The ‘Reserved’ Road To Istana: A Quick Guide

Singaporeans will go to the polls on 23 September to elect their 8th President and 4th Elected President.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has issued the writ of election on 28 August and has also scheduled the Nomination Day for 13 September, the Elections Department said in a statement.

The auditorium in the People’s Association HQ at King George Avenue has been listed as the nomination centre.

Incumbent President Tony Tan will end his term on the 31 August and after which, the chairman of the Council of the Presidential Advisors (CPA), J. Y. Pillay, will be appointed as the Acting President.

With less than a month to go, it is crucial for new voters or voters who have not been following the news and controversy surrounding this upcoming election to stay informed. So here’s a Quick Guide.

1. The Role of the Elected President

Tony Tan in parliament

(Image: Mothership)

Like many countries who were previously a British colony, Singapore practices a parliamentary system of government. Such system is relatively distinct from the presidential system of government, as practised in the US, Mexico and Russia, etc.

In the presidential system, the President acts as both the Head of Government and the Head of State. The Executive President is elected independently from the legislature (eg. the Congress), usually by the electorates. Although he/she has the power to veto the decision by the legislature, he/she is not accountable to the legislature and does not have the power to dismiss it either.

In a parliamentary system, the leader of the legislature (i.e. Prime Minister) is the Head of Government while the President is the Head of State. The Head of Government is the one who leads the government and oversees and execute the daily activities in the country while the Head of State is usually a figurehead and does not hold any type of legislative or executive role.

The Head of State, however, hold ceremonial roles and represents every citizen. He/she has the power to dissolve the legislature.

The office of the President in Singapore was created in 1965 upon independence. It was previously known as the Yang di-Pertuan Negara when Singapore was granted limited self-government in 1959. The role remained when Singapore joined Malaysia in 1963.

The President has a part to play in foreign relations by hosting and engaging visiting dignitaries and making State Visits overseas.

On top of that, all foreign ambassadors-designate and high commissioners-designate will present their credentials to the President before assuming office in Singapore. The President also presents letters of credence to ambassadors-designate and high commissioners-designate of Singapore before they leave to assume office overseas.

The President will also have to deliver a Presidential address during the opening of each Parliament session. He/she will lay out the key challenges for each term of government.

The President’s other key ceremonial duties also include:

  • officiating at swearing-in ceremonies of key appointment-holders such as the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, the Chief Justice and Judges of the Supreme Court;
  • officiating the National Day Parade; and
  • confers awards, such as the National Day Awards, on the advice of the Cabinet.

The President also has a community role where he may use the influence of his position to support charitable and social causes. He/she can also play a unifying role by encouraging, articulating and representing those values that unite Singaporeans as a nation.

The Presidency was initially indirectly elected by the Parliament. It was until 3 January 1991 when the Parliament passed the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Act 1991 before an elected presidency is enacted.

When the amendment officially came into effect on 30 November 1991, the President was given additional custodial role in having the discretionary powers relating to the safeguarding of national reserves and the appointment of key personnel in the public sector and certain Government companies.

His/her veto powers also extended to detentions without trial, corruption investigations and restraining orders in order to maintain racial and religious harmony.

However, the Elected President cannot publicly challenge the government without acting against the Constitution and cannot weigh in publicly with social and political views. In other words, he/she are unable to initiate policies or make executive decisions.

2. PE 2017 is a ‘reserved’ election for candidates of the Malay community

On November 9 last year, the Parliament voted 77 to 6 to pass the Constitutional (Amendment) Bill. The idea was first brought up by the Prime Minister during the debate of the Presidential Address on 27 January 2016.

He mentioned that being the head of state, the President represents all Singaporeans in a multi-racial society.

He went on to point out that Singapore has not had a president from the Malay community since elected presidency was introduced. He cited an example where apart from the two uncontested Presidential Elections (1999 and 2005), where the late S R Nathan was the sole eligible candidates, the rest of elections were won by a Chinese.

He warned, “But in future, when Presidential Elections are more likely to be contested, even hotly contested, I believe it will become much harder for a minority President to get elected. It is the same problem with Parliamentary Elections which led us to create GRCs, to ensure a minimum representation of minority race MPs in Parliament. We should consider a similar mechanism for Presidential Elections, to ensure that minorities can be periodically elected if we have not had a particular minority as President for some time.”

This was reiterated during PM Lee’s National Day Rally the same year. He mentioned that despite the process the country has made regarding racial cohesion, we are not a homogenous society.

He cited a survey done by CNA and Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), “When it comes to personal choices for example whom you marry, whom your best friends are, who your business partners are – race still matters… Thus it is not surprising that in elections, race is still a factor and other things being equal, a minority candidate is at a disadvantage.”

