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Major changes proposed to elected president system

Govt to respond in White Paper on Sept 15; Full debate in parliament after constitutional amendments are tabled

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The report by a group of nine Singaporeans tasked to review the elected presidency system was made public on Wednesday, containing a raft of proposals that are likely to significantly change the landscape of future elections for the highest office in the land.


THE report by a group of nine Singaporeans tasked to review the elected presidency system was made public on Wednesday, containing a raft of proposals that are likely to significantly change the landscape of future elections for the highest office in the land.

The Constitutional Commission, headed by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, took six months to complete its work and submitted the 154-page document to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong three weeks ago.

The government is studying the recommendations and will publish a White Paper with its detailed responses on September 15. The plan is to later table a Constitutional Amendment Bill in parliament and have a full debate in the House on the issue.

In a letter to CJ Menon on Wednesday, PM Lee thanked him and the commission once again for their work and said the government "accepts in principle" the main recommendations of the report.

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Among the commission's many proposals is to have a mechanism in place to guarantee that people from all racial groups in Singapore have the opportunity to become head of state.

If any racial group has not been represented after five consecutive full terms, the next election will be reserved exclusively for candidates from that particular racial group. The racial groups categorised by the commission are the Chinese, Malay, and Indian & other communities. Each presidential term in Singapore lasts a maximum of six years, so a period of five terms would be about 30 years.

A crucial point made by the committee is that the eligibility criteria for candidates in a reserved election should not be lowered for any reason, as doing so would undermine meritocracy. "So long as these criteria remain sufficiently stringent, they will continue to serve their critical function of allowing only persons with the necessary experience and expertise for the job to qualify for the office of President," the commission said in its report.

Another significant proposal on the table is to beef up the eligibility criteria for prospective candidates, to factor in the growth of Singapore's economy and the size of its reserves over the past 25 years since the elected presidency was first introduced.

The report stated that private sector candidates, who currently must be a chairman or CEO of a Singapore-incorporated company with at least S$100 million in paid-up capital, should be the "most senior executive" of a company with a minimum of S$500 million in shareholders' equity in order to make the cut.

This new threshold of S$500 million "should be reviewed periodically" to adjust for changes in the economic environment, the commission said.

Based on this new criteria, only two of the four candidates at the last presidential election in 2011 - the eventual winner Tony Tan Keng Yam, and former NTUC Income chief Tan Kin Lian - would have qualified.

The other two candidates that year were former People's Action Party member of parliament Tan Cheng Bock and former senior civil servant Tan Jee Say.

BT understands that Dr Tan Cheng Bock's tenure as non-executive chairman of Chuan Hup Holdings would not have met the criteria of being a senior official who actively runs the company. He also did not manage the company, and it also did not have S$500 million in shareholders' equity.

As for Mr Tan Jee Say, he had cited his experience as regional managing director of AIB Govett, which he said at the time did not have paid-up capital of S$100 million, but managed assets in excess of that amount.

Under the revised criteria, he will not qualify because he didn't manage the company and it didn't have S$500 million shareholders' equity.

In 1993, 158 companies in Singapore met the S$100 million paid-up capital requirement. Raising the qualifying threshold to S$500 million shareholders' equity will include at least 691 companies, with the actual number possibly being much higher.

This is because about 80 per cent of Singapore-incorporated companies, some of which may also have S$500 million shareholders' equity, do not file their financial statements with the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is Acting Prime Minister as Mr Lee is in Laos for the Asean Summit, said it is "timely" to update the eligibility criteria now.

"Our GDP has grown more than five times and our economy is more complex compared to 25 years ago. Our CPF balances and official foreign reserves are now seven times larger. The scale and complexity of the president's responsibilities have therefore consequently grown," he said in a statement.

The third and final aspect that the commission was asked to study was how to strengthen the role and powers of the Council of Presidential Advisors (CPA), the high-level body that advises the president in the exercise of his custodial and discretionary powers.

The commission proposed that the president be required to consult the CPA before exercising discretion on all fiscal matters related to Singapore's reserves, as well as on key public service appointments. Currently, the president need only do so for some such matters.

In the event the president's final decision goes against that of the CPA's advice, the commission also proposed that the decision be subject to a parliamentary override.

On this note, the commission wants the council's views to be given more weight because "the stronger the CPA's support for the president's decision, the more difficult it should be for parliament to undo that decision".

As the CPA would have a much larger role, the commission feels it should have two extra members, which would take the total to eight. And when these members are re-appointed, it should be for a six-year term, rather than the four years currently.

While PM Lee has said the government "accepts in principle" the main recommendations of the report, he expressed some reservations about the commission's suggestion that the government revert to a system where the president is elected by parliament. He noted that this is a matter beyond the commission's original terms of reference.

"While I appreciate the commission's reasons for this suggestion, as the government has pointed out even when the scheme was first conceived, it would be difficult for a president to exercise custodial powers over the reserves and public service appointments, and veto proposals by the government, without an electoral mandate," he said.




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