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. 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!

How Legitimate is the Daesh (ISIS)?

I am sure most of you are familiar with “ISIS”, which is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. What about the term “Daesh”?

According to many news sources, “Daesh is an acronym for the Arabic phrase al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham (The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant)”. But that is the same as ISIL or ISIS isn’t it? Well, yes and no. Yes, because obviously, it translates into ISIL. No, because it has another meaning attached to it. In Arabic, the word ‘Daesh’ is close to the word ‘Daas’ – meaning to trample or crush something underfoot. Hence, citizens of ISIS will be severely punished if anybody is found to be using the term ‘Daesh’ as it is a derogatory word. It will be seen as being disloyal and challenging the Islamic Government.

Hence, some world leaders are attempting to challenge the legitimacy of the Islamic State by starting to call them Daesh instead of ISIS. Here is an example of UK Prime Minister David Cameron encouraging the usage of the word ‘Daesh’. At this moment, no one truly knows how much it affects the Islamic State. They could well go ‘MEH!’ because they simply cannot be bothered with childish name calling games – I remember giving ridiculous nicknames to friends in primary school. One can say that it is a tiny protest or condemnation against the Islamic State. Another reason for wanting to change the name could be that by using the word ‘ISIS’, it seems to give them legitimacy or recognising the sovereignty of these extremists (which is what the whole world wants to avoid). Technically, ISIS is not a state. A state can be defined as having a legitimate government that is capable of running the country and managing its citizens.

Well, so how legitimate are they?

ISIS Structure

I took this picture from CNN here. The article has very detailed information on how each council (or ministry) functions or coordinate with one another. I will not go too much into that. But from the pictures solely, one could easily tell that there is definitely a system or way of governance with clear job distinction and reporting structure. They have governors and ministries (or council) like many countries in the world have. So, does this automatically imply that ISIS is a legitimate government? In order to answer this question, we can explore the term ‘sovereignty’.

Sovereign can be simply defined by two characteristics. The first and main characteristic is the idea that the state itself should not be subject to another superior authority. For example, Scotland is not a sovereign state for it is subject to the United Kingdom. The second characteristic is the idea that the state constitutes the supreme authority within a given jurisdiction. Even though Scotland has a certain autonomy in governance, the UK manages major policies, such as defence and healthcare, much like between a federal government and a federal state. ISIS fulfils the first criteria but does not seem to perfectly fulfil the second one. They have supreme authority over the land they govern within a jurisdiction but certainly not recognised by the international society. As the world grow to become more complex and interconnected, sovereignty cannot be seen as a dichotomy but rather on a continuum. In other words, instead of simply evaluating if a state is a sovereign state or not, we should think about if some states are more sovereign than another. Stephen Krasner, an American scholar, attempts to divide sovereignty into four components in determining how sovereign a state actually is. The four components are vatellian sovereignty, interdependence sovereignty, international legal sovereignty and domestic sovereignty.

Vatellian sovereignty, or sometimes referred to Westphalian sovereignty, is the state’s ability to own domestic political structure. Interdependence sovereignty refers to the state control of goods, ideas and people across their borders. International legal sovereignty describes the recognition by other states in the international society with regards to its sovereignty claims. This also includes the ability to enter legally binding treaties or agreements.Lastly, domestic sovereignty is the state’s ability to control the population and territory which it claims jurisdiction.

It seems that ISIS claims a high degree of all of the component except for international legal sovereignty. As elaborated in the earlier part of this article, ISIS has a strong established political structure. Furthermore, it has tight border controls which regulate the goods and people that pass through it every day. The fact that ISIS strongly resents Western influence and tries very hard to keep it out of their territory also means it is less dependent, claiming a high degree of interdependence sovereignty. ISIS is also able to control the population with its military which induces fear and command obedience. Despite all of the above, ISIS is strongly condemned by the international society and will never be recognised as a sovereign state.