A 9-member Constitutional Commission was therefore appointed on 10 February 2016, with Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon at the helm. After receiving more than 100 public submissions and public hearings, a report was submitted to PM Lee on 17 August 2016. The initial recommendations from the commission include:

  • To reserve the Presidential Election for a racial group if it is not being represented for 5 terms, according to a hiatus-triggered model.
  • Limiting eligibility of candidates to individuals who are/have been in the most senior executive positions in companies with at least S$500 million in shareholder’s equity. (An upgrade from individuals who are/have been a Chairman/CEO in companies with at least S$100 million in paid-up capital)
  • Introduction of a ‘look-back’ duration to ensure the currency of an applicant’s experience: The entire qualifying tenure of the applicant’s experience must fall within the 15-year period immediately preceding the relevant Nomination Day.
  • Two (2) additional members to be appointed to the CPA, increasing the total number of CPA members to 10.
  • The President has to consult the CPA for all monetary issues related to reserves and all key public service appointments. Parliament can override the President’s veto if he acted against the advice of the CPA. (The President previously consults the CPA only on some matters relating to past reserves and key public service appointments.)
  • President should be appointed by the Parliament.

On 15 September, the government released a white paper to define its position on the issue. While accepting most of the suggestions laid out by the commission, the advice for the appointment to be made only via the Parliament were among some of the recommendations rejected. The ‘look-back’ duration was extended to 20 years, instead of the 15 years as recommended.

The proposed bill was eventually tabled in Parliament on 10 October by Deputy PM Teo Chee Hean.

During the debate on 8 November, PM Lee announced that the next PE will be reserved for a Malay candidate, based on the hiatus-triggered model.

A hiatus-triggered model means that the election will be open to all but if there is no President from a certain community after 5 terms, the next election will be reserved for that community. However, if there’s no eligible candidate from that community during that election, the criteria will be postponed to the subsequent elections until a candidate from that community is elected.

The government adopted the recommendations from the Attorney-General Chambers (AGC) that calculation will commence from the term of the 4th President Wee Kim Wee, who served between 1985 to 1992.

According to the AGC, President Wee was the first President to exercise the new functions when the Constitution was amended in 1991.

A Malay community sub-committee under the Presidential Elections Committee will be tasked to assess if the prospective candidates belong to the Malay community. The 5-member panel will be led by Imran Mohamed, the former chairman of the Association of Malay Professionals.

Potential candidates will have to submit a community declaration form on top of the other nomination forms to the sub-committee. The sub-committee will then issue the candidates with a Community Certificate if they recognise them to be from a certain community.

But in future, when Presidential Elections are more likely to be contested, even hotly contested, I believe it will become much harder for a minority President to get elected.

3. The Controversy

Tan Cheng Bock at a press conference.

(Image: Yahoo! News)

Despite the government’s narrative that the changes to the constitution were to safeguard racial harmony in Singapore, critics are quick to play down the benefits behind such amendments.

Some pointed out that a reserved election will defeat the idea of meritocracy that the government has been preaching for years.

Eugene Tan, an Associate Professor at the Singapore Management University (SMU) has warned that the amendments will, in turn, result in an allegation of tokenism towards the President.

He said, “This could even mean in which you say that, in certain years, the Presidential Election will only be open to minority candidates, because that undercuts the whole meritocratic ethos, it undercuts the multiracial ethos as well, because people could criticise the minority race President for being in office only because of his race.”

Nominated MP (NMP) Kok Keng Leun highlighted during the debates of the Constitutional (Amendment) Bill that the move to minority representation in the Presidency may exacerbate, instead of address issues of equality.

He said, “In fact, such a provision may exacerbate the issue, in that it provides a convenient argument for the majority to say this special provision already allows for a Malay, Indian, or Eurasian President, negating the need to really reach out, understand, appreciate, and support the best candidate regardless of race, language, or religion.”

Others are sceptical over the motivations behind the changes.

Former Presidential hopeful Dr. Tan Cheng Bock has initially announced that he will be running for the upcoming Presidential Election last March when the Constitution Commission were still working on their task.

When the recommendations were released, Dr. Tan’s eligibility was in doubt.

His eligibility became out of the question when the Government accepted the ACG’s recommendation to start the calculation for the hiatus-trigger model from the term of Wee Kim Wee.

He argues that although President Wee was the first President to exercise the rights under the 1991 amendments, it was President Ong Teng Cheong who was the first to be elected by the public to exercise such rights.

Dr. Tan previously contested in the 2011 PE, garnering 738,311 votes, just a mere 7,382 votes fewer than incumbent President Tony Tan. To put it in percentage, he lost narrowly with a 0.34% margin.

Dr. Tan remarked that, “But if the government simply accepts AGC’s advice without explaining why they accepted the accuracy of the opinion, 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.”

