6 Aug 2006

Singapore's Elected Presidency

Ong Teng-cheong, the only President of Singapore who took office by a popular vote, in 1993. Previously the largely ceremonial post was filled by a vote of parliament, so that the decision was made by the party that had majority control, i.e., PAP. However, in 1991 the constitution was changed to provide for an elected president, with the power to approve the use of certain financial reserves accumulated in the national accounts. The nature and the amount of these reserves have not been released to the public, and from Ong's own statements after completing his term, were not fully revealed to him either. Thus, the thinking behind the establishment of the institution remains somewhat obscure. In fact, when the idea was being discussed in the late 80s, many people thought the motivation was to elevate Lee Kuan Yew into the position after his retirement from cabinet, and he felt it necessary to publicly pledge that he would not become the first elected president.

The procedure devised for the election also has some unique features: a presidential candidate must meet certain criteria indicating extensive managerial experience at a senior level in public service or business. It is estimated that no more than a few hundred Singaporeans, at most a couple of thousand, could meet the criteria. The candidates are required to be non-partisan, so that to put himself up for the 1993 election, Ong, till then a Deputy Prime Minister, had to first resign from both his post and his party membership. The candidates submit their curriculum vitae to a 3-member committee appointed by the government before each presidential election to determine whether each candidate qualifies.

Despite the non-partisanship, Ong and his successor Sellapan Ramanathan, a retired senior civil servant, were clearly seen as "official" candidates endorsed by the "establishment", and therefore expected to win. It is relatively easy to find a "qualified winner" - while some of the senior people who meet the qualification criteria might not have sufficient interest, there are bound to be enough retired or soon-to-be retired people with the necessary qualifications who can be persuaded to take on this well paid and highly prestigious job. The problem lies in finding a "qualified loser": the chance of winning against the establishment-endorsed candidate is negligible; so why would a person who has the necessary qualification and importance want to put himself/herself through what is essentially a quixotic process? While many of these people would agree that it is a good idea for someone to come forward, so as to enable a contest to occur, they usually mean someone "else".

In 1993 a former Accountant-General was persuaded to stand against Ong, and actually managed to get over 40% of the vote even though he did very little campaigning. This percentage, higher than the amount going to opposition parties in a general election,  basically amounts to an anti-establishment gesture when control of government itself is not at stake. The thought "since the committee approved him he must be all right" must have played a part in deciding to make the gesture. The outcome probably had two significant consequences: on the establishment side, it confirms the need to apply stringent qualification criteria to ensure that whoever that gets elected would be suitable; on the other side, any individual that can win 40% of votes against the "official" candidate would gain considerable limelight and prestige, and while for the people who already qualify, standing as the "qualified loser" provides little benefit, for the people who do not quite qualify, getting the chance to stand is by itself a good prize. Thus, in both 1989 and 2005 several individuals came forward to have their qualifications assessed but were rejected by the 3-member committee, so that the "official candidate", Sellapan Ramanathan, twice took office unopposed. In effect, he was "elected" by the committee, instead of election by parliament before the constitutional change.

Given that the underlying dynamics is difficult to change, it is perhaps a good idea to give the task of assessing presidential candidates' qualifications to an elected body; for example, see

Non-Constituency Parliament Members and Senators



Anonymous said...

Omg!! A frightening thought just crossed my mind when I read this. Could Lee Hsien Yang have resigned from his post so as to be considered for elected presidency?? If so, it will be a real FamiLEE.

Matilah_Singapura said...

It is still safer to have the prez appointed by parliament.

Presidential selection by popular vote will in time (perhaps in 10 years or so) draw the big-money politics to it.

There is less chance of the parliamentary process being "corrupted" because of records, Hansard, the open nature of debate etc.

Anonymous said...

I assume LHY had a disagreement with Temasek (AKA Ho Ching) over management policy; not sure where he can go afterwards; maybe some ASEAN country? he said he is not emigrating, but working overseas on employment pass is not emigrating

the presidential election is still 5 years away; there is time to work out some arrangement that looks better

Matilah_Singapura said...

The trouble with assumptions is that everything else derived from the assumption is arbitrary ;-)

I prefer hard evidence myself... but hey, knock yourself out dude...

Ratna said...

Happy National Day, Singapore !