Having fulfilled three out of four criteria of a sovereign state, this does not mean that the ISIS can be considered as a sovereign state. It seems that recognition by other sovereign states is the major determinant of a sovereign state’s legitimacy. This is the same case for Taiwan where it is able to fulfil all components of sovereignty except for international legal sovereignty. The fact that it is not recognised by the international society today makes it not a legitimate sovereign state.

To conclude, no matter how legitimate ISIS may appear to be, as long as the international community refuse to accept and recognise them, it will never be a sovereign state. The day ISIS is recognised as a sovereign state will be after Taiwan gets recognised, which simply means it is impossible. Hence, this is why world leaders constantly condemn ISIS actions because any form of tolerance could be seen as a small approval in recognising them. It is certainly unimaginable if ISIS claims full sovereignty for it could wage wars and enter formal alliances with other sovereign states. Certainly undesirable.



Changes to the Singapore’s Constitution? What Might the Future Hold?

Following up from the parliamentary session, the 13th parliament once again convened on 27 January 2016 to continue discussing the President’s address and agenda of future plans. Just when we thought that it would the typical stuff about big frameworks and plans, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a shocking announcement. He wishes to push for amendments to the constitution. This includes changes to the Elected Presidency and Electoral System.

Amongst the many things he announced, what amused me most was the move to increase the minimum number of opposition members from 9 to 12 for the next General Election. This means that in the event that the PAP win every single electorate, there will still be 12 NCMPs from the opposition party. This is to ensure that opposition voices will always be heard and raising the number just simply means more representation. Or at least, this is the story they want voters to buy. So, what does the ruling party stand to gain?

PM Lee also announced that NCMPs will be given equal voting rights as elected MPs. These rights include the right to vote on bills and amendments to the constitution. Basically, more power will be bestowed to NCMPs. If this amendment passes, citizens will see NCMPs the same as Elected MPs. Perhaps, the government aims to discourage voters from voting or electing an opposition MP because the disincentives become clearer. For the past decades, opposition wards tend to have lower priority in upgrading and other town council services. Hence, this factor will become a greater determinant in the next General Election. From this move, it seems to imply that PAP is really keen on winning back the two opposition wards.

My take on this issue is that the PAP requires a stronger mandate by the next General Election. The next election needs to be held by April 2021. With PAP succession plan being unclear at this moment, it seems highly impossible for PM Lee, and/or other current experienced leaders, to step down by the next General Election. With a stronger mandate or less opposition in the parliament, the party will then be able to invest more energy in restructuring the cabinet or grooming the future batch of leaders without fearing the opposition party gaining traction.

Another highly possible consequence is that this could further encourage opposition parties to contest more aggressively in the next General Election. An increase in the NCMP seats can also be seen as a higher chance of getting a seat in the parliament. (Based on the results of the GE2015, the Workers’ Party (WP) will be able to parachute in 3 more NCMPs from East Coast GRC and Marine Parade GRC) As we have seen in past General Elections, truly capable candidates of a true politician calibre are rare and most belong to WP. Moreover, there were just too MUCH embarrassing moments of candidates from the other opposition parties during rallies.

If the remaining opposition parties try overly hard to such that they expose themselves to more embarrassment, confidence in the opposition will be shaken. It is easier to lose confidence and trust than to gain them back. Voters are precisely not ready to embrace an alternative government simply because of too many incapable opposition politicians making a fool of themselves. This could even result in WP losing Aljunied GRC considering that they won by a slim margin in GE2015.

If this amendment passes, the future of the entire opposition bloc could be bleak and worrying. However, this is also highly dependent on what WP plan to do in the next 5 years leading up to the next election. It is also known that once the opposition loses the constituency to the ruling party, it will be extremely difficult to win it back again when electoral boundary will change “unexpectedly”. The day when PAP takes back 100% of the constituencies will be the day we take a huge step away from being a true democracy. Or maybe that is what majority of the voters subconsciously want?