministers argued, since a candidate would still be associated with their former party, whether in reality or in people’s perceptions. It was only after further reflection that the Ministers conceded in their Select Committee Report that candidates should be non-partisan. Since then, Government-backed candidates have not formally used the PAP machinery to campaign, relying instead on the trade union movement and other grassroots networks.

Today, Tharman Shanmugaratnam as well as George Goh know that active PAP ties are a liability, which is why they have been emphasising their independence. While Goh is the underdog, the Presidential system in its current political context also places the Government-backed candidate in an awkward position. Since he cannot disavow his entire public service career as part of the PAP Government, how exactly is Tharman supposed to demonstrate his new-found independence?

Voters might be persuaded if a government-backed candidate suddenly exposed major differences within Cabinet. Perhaps, Tharman might reveal how he tried to push harder than other leaders for socially just policies to address inequality (in line with his left-leaning reputation) but was sidelined by the Prime Minister and dismissed by colleagues as a potential successor using his race as an excuse. Such a campaign strategy is pure fantasy. Even if it is true that he was an isolated voice in Government, Tharman is not going to deviate from the principle of collective Cabinet responsibility or violate the Official Secrets Act (again) by dishing out such exposés to serve his ambition.

Candidates could set out where they stand on the proper use of the reserves. If another major crisis struck, like the Covid-19 pandemic, would they favour releasing an even larger sum than the Government tapped before? Would they support a massive infusion of funds from the reserves to address climate risk and resilience? In the 1990 Select Committee hearings, Lee Hsien Loong opined that it would be “very natural” for voters to want to know candidates’ positions on spending; candidates on their part could use the elections to seek a mandate for their own preferences. Politically, one can picture a campaign developing in this manner. Constitutionally, however, candidates who address hypotheticals would be on shaky ground. A President cannot make policy. One is supposed to apply one’s discretion afresh to each new case the Executive brings to him. There is no formula for predetermining each case. If there was, the President could be replaced by an algorithm. Candidates would be belittling the President’s job if they declared in the hustings how they would deal with hypothetical future scenarios that are not fully knowable ahead of time.

Or, candidates could signal the kind of Singapore they stand for. This would require a delicate balancing act on the part of the government-backed candidate. If his speeches do not go beyond what 4G Ministers have said about their vision, he is unlikely to enthuse voters who are looking for something different as evidence of his independence. On the other hand, if he manages to excite the electorate with a distinct message, he could be raising expectations that he cannot fulfil as a non-executive President. The candidate would probably err on the side of caution, which would disappoint voters who want to see him at his un-PAP best.

Much more than General Elections, elections for President are fraught with contradictions beyond the control of the candidates. Presidential candidates have to seek a personal mandate from the entire voting population — which not even a would-be Prime Minister needs — but what the winner can do with that mandate was always highly limited and has been shrinking. Presidential Elections are also deliberately buffered from the full force of the tide of popular calls for a more accountable and less dominant PAP. These major national events are thus designed to disappoint. A successful government-backed candidate will frustrate Singaporeans who want more alternatives. If a non-establishment candidate triumphs, this will heighten the government’s distrust of the people.

The problem is the system

Fortunately for the Presidency, the negative vibes tend not to be permanent. Singaporeans may not like these managed elections, but most are inclined to respect the Head of State as an important symbol of their republic. When the President settles into his or her ceremonial role, citizens have tended to warm to the person.

In normal elections, political scientists speak of a post-election “honeymoon period”: winners often start their terms with a substantial but depleting stock of political capital and goodwill from their election victories. The opposite is true in Singapore’s Presidential Elections, which feel more like an arranged marriage. Love may grow, but only after the awkward betrothal process is forgotten.

The question remains, why is this institution worth sustaining. The symbolic, unifying role of a ceremonial Head of State is one that only the President can play. In contrast, the “second key” to the country’s reserves and the power to review key appointments could be held by another expert body. The idea of a separate institution such as an upper house was raised when an elected President was first mooted in the 1980s, and the Government’s thumbs-down was never persuasive. As recently as 2016, the Constitutional Commission headed by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon took the unusual step, going beyond its terms of reference, “to provide some context for further debate” about this fundamental question. It unequivocally endorsed the idea of reverting to an appointed President:

“[A]fter 25 years and amidst an evolving environment, the Commission notes the emergence of strains rooted in the unavoidable tension between the President’s historical and custodial roles…. The custodial function over the nation’s fiscal reserves and key public service appointments could be vested in an appointed body of experts. The Commission conceptualises such a council of experts as a second chamber of Parliament with the ability to delay measures, force a debate upon them and require the Government to override any objections only with a super-majority. … With the appointed body taking over the Elected President’s custodial role, the President can then focus on his historical role of being a symbolic unifying figure.”

Reverting to status quo ante would channel oppositional energies back where they should be: Parliamentary Elections and civil society activism. The Presidency would then remind us of our shared national identity, transcending political differences. The PAP Government has not been prepared to admit that Lee Kuan Yew got his grandest Constitutional innovation wrong, so we have to live with at least one more Presidential Election cycle. But the sooner Singapore comes round to reviewing the system, the better.

Kevin Y.L. Tan teaches at the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore and at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, specialising in constitutional and administrative law, the Singapore legal system, international human rights and Singapore legal history. Cherian George is a Professor of media studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, researching media and politics.

– This article is based on an AcademiaSG webinar featuring Kevin Tan in conversation with Cherian George.

Also by the authors

  • Cherian George (2000) “Grappling with the paradoxes of presidential power”. In Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation. Singapore: Landmark Books. – READ
  • Cherian George (2017) “The LKY legacy: Lee Kuan Yew isn’t to blame if Singapore can’t let go of him”. New Mandala, 1 December.
  • Kevin Tan (1991) “The Elected Presidency in Singapore”, Singapore Journal of Legal Studies. – READ
  • Kevin Tan (2016) “Representation on Constitutional Review of the Elected Presidency”. – READ
  • Kevin Tan (2019) “Mandates, majorities and the legitimacy of the Elected President”. In Constitutional Change in Singapore, edited by Jaclyn L. Neo and Swati S. Jhaveri. Routledge. – READ

[1]  Cmd 5 of 1999.

[2] The full list of public sector jobs stated in the Constitution: Minister, Permanent Secretary, Chief Justice, Attorney-General, Speaker, Chairman of the Public Service Commission, Accountant-General, Auditor-General; Chairman or Chief Executive of the Central Provident Fund Board, the Housing and Development Board, the Jurong Town Corporation, the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation Pte Ltd (GIC) or Temasek Holdings (Private) Limited.

[3]  Under Arts 22, 144 and 148.

[4]  Art 148A.

[5]  Art 148D.

[6]  Art 22G.

[7]  Art 22I.