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Singaporeans react to Law Minister’s statement on Elected Presidency

The Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam helmed a dialogue session in South East CDC on the release of the White Paper by the Government on Thursday (15 September). It was attended by 300 to 400 people.

The White Paper stated that the Government has declined the recommendation that the president should be chosen by Parliament. It emphasized that the president has to be appointed by the people to ensure he/she has the moral authority and mandate to veto the Government.

However, it accepted the key recommendation which said that presidential candidates from the private sector had to have held senior executive positions in companies with at least S$500 million in shareholders' equity.

The recommendation that the Presidential Election be reserved for a particular racial group if it had not been represented for five terms was also accepted.

The recommendation for a more 'finely-calibrated approach', in which Parliament may override the President's veto, taking into consideration the extent to which the CPA supports the veto, was also declined.

However, the Government agreed that the Council of President Advisors (CPA) will be expanded from six members to eight, and that the president must consult the CPA for all monetary issues related to the reserves and all key public service appointments.

Channel News Asia cited the questions by Singaporeans on the matter. They asked whether the raising of the qualifying criteria for presidential candidates was to block certain individuals from contesting. Here are some questions raised at the dialogue:

Q: How will the Government respond to the view that all these changes are just to ensure that some individuals will not get elected?

Mr Shanmugam: You might as well mention the name of Tan Cheng Bock … Dr Tan won’t qualify (under the new eligibility rules) because he didn’t actually run a company. He was (a) non-executive. And of course, the company is not S$500m shareholders' equity. So I think the key thing in this is to really, first leave aside the individual and look at the system. And ask yourself logically, whether ... do we, as a Government, do what is right, based on the system, or do we worry (that) some people are going to say this is to knock out people we don't like? You know, more than 1,000 people will qualify from the private sector. Do you think we know who they are and we can make sure that they are all going to be OK? It’s not possible.

Q: When could the circuit-breaker (to hold a reserved election after a racial group has not been represented in Presidential office after five continuous terms) come into effect?

Mr Shamugam: The most direct answer is actually, the Government can decide. When we put in the Bill, we can say we want it to start from this period. It’s … a policy decision but there are also some legal questions about the Elected Presidency and the definition and so on, so we have asked the Attorney-General for advice. Once we get the advice, we will send it out. Certainly, by the time the Bill gets to Parliament, which is in October, I think we will have a position and we will make it public.

At present, there are a number of legal questions … including whether such provisions are consistent with the Convention to eliminate racial discrimination, how do you draft it, whether you count all presidencies, elected presidencies, which is the first elected president—there are a number of questions we have to sort out.

Q: In a reserved election for Malay candidates, would someone who is half-Malay qualify?

Mr Shanmugam: It’s a fair question because 40 percent of our marriages today are mixed … so we do know, a substantial number are mixed races, and it is quite a complicated question. On top of the complications, now we have to set up a Chinese committee to decide whether you are Chinese or not Chinese. I don’t know how we are going to do that, but we will do it.

In the GRC system today, it already takes into account the possibility of mixed marriages. There is a two-step test. First, what do you consider yourself as? So let’s take a Malay-Chinese, or a child of Malay-Chinese parents. Does he or she consider himself or herself primarily Malay or Chinese? That’s the first criteria. If he considers himself Chinese, then he cannot qualify as Malay. So culturally, what is he, how does he consider himself? Then there is also a committee that looks to see whether – you say you are Malay but are you accepted by the community as Malay? So that’s the two-step criteria because people can try and game the system.

Netizens were angered by the statement and posted their comments online:

Wilkie Koh: "I value a people-elected individual with good qualities, humane outlook, compassionate, feel-for-the-people character. Please, do not force through some institutionalized individual.
Not to forget, the power bestowed on the CPA under the new proposed rules disgust me. They are not even an elected body but holds overriding abilities over the elected President. This appears to be a specially designed fail-safe mechanism for self-preservation by the ruling."

Jonus Jun: "Before the system was amended none of our previous presidents has any experience running a company or managing any assets more than $500 million..so why make the change now?
And talking about that, a majority of our CEOs doesn't have experience running a company, but why were they taking a position in large government companies?"

Chop Lin: "Playing the racial card is a backward move for Singapore. We thrived because we believed in meritocracy above racial backgrounds. To enforce a racial element into the PE is sowing the seeds for future racial disharmony. Let men and women who are capable helm the ship, regardless whether they ran MNCs or belong to a specific race. We are all Singaporeans, aren't we?"

Danny Chan: "One of the disadvantages of a PAP having a majority vote in Parliament, they can do whatever they want whenever they want. But there are advantages as well. hmm... in this instance the timing is just too perfect. Mr Tan would have been the President."

Yuenmeng FanFan: "With regard to the presidency I am not so particular because it is the integrity and culture of the people and leaders. Humans can be bribed or intimidated so what can one person do to safeguard if the culture is corrupted, there is little he could do if he dares to oppose will be assassinated terminated cold blood."

HZ HaMniz wrote: "They do not want the history to repeat itself. During that time LKY was at his prime manage to bring down the People President. Now, no one is near LKY level, so they fear if history repeat itself, who will bring the President down. That is why they want someone they can control."

Norman Wee wrote: "Now we have 4 definitions of a Malay...1. what the Constitution says, 2. What the individual considers himself, 3. What the Malay community considers him, 4. What the Committee says. Anymore?"

Kc Mark wrote: "TCB is a vivid example of a near miss scenario that such a person almost gotten to become the president. So the new qualifications come in time to address such loophole. Being preemptive is good but not always realistic, so a near miss can put a brake in time."

Ray Tan wrote: "A bit ?... I think we should not define race in current globalisation. It is a bit stupid on the IC to define u of a certain race... Could they just put Singaporean or non-Singaporean? By doing the restriction, is the government indirectly admitting that there is a transparent race discrimination? Cause it needs the rotation of race? If so, what policies has causes it? Education or what has failed?"

Joe Yang wrote: "I SIMPLY CANNOT UNDERSTAND! Is there any..are there any Singaporean complaining of the current EP criteria? Why so persistence in carrying out his UNILATERAL WET DREAM?! DEMOCRACY is not going to be our breathing lifeline anymore simply because of this tyrannical action!"