His concerns resonated with the Workers’ Party (WP) MP for Aljunied GRC Sylvia Lim.

Ms Lim, also WP’s Chairman, commented during the debates that if calculations started from President Ong’s term, only four terms would have passed by the next election.

She enquired, “Why not count from the first elected president, Mr Ong Teng Cheong? Is it because if President Ong was the first one to be counted, we would have to go through this year’s election as an open election and risk the contest by Chinese or Indian candidates who may not be to the government’s liking?

Minister in the PMO Chan Chun Sing responded that the amendments to the Bill were not for any short-term political gain, explaining that the “moving of this Bill carry with it high political risk with some political cost”.

He said, “We are here to build systems for Singapore for the long haul. Not for short-term political advantage, not for the political advantage of any particular parties. We are but stewards for our nation.”

In May this year, Dr. Tan took the Government to court over the issue. He submitted an application to seek the Court’s determination on whether a piece of legislation counting President Wee Kim Wee as the first elected president for the purposes of the upcoming reserved election was consistent with the Constitution.

After his application was dismissed by the High Court on July 7, Dr Tan lodged an appeal against the dismissal on Jul 12, taking the case to Singapore’s highest court – the Court of Appeal.

The appeal was dismissed on 23 August. The judges stated that: “Even though it is true that the office changed quite dramatically in the midst of his last term, there is simply no doubt at all that he continued to hold the office with the enhanced powers and functions under the framework of the Elected Presidency introduced by the 1991 Amendment.”

Dr. Tan admitted defeat.

However, on August 28, before the writ of election was issued, the WP filed a parliamentary adjournment motion. They are looking to seek clarity on the basis for which the upcoming Presidential Election was declared reserved for Malays.

But if the government simply accepts AGC’s advice without explaining why they accepted the accuracy of the opinion, 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.

4. The Potential Candidates

Potential candidates for Presidential Election 2017

Three individuals, if we do not include private hire driver Shirwin Eu (he does not even fit in any of the eligibility criteria anyway), have expressed their interest in contesting since the application for the Certificate of Eligibility and Community Certificate opened in June.

They are: Mohamad Salleh Marican, Farid Khan and Halimah Yacob.

Salleh Marican

Mohamed Salleh Marican

(Image: Ernst & Young)

The CEO of Singapore Exchange-listed Second Chance Properties is the first potential candidate to express his interest. He was the first to pick up the set of nomination forms and was also the first to submit the forms.

Second Chance Properties was listed on the main board of the SGX since 2004 and has amounted between S$254.3 million to S$263.25 million in shareholders’ equity over the past three years.

Despite the shareholders’ equity is half of what is required under the new Constitution, Mr. Salleh has strong confidence that he will get his nomination.

He said, “I feel there has been too much emphasis on the S$500 million criteria, to the point that people think that if you don’t have it, then you’re not eligible and should not waste your time.”

The Victoria School alumni has previously rejected both chances to enter politics. It was until recently that his mind changes. In his interview with Mothership, he explained that he sensed an opening this time, with some of the public feeling wary about voting for a candidate perceived to be the establishment’s choice.

He said, “This is what the people are thinking. It’s safer that the President is not someone from the ruling party. To them, that is what they mean by independent.”

Mr. Salleh was one of the first Muslim Naval Officers during his National Service years. To add on to his political portfolio, he was head-hunted by J B Jeyaratnam to join the WP slate in 1984 before the PAP knocked on his door ahead of the 1991 General Election.

Despite relating himself to the Malay community, he was under scrutiny when he struggled with his Bahasa Melayu when speaking to the Malay media outside the Elections Department (ELD) when he collected the forms on June 6.

He has submitted his nomination forms on 23 August.

Read more about him in his interviews with Today and

Farid Khan

Farid Khan

(Image: Yahoo! News)

The 62 year-old chairman of marine services provider Bourbon Offshore Asia Pacific announced his intention to run at a press conference held at the Village Hotel Changi on 11 July.

He has been working for Bourbon Offshore for more than a decade, helping the French-based company to establish its Asia Pacific branch.

He left school at the age of 13 and had taken up several odd jobs, such as cleaning the toilet and cutting grass before ending up on a ship as its captain steward at age 21.

The father of two has unveiled his slogan ‘Together We Build Our Nation’, stating that he would like to step forward to “serve the nation” and “fulfil the people’s wish and trust”.

He has made five election promises:

  • Working closely with the Government and various organisations to deter the growing threats of radicalisation.
  • Strengthen the trust among the people regardless of race, language and religion.
  • Enhancing efforts to help the needy, including troubled youth.
  • Create more job opportunities, including in the maritime industry.
  • Strengthen families as building block of the society.

