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PM Lee offers preview of elected presidency report

Monday, September 5, 2016 - 05:50
39739986.1 (39740147) - 04_09_2016 - PM Lee.jpg
In an interview with MediaCorp Channel 5 TV aired on Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said this is one way to ensure diversity in Singapore's elected presidency - and, in particular, to ensure that qualified candidates from minority races stand a chance of being elected.

Singapore

IF there is no elected president from a particular racial group for a long period - say, up to six terms - then the following election will be reserved for that race if a qualified candidate presents himself or herself.

In an interview with MediaCorp Channel 5 TV aired on Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said this is one way to ensure diversity in Singapore's elected presidency - and, in particular, to ensure that qualified candidates from minority races stand a chance of being elected.

Sharing some of the proposals in the report by the Constitutional Commission which has just finished its review of the elected presidency, Mr Lee went some way to explain the "least intrusive and most light-touch" alternative to ensure disadvantaged minority candidates are given a fair chance in the election.

"So you want a mechanism where if you've had a long gap, then the next election - if you have a qualified minority candidate - then the election is held only amongst that minority group," Mr Lee said.

"If no qualified candidate turns up for that race, then it's open and you carry on, and then you have free election; whoever wins, wins. The election after that, the same rules will apply again because a longer time would have lapsed and, again, let's see whether a qualified candidate turns up."

Another way suggested by people who gave evidence to the Commission whose report will be out this week is to rotate the elected presidency by race, Mr Lee said. Or there could be a team in which a Chinese takes half a term, and a Malay or Indian takes the other half. Still another way, according to him, is to have a president and a vice-president, each from a different race.

Mr Lee said some people have asked: why not simply revert to a system of appointing the president?

He said the problem is that the president now also has powers, especially in safeguarding Singapore's reserves, and to say "No" to the government if required. The president would need a mandate to be in a strong position to exercise these powers.

Some may say Parliament can play that role, Mr Lee noted. But he did not think Parliament could provide the effective balance to stabilise the political system in the way that the elected presidency provides.

"For the long term, we need these stabilisers in our system, which is why we created the elected president," Mr Lee said.

The proposed changes to guarantee minority representation in the elected presidency are not mere tokenism, he added. "It's a very necessary symbolism of what we are as a multiracial society, what Singapore means, stands for and what we aspire to be," he said.

Mr Lee gave three reasons why the changes are being made now: the government already knew the problem of minority representation was there when it introduced the elected presidency, and it is now time to tackle it; future presidential elections would be hard fought and the minority would not have a fair chance; and he (Mr Lee) did not want to pass on the problem to his successor.

"I know this problem and I think I have a responsibility to deal with it, and I think I can tell Singaporeans 'I believe this is something which needs to be done, and I believe it, and I want to do it, and I will persuade you that it is something that we should do and which is good for Singapore'."

Currently, presidential candidates from the private sector must at least be CEOs of companies with a paid-up capital of S$100 million or more. There is talk that this key qualifying criterion will be revised upwards.

"The Commission has recommended a number," Mr Lee disclosed. "You'll see it when the report is published, but it has to be revised up substantially."

He explained that when the S$100 million figure was first set, around 1990, it was a significant threshold and there were fewer than 200 companies in that category. "And so you are talking about times two or three persons in each company who have been CEO or chairman and qualify - a few hundred people."

Mr Lee said there are 2,000 companies today which have paid-up capital of S$100 million or more. At face value, that should work out to 5,000-6,000 people who are qualified and capable of being president.

"But I don't believe all five or six thousand of them actually have the experience and the relevant competence in their work in order to do the president's job," he said. "And so we have to bring it up to something which is realistic . . ."

Mr Lee said the figure in future should be revised regularly - every two terms - and in smaller adjustments.

Responding to sceptics who say the changes are being made to bar candidates who are unfriendly to the government, Mr Lee said: "These are changes which we are talking about for (the next) 30, 40, 50 years. How am I going to make sure that I have multiracial representation in the presidency over the long term?"

Even if he raises the standards, Mr Lee said, "I cannot guarantee that nobody who is going to be difficult will become president. It is not possible because, however, wherever you cut off, there will be somebody - even a former minister or a former judge or somebody who may have run a very big company, may have his views and may clash with the government."