Tan Cheng Bock questions timing of reserved election for president

Tan Cheng Bock questions timing of reserved election for president
Dr Tan (left) greeting Mr Tan Kin Lian during a press conference yesterday. Dr Tan argued that there had been only four terms since the EP scheme was introduced and the presidential polls in September should be an open election. Photo: Jason Quah
Published: 4:00 AM, April 1, 2017

SINGAPORE — Former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock, who said he disagreed with the Attorney-General’s Chambers’ (AGC) advice on when to trigger a reserved presidential election, has called on the Government to apply for a court review on the recommendation.

Calling a press conference yesterday, he argued that there had been only four terms since the Elected Presidency (EP) was introduced, with Mr Ong Teng Cheong becoming Singapore’s first elected president. Thus, the presidential polls in September — which the Government had said earlier would be reserved for the Malay community — should be an open election, Dr Tan said, trotting out numerous references from Hansard records and Istana press releases over the years to justify his point.

“In all my 26 years in Parliament, we had always referred to Mr Ong Teng Cheong as the first elected president. Our Presidents, past and present, and ministers and MPs in parliament have all referred to President Ong Teng Cheong directly or indirectly as Singapore’s first elected president,” he added.

Asked if the Government had a response to Dr Tan, a Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) spokesman said Dr Tan has not raised any new points that “require response”.

Changes to the EP scheme, which were passed in Parliament last November, included a mechanism reserving an election for a particular ethnicity that has not had an elected representative for five consecutive terms.

On the advice of the AGC, the Government started counting the five terms from Dr Wee Kim Wee’s presidency. The late Dr Wee was the first President to exercise powers under the EP scheme after it was introduced in 1991. Thus, based on this calculation, five terms have passed, and the upcoming presidential election will be reserved for Malay candidates since there has not been a Malay president since the country’s first President, Mr Yusof Ishak, died in office in 1970.

Dr Tan, 76, said at the press conference: “If the Government simply accepts (the AGC’s) advice without explaining why ... I am concerned that our Elected Presidency will always be tainted with the suspicion that the reserved election of 2017 was introduced to prevent my candidacy.”

He added: “I now invite the Government or the AGC to explain why they counted the presidential terms of presidents who exercised elected powers. If need be, the Government can refer AGC’s opinion to court for independent judicial verification.”

Dr Tan, a former Member of Parliament from the People’s Action Party, narrowly lost the 2011 election to Dr Tony Tan, the current President.

In March last year, Dr Tan Cheng Bock announced that he would mount a second bid for the presidency.

Apart from reserved elections, the revised EP scheme also tightened criteria for potential candidates. Those from the private sector, for instance, must have held the most senior executive position in a company with at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity, up from the previous criteria of S$100 million in paid-up capital.

Dr Tan, a medical doctor, would not qualify to run even in an open election. When asked about this, he only reiterated his desire to contest again.

“If I believe I want to serve this country, I will do it. I’ll present my credentials to the select committee ... but if you ever want to define the presidency by money, then I (feel) so sad for this country,” he said.

He added that he is keeping his options open should the Government ignore his call for a review of the counting method. “I don’t think I want to go to court ... It’s (the Government’s) duty. We elected them into the House,” he said.

In an interview last September, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said ensuring minority representation in the highest office of the land harked back to Singapore’s early days of fostering a harmonious and multiracial society. He also rejected suggestions that the changes to the EP were meant to keep out difficult individuals.

In response to press queries on whether the Government had any comments on Dr Tan’s press conference, an MCI spokesman said: “This matter (the EP) has been considered and debated extensively for more than a year. A Constitutional Commission, chaired by the Chief Justice, undertook extensive consultations on the EP, including public hearings. Dr Tan did not participate in those hearings or give his views to the Commission.

“The Government gave its response to the Commission’s report in a White Paper, and Parliament debated the matter over three days, before passing amendments to the Constitution. Dr Tan has not raised any new points that require response,” the spokesman added.