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Govt makes two key modifications to eligibility proposals
THE government has wholly accepted the Constitutional Commission's recommendation to ensure representation of all races in the presidency, it said in a 49-page White Paper released on Thursday evening.
It has also agreed to update the eligibility criteria for applicants - albeit with certain modifications that depart from the Commission's proposals.
Two key differences in eligibility requirements have to do with how long one must have served in a qualifying office, and how recent that experience must have been. For one, the government is opting to retain the existing eligibility criteria of three years, instead of the doubled duration of six years as recommended by the panel.
And while the government agrees that a currency requirement should be instituted - essentially a "look back" period to ensure that the applicant's leadership experience is relatively current - it thinks the length of time should be extended to 20 years, instead of the proposed 15.
"In the government's view, as long as an applicant's qualifying tenure falls wholly or partly within 20 years of the relevant presidential election, his experience may be considered suitably current," said the White Paper.
This is also a departure from the Commission's recommendation, which said the entire period of the applicant's qualifying tenure should fall within the 15 year window.
Speaking to the media after the release of the White Paper, Law Minister K Shanmugam said that the Commission's original recommendations would have reduced the pool of potential candidates too drastically.
Said Mr Shanmugam: "What (the Commission's proposal) means in practice is that if you call it a certificate of validity, it expires in nine years effectively. He's got to have six years of experience (and) within nine years he should stand for the presidency. We think that might narrow down the field too much, might be too drastic."
This is especially since the 15-year look back period is a significant change from the current position, where no such currency requirement exists. As such, Mr Shanmugam said the government prefers to take a "slightly more cautious" approach.
"We think we maybe start at 20 years, and we decided that instead of six years, keep it to three. Let's see how it works," he added.
Other eligibility criteria, particularly those applicable to private-sector applicants, were accepted. This means future presidential hopefuls must have held the most senior executive position in a Singapore-incorporated company, with shareholders' equity of at least S$500 million. This new threshold - to be periodically reviewed - marks an increase from the current criterion, where candidates must head companies with a paid-up capital of S$100 million or more.
The applicant's company must also have been profitable through his entire period of office, and there must not have been an insolvency process within three years of him ceasing to hold office.
In addition, the government agreed with the Commission's view that while experience in leading a publicly-listed company would be valuable, such a requirement need not be introduced right now. "The issue can be revisited later, after we have seen how the other modifications to the eligibility criteria have operated in practice," said the White Paper.
As for the public sector track, the Commission had proposed to remove the Accountant-General and Auditor-General from the list of public-sector offices that would automatically qualify a person for a presidential contest. It cited how these officeholders arguably play an ancillary and comparatively narrow role in the delivery of public goods and services.
While the government thanked the panel for "rais(ing) valid points", it said that it would like to consider this recommendation more carefully, and will retain the existing position for now. It added, however, that it will reconsider whether the two offices should be removed at a future point in time.
As for the idea to reserve elections for a racial group if it had not been represented for five terms to ensure multi-racial representation, the government wholly accepted the Commission's recommendations.
In its White Paper, the government noted that the "'hiatus-triggered' safeguard mechanism" has the benefit of being race-neutral, in that it guarantees the representation of all racial groups in the presidency.
Said the White Paper: "Practically, it is most unlikely that a five-term hiatus will ever arise vis-a-vis the Chinese community, which constitutes a significant majority of our population. But the approach is significant at a symbolic level, as it underscores the importance of ensuring that all races are represented in the presidency."
It also noted that multi-racial representation in presidential offices is not unique to Singapore, citing Switzerland, Canada, and New Zealand as examples.
With regard to the role and composition of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA), the government generally agreed with the Commission's recommendations.
This includes the proposal to increase the number of CPA members from six to eight, and the suggestion that the president be obliged to consult the CPA before exercising all of his custodial powers over the reserves.
This also applies to all his powers pertaining to key public-service appointments. (Currently, the president has a duty to consult the CPA before exercising only some, not all, these powers.)
But in the matter of overturning a presidential veto by a parliamentary override, the government disagreed with the call for a more calibrated approach - one that tiers the Parliament majority required for an override, against the level of support from the CPA. The government said it prefers to retain the present arrangement, where the override mechanism continues to adopt a binary approach, depending on whether the president's veto is supported by a simple majority of the CPA.
Said the White Paper: "The calibrated approach may unintentionally emphasise or even politicise how individual members of the Council, particularly its chairman, have voted, instead of the collective judgment of the Council as a whole. The analogy is with the Cabinet, where ministers may have different views on issues, but take collective responsibility for the decisions of the Cabinet to which they belong, and do not differ publicly from these decisions."
The government reiterated its view that the president should be elected, not appointed, and that a custodial, elected president remains "the most workable and effective solution for Singapore for the present".
It added that it will study the Commission's proposals to improve the rules on campaign methods and preventing misinformation, and decide on the necessary changes later.
Mr Shanmugam noted that there were other recommendations of the commission under study; those will not form part of the Bill and will be taken up later.
The release of the White Paper comes after the Constitutional Commission published its report on Sept 7. Following community dialogues and engagement sessions, the Bill to amend the Constitution will be tabled and debated in Parliament this year.