However, there would be some serious challenges that Mr. Farid has to overcome. Similar to Mr. Salleh’s Second Chance Properties, Bourbon Offshore Asia Pacific does not have an average of S$500 million in stakeholders’ equity over the past three years. According to TODAY, the company’s stakeholders’ equity is above S$350 million.

Furthermore, he has admitted that he is of a Pakistani descent which casts doubts over his eligibility as a ‘Malay’ candidate. However, he sees himself as a Malay of Pakistani descent.

He said, “I was born in the Malay village in Geylang Serai, the heart of the Malay community. And I adopted the Malay language, and when I studied in school, my second language was Malay… So, I’m very confident that I can be qualified as a Malay.”

Mr. Farid has submitted his nomination forms on 24 August.

Read more about him in his interview with and The Middle Ground.

Halimah Yacob

This lady needs no introduction.

The former Speaker of Parliament entered the fray when she made clear her intention to run on August 6. She tendered her resignation as both the Speaker and from the PAP, hence vacating her MP seat in Marsiling-Yew Tee Group Representative Constituency (GRC) as well.

Her 33 years experience with the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) has provided her with a boost to her campaign. Trade unions across the country are fast to throw their support behind her, with the labour movement the first to do so.

Mdm Halimah joined politics in 2001. She contested Jurong GRC under the PAP banner and was elected MP for the constituency.

After the 2011 General Election, she was appointed as a Minister of State (MoS) at the then-Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports (MCYS). A cabinet reshuffle in 2012 saw her moving to the Ministry of Social & Family Development as MoS.

She succeeded Michael Palmer as Speaker of Parliament in 2013 after the latter resigned due to allegations of extra-marital affairs.

Mdm Halimah went on to contest in the newly-created Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC in the 2015 GE and was successfully elected.

Speaking at her latest press conference in NTUC Center on 29 August, Mdm Halimah revealed her campaign slogan ‘Do Good, Do Together’.

There were speculations that she’ll be one of the potential candidates when it was announced that the upcoming PE will be reserved for the Malay community. There has been an instance when, during one of the debate sessions on the Presidential Election (Amendment) Bill, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) Chan Chun Sing inadvertently addresses Mdm Halimah as ‘Mdm President’ instead of ‘Mdm Speaker’.

Like the other two candidates, her race has been subjected to debates. Her father was an Indian-Muslim and critics have doubted whether she can be counted as part of the Malay community.

Read more about her in her interview with Channel NewsAsia and Mothership.

5. No designated rally sites but more air time for candidates on national TV

Candidates participating in the televised debates during PE 2011.

WAR OF WORDS: Candidates participating in the televised debates during PE 2011.(Image: TODAY)

It was announced early this year that no rally sites will be designated during the campaign period for the upcoming PE.

Minister in the PMO Chan spoke during the second reading of the Presidential Elections (Amendment) Bill on 6 February that the decision comes after the government accepted the recommendations by the Constitutional Commission.

The Commission questioned the need for a rally as, unlike the General Elections, the PE has no policy agenda to advance.

Minister Chan said, “This is in line with the Government’s and the Constitutional Commission’s position not to encourage rallies, which by their nature and format, may be divisive and not congruent with the unifying role of the Elected Presidency”.

“Campaign methods for PEs must not inflame emotions and must be in keeping with the decorum and dignity of the office of the President, given the important unifying and custodial roles of the President,” he added.

However, candidates who are interested in holding a rally can still apply a permit from the Police, which will be assessed based on public order considerations.

On the other hand, the Government will encourage candidates to use various platforms, like the social media, to reach out to the voters on a national level. More air-time on television could also be adopted.

Hence, don’t be surprised if you see too much of the Presidential hopefuls’ face on TV (if you actually still watching them).

Furthermore, candidates cal also hold indoor private sessions to engage specific groups of voters.

Campaign methods for PEs must not inflame emotions and must be in keeping with the decorum and dignity of the office of the President, given the important unifying and custodial roles of the President.

6. eRegistration pilot introduced in several constituencies

The ELD announced on August 25 that they will be piloting the electronic registration of voters at polling stations across three constituencies during the upcoming PE.

The constituencies are: Chua Chu Kang GRC, Tanjong Pagar GRC and Yuhua Single Member Constituency (SMC).

Traditionally, an election officer will have to manually search and strike-off the voters name on a hard-copy register. With the e-registration in place, voters will have to scan the NRIC electronically for registration.

“This decreases the waiting time for voters at polling stations and reduces the number of election officials required to serve the same number of voters at a polling station,” the ELD said in their press release.

The ELD will organise roadshows in 11 Community Centers (CC) in the three constituencies to familiarise voters with the new procedure.

The voting process remains unchanged.

For first time voters, you might want to familarise yourself with the entire voting procedure:

Just vote for who you think is best suited for the role, no one knows who you voted for because your vote is secret. (Unless you go about telling others who you voted for.)



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