The Elected Presidency

Scheduled for September, the coming presidential election is one of the most anticipated public events of 2017. While the populations of larger democratic countries have to contend with numerous regional and local elections that may cause electoral fatigue, Singaporeans get to express their democratic voice only once every two to three years. This year’s election, though, is especially anticipated by the Malay community because for the first time, the presidential election will be reserved for Malays.

In an inherited Westminster parliamentary system such as ours, the Head of State usually plays a largely ceremonial role. The first four presidents after independence were appointed by Parliament and their duty was largely to play a unifying figure presiding over ceremonies and events designed to bind Singaporeans together as one people and to act as Singapore’s foremost representative to foreign states and their dignitaries. Individuals with dignity, solemnity, and a little of the common touch were the order of the day. Benjamin Sheares was a doctor, Devan Nair was a unionist and Yusof Ishak and Wee Kim Wee were both journalists.

This system was changed in January 1991, after new constitutional amendments passed by Parliament provided for the popular election of the president. The PAP government wanted to invest powers of oversight in the presidency as a check on Parliament and that called for an independent source of legitimacy direct from the people. Under these constitutional changes, the elected president was given the power to veto legislative attempts to use the national reserves, the power to appoint individuals to certain key civil service positions, and powers to oversee the enforcement of the Internal Security Act, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act as well as the Prevention of Corruption Act by their respective executive bodies.

In November last year, constitutional provisions for the office of the president were again amended. This time the key changes were twofold. First, the 1991 requirement for private sector candidates to have helmed companies worth at least $100 million in shareholder equity was raised to $500 million. Second, the amendment provides for elections that are reserved for minority communities. A reserved election is triggered when five consecutive terms pass without a president from a particular minority community. However, these two new rules have sparked much controversy and heated debate on social media.

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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