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Narrowing of eligibility rules for presidential candidates not needed: MARUAH

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong suggested in Parliament that the Elected Presidency scheme be updated by narrowing the eligibility rules, to ensure that private sector candidates have senior-level management experience in order to satisfactorily manage Singapore’s national reserves.

MARUAH, a Singapore human rights non-governmental organisation, has voiced objections against the narrowing of eligibility rules, stating that such a move would simply serve to reduce the pool of eligible candidates, increasing the chance of a weak President being elected.

In a submission to the Constitutional Commission on 20 March, MARUAH states that “There is no evidence that raising the size of companies that non-governmental candidates must have headed would improve the quality of Presidential candidates.” This is in response to the suggestion to raise the paid-up capital threshold, which currently stands at S$100 million.

In their submission, MARUAH argues that despite numerous discussions on the President’s role in the protection of Singapore’s past reserves, the primary role of the President is instead to ensure the integrity of the public service. MARUAH states that the role in protecting past reserves is merely a “red herring” due to the fact that Supply Bills have to be voted on by parliament before any money can be spent. It was also noted that “the President’s custodial powers are by design extremely limited,” with little chance that government would be prevented by the President from spending a Bill.

With these limitations of the President in controlling government spending, MARUAH states that of the President has the responsibility instead of ensuring the integrity of the entire public service, including officials who are involved in the management of past reserves as well as non-financial officials. In order to do so, MARUAH highlights the President’s power over key appointments, where key officials cannot be appointed or removed by the Government without the President’s approval, reducing the risk of misconduct by Government.

Hence, MARUAH states that “the key qualification for the President is the ability to be a judge of character, not the ability to read financial statements,” adding that “there is no benefit in raising the minimum size of a company that a candidate has to have led.” In contrast, it may instead reduce the pool of eligible candidates significantly enough such that the election of a weak President may be the result.

While MARUAH suggests the complete removal of Article 19(g), which states a presidential candidate must have held office as chairman of the board of directors or chief executive officer of a company for at least three years, with paid-up capital threshold of at least S$100 million, they have also acknowledged that it is highly unlikely such a move will supported by the government. MARUAH is hence pushing for Article 19(g) to refer to only Fifth Schedule Government Companies.

The submission by MARUAH also touches on a comment by PM Lee in Parliament regarding ensuring minority Presidents periodically. Interpreting this as a sort of rotating presidency system with the assumption that a minority candidate could not be elected otherwise, MARUAH states that this would further lessen the pool of eligible candidates at times, and hence it does not support narrowing eligibility rules based on racial grounds.

In its submission, MARUAH emphasises that it is not in support of the narrowing of eligibility criteria for presidential candidates, on both financial and racial grounds.

To view the full submission by MARUAH to the Constitutional Commission, click here.