Singapore’s Elected Presidency. Is there a need to change the system of appointment?

Few months back, the 13th parliament had their first parliamentary session after the 2015 General Elections. President Tony Tan gave an opening address mentioning the possibility of a change to the current system of Elected Presidency and that “the Government will study this matter carefully”. This has caused many debates and discussion among political analyst and experts in the country.

Some of their views can be found here. Mothership.sg was kind enough to summarise their views.

Before the amendments to the constitution in 1991, the president was appointed by the parliament. Afterwards, the change allowed Singapore citizens to vote for their choice of the president through a presidential election. Singapore uses the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system in which the presidential candidate with the most number of votes is the winner of the election. The winner does not need to secure a super majority – more than 50%.

Since then, there has been three presidents. In chronological order, they are Ong Teng Cheong, S.R. Nathan and Tony Tan. However, only Ong Teng Cheong and Tony Tan were considered to be popularly elected. S.R. Nathan was appointed because there were no other candidates to contest for Presidency. Overall, this means that only the recent two, out of the seven Singapore Presidents, was elected by the public. Speaking about the possibility of reverting back to the old system could imply that the move to allow Elected Presidency was a mistake made by the then parliament, or else what could have made them change their minds only now? Let’s start by examining what has changed since Ong Teng Cheong was the president.

The polity has changed for sure. After two decades, the Worker’s Party (WP), the leading opposition party, successfully clinched a GRC, gaining them 5 more seats in the parliament. This was thought to be impossible because the GRC was also established to fortify the barrier to being elected. The year was 2011 when this happened and PAP had their worst performing election, garnering only 60.1% of total population vote. This is also a sign that voters were unable to accept the tyranny of PAP any longer. That eventually led to a shift in policy direction of the conservative party. PAP has begun to shift left, not only in terms of policies but attitude as well. They now try to portray the humane side of them through social media and the image of them trying to listen to every single voter’s concern. I will leave it up to you to decide if this is a pretence or not, but one thing for sure, it was trying to buy the hearts of Singaporean after GE2011, hoping to win gain back more votes by GE2015. But if the party is beginning to converge to the centre (becoming more liberal)  how can one explain the change in the constitution to withdraw the presidential voting power of citizens?

My opinion is that this is a give-and-take issue, a compromise, or a trade off. Liberalising policies and approaches require a compensation mechanism to ensure the party doesn’t drift too far to the left. The party and its leaders are smart enough to know that in order to retain their authority and power, they cannot afford to take liberal stances in every aspect. Since citizens are now, arguably, more able to indirectly influence issues that concern them directly through dialogues or social media, their rights or abilities to influence outcomes on other issues which do not directly concern them (constitution and policies) were then withdrawn.

The member of parliament has changed too. Lee Kuan Yew and his old guards were no longer around as they gradually retire or take the backseat, giving opportunities to the younger PAP members. Perhaps the general mindset of the cabinet and the MPs have changed. Back then, it might make sense to have presidential elections as a way to diffuse power so that it does not seem like a tyrannical government. It gives them slightly more legitimacy in the eyes of the international system as well since we  qualify as a democracy in terms of procedural definition. After the presidential election of 2011, Singaporeans, including the politician, have witnessed the flaw in the system where the election resembles a clown show rather than electing the head-of-state. The campaign was boring and nonsensical where presidential candidates were trying to offer citizens the chance to change things when elected, perhaps trying to be the next Ong Teng Cheong. It’s strange because Singaporeans seemed hopeful about it despite knowing that the president of Singapore holds limited power. The top two candidates, Tony Tan and Tan Cheng Bock, were former PAP MPs and it seems indifferent to choose either since both of them were the most capable out of the four candidates. The entire election is just a wayang which is utterly pointless to even have it. I think this made the parliamentarians rethink this entire Presidential Election.

Some citizens might argue that changing the constitution does not matter at all because the president plays only a ceremonial role with almost no power. Furthermore, values such as ‘integrity, reliable or trustworthy’ seems to be highly associated with the ruling party and so, all popularly elected presidents or potential candidates will come from the PAP anyway. Why not just let the parliament decide like before 1991?

I disagree. I strongly believe that the Elected Presidency should not be abolished but it has to be improved. The role of the president should not be belittled. I then refer to Ong Teng Cheong, the people’s president, who took his job seriously in guarding the reserves. However, the main emphasis was not how or what he did to defend the reserves, but it was the fact that he gave Singaporeans hope and a voice. The rising inequality at that time, especially with weak opposition parties in the polity, made Singaporeans feel oppressed by the ruling elites. For the first time ever, they cast their votes and sincerely hoped for something a change. President Ong united Singaporeans and proved that the power of the president stretches more than just the constitutional job scopes. Although Singaporeans have a stronger opposition landscape now, we are facing an identity crisis where Singaporeans do not have a sense of belonging anymore – many reasons, but let’s leave it for the next time. We are becoming a more segregated society aggravated by the frequent and excessive use of technology. It is so boring that youths are no longer interested in current affairs because they feel that it does not make any difference in their life. We need another Ong to create that spark once again. A new face, someone fresh, with vigour and wisdom, to ignite the flames of our jaded souls.

I propose two changes. 1) Raise the eligibility criteria but embody broader criteria. The latter aims to attract a wider pool of candidates from various backgrounds while raising the eligibility criteria prevents a clown show or distasteful election campaigns/promises. Since I mentioned earlier that the president could unite the people, it must be one who is representative of all of us and we should have a large pool of quality people to choose from. 2) Change the electoral system. Instead of First-past-the-post (FPTP), we should have a Two-round system (TRS). The TRS follows the same as FPTP but has two rounds to it. If a candidate wins a super majority (>50%), he will be elected. However, if no candidates achieve a super majority in the first round, the top 2 candidates will move on to the second round and one of them will eventually be elected with a super majority. The advantages of this system is that the mandate of the people is stronger compared to the 35% won by Tony Tan. It gives more legitimacy to the president. Furthermore, it kind of solves the problem of insignificant candidates such as Tan Kin Lian (4%). The downside of this system is the inconveniences it brings. Voters have to head to the voting booth twice while the administrative work (counting votes etc) is almost twice as tedious.

I conclude that we should stick to popularly electing our head-of-state. However, there must be improvements to the current system. It is important that we uphold our political integrity and preserve our democracy for society to continue progressing. Hopefully, the changes to constitution is a constructive one and even if its not, I hope Singaporeans have opinions towards it. Majulah!