Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendments) Bill – Speech by Chen Show Mao


(Delivered in Parliament on 8 November 2016)


Sir, the office of the Presidency, in these days of increasing diversity amongst our people,  can have an even bigger unifying role to play.  A few years ago, I said in this house:

How do we find as much common ground as possible?  I believe it will be best done through strengthening institutions that are non-partisan and capable of commanding the respect and allegiance of all Singaporeans, in spite of their political differences.   Make these institutions inclusive …  and focus on our common objectives….  The office of the Presidency, for example.  I said.

Indeed, President Tony Tan in his swearing in ceremony said, quote, “ I will strive to strengthen our COMMON bonds and our CORE values that underpin our society …Whatever your POLITICAL views,… I will strive to the best of my abilities to represent you.” unquote.


Do the proposed amendments before us strengthen the Presidency in this important unifying role?  

Does an enforced reservation of Presidential elections to particular groups of Singaporeans defined along racial lines best help the elected president play a unifying role?

We believe that Singaporeans when called upon will rise to the occasion to choose their Head of State based on the person’s character and achievements regardless of race, language or religion.

Does a tightened, narrower set of eligibility criteria help the elected president unify a broader group of Singaporeans?  Tightened eligibility criteria have been advanced as a proxy for the suitability and competency of the candidate for President. We are told that more stringent criteria are necessary for a President to perform his or her custodial functions in our bigger, and more expensive, times.

BUT these tightened eligibility criteria have their own costs, they reduce the number of men and women who could be President — at a time when we understand that good men and women for the job are so hard to find.  We focus on the benefits of selecting our President from a smaller pool of eligible candidates with the requisite “merit” that we feel we are able to define, but there are also costs to our society of thereby excluding by our definition, other candidates with qualities that may be harder to approximate. Other qualities of a good President, which are no less important than this financial savvy that the eligibility criteria try to fathom.  Just in this house, we have heard that the President should also be of good character, honest, selfless, willing to serve, independent — ”able to think for himself”, and should have integrity, judgment and courage. Sir, these are human qualities, not angelic ones. With the proposed tightened eligibility requirements — how many of our former Presidents Yusof Ishak, Benjamin Sheares, Devan Nair, Wee Kim Wee would have been found ineligible to serve, even if they were ready and eager to do so, and in the eyes of vast numbers of Singaporeans, qualified to do so?  How many other Singaporeans?


Why are we seeking to restrict further the number of men and women who could be President?

Has any of our elected presidents Ong Teng Cheong, SR Nathan and Tony Tan behaved so untowardly that we feel corrective action is needed to limit the number of eligible candidates–from, say, qualifying companies with paid in capital of at least $100 million, to those with shareholders’ equity of at least $500 million?  We are told that the elected presidency system is working well and by these proposed amendments what we hope to do is anticipate problems before they appear. If that’s the case, without an existing identifiable and specific thing to fix, then it behooves us to be even more humble about the possibility of unintended consequences of keeping out credible presidential candidates by what is proposed today.

Even just looking at the custodial functions of the President: Why are we seeking to restrict further the number of men and women who could be President, by eliminating the non-executive chairmen of eligible companies from consideration, where both the chairmen and chief executive officers used to qualify under the current rules?  If we were to look at the constitutional functions to be performed by the President, including the custodial functions currently required, can we not say that they are in many ways more like those of a non-executive Chairman than an executive officer?

Thank you, Sir.