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Next presidential election to be reserved for Malay candidates

SINGAPORE — Singapore could see the its first elected Malay President in over 40 years come the Presidential Election due next August, with the Government intending to entrench a hiatus-triggered model in January that ensures minority representation in the highest office of the land.

SINGAPORE — Singapore could see the its first elected Malay President in over 40 years come the Presidential Election due next August, with the Government intending to entrench a hiatus-triggered model in January that ensures minority representation in the highest office of the land.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the move on the second day of parliamentary debate on the proposed amendments to the Elected Presidency (EP) scheme, which at times saw heated exchanges over the workings of the Workers’ Party’s (WP) proposal of an elected Senate as an alternative to the EP, and why the opposition party was only mooting the idea now.

Among the 16 lawmakers who rose to speak on the matter on Tuesday (Nov 9), the higher bar for aspirants from the private sector was also one concern. Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Christopher de Souza, for example, noted that Singapore’s first four presidents — who had gone on to achieve great things for the nation — would have struggled to meet the new criteria.

A constitutional commission had recommended restricting a presidential election to a minority race that does not have an elected representative for five straight terms, or 30 years. Mr Lee said the Government intends to implement this by amending the Presidential Elections Act in January, on the Attorney-General’s advice to start the count from the first President to exercise powers under the EP scheme, Dr Wee Kim Wee.

With the current EP term being the fifth, the upcoming presidential election will be reserved for Malay candidates under the hiatus-triggered model, since the previous and current presidents have come from the Chinese and Indian ethnic groups, Mr Lee added.

“That means if a qualified Malay candidate steps up to run, Singapore will have a Malay President again ... this would be our first after more than 46 years, since our first president Encik Yusof Isak. I look forward to this,” said Mr Lee.

In his speech, Mr Lee also explained why alternatives that have been proposed to the EP scheme would not work here.

On the suggestion to have a non-elected President that holds the same custodial powers as that of the elected President today, Mr Lee pointed out that the unelected President will find it hard to stand his ground when he has to say no to an elected Government.

The same issue arises with another suggestion to have a President chosen by Parliament but have his powers vested in the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA). Since CPA members are unelected, but effectively become the decision-maker, they would also have difficulties saying no to the Government, said Mr Lee.

Even if the CPA were to be elected, multiple elections would have to be held for Presidential advisors instead of just one to elect the President, he added. Each election risks being politicized and the problem will be amplified, not reduced.

As to the proposal to have a non-elected President with a purely ceremonial role, as it was before 1990, Mr Lee said this arrangement would fail to safeguard and stabilise the system.

After WP chief Low Thia Khiang put forward his party’s idea for an eight-member elected Senate to have custodial powers over Singapore’s reserves, several MPs from the ruling People’s Action Party pressed the opposition party for details of how such a system would work. In response, Mr Low urged the House not to be “bogged down by details” and to focus the debate on the fundamentals of their proposal.

The other issue that dominated Tuesday’s debate concerned the raising of the eligibility criteria for presidential candidates.

MP Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) said that if the key criteria to evaluate a potential candidate’s ability was his corporate track record, it would be neither reflective nor healthy for governance in the long-run. The gauge to measure the next President should be broader, not narrower, he added.

Mr de Souza also asked whether the Republic’s first four presidents — Encik Yusof Ishak, Dr Benjamin Sheares, Mr Devan Nair and Dr Wee Kim Wee — would have met the new criteria proposed.

Nominated MP Mahdev Mohan asked if it was the Government’s position that the President must be a “professional equal” to the CPA, which he added was “no mean feat” considering the credentials of the council’s existing members.

Urging the Government not to overly focus on a candidate’s competency to make decisions on the second key to the reserves, Mr de Souza said that a prospective President should be people-centred, community-centred and nation-centred.

NMP Kuik Shiao-Yin said that for a President to be a unifying symbol, he or she cannot just wear the right skin tone. Instead, that individual must have the political courage and moral gumption to navigate divides of class and partisan politics and hold the space between the races.

The debate continues on Wednesday.

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