Reserved Elections for the Presidency: Does Form Follow Function? – Speech by Pritam Singh

(Delivered in Parliament on 6 February 2017)


Madam Speaker, the Workers’ Party opposes this Bill. The Workers’ Party believes that Singapore is best served by an appointed President and a system that would allow the Government to appoint a President, regardless of race or religion.

One of the most significant aspects of this Bill is the establishment of the Community Committee that ensures that in a reserved election, only persons who see themselves as belonging to a particular community for which the election is reserved, qualify to stand for the Presidential election.

As the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC), and by the extension the Community Committee’s decisions are not justiciable in a court of law, Parliament is effectively the last place for Singaporeans to gain some insight into how the Community Committee will operate in practice. The decision-making processes of the Community Committee and it sub-committees will be the focus of my speech.


Considering oneself a part of a minority community: How are minority applications assessed?

Clause 8(G) is scant on detail as to how the relevant Community Committee sub-committees would assess a potential candidate as to whether he or she is a member of a particular minority community.

With the prospect of reserved elections for minorities, it should be reasonable to assume that the Government expects form to follow function. It cannot be the Government’s intention that a bare declaration stating that a candidate considers himself or herself to be part of a particular community as stated in clause 8(F), would carry overwhelming weight for candidature to the highest office in the land.

To this end, Clause 8(G)(4) states that the Committee must be guided by the merits of the application by a prospective Presidential candidate. But what defines a meritorious application and on what basis will an application be deemed so? What factors are assessed to determine if an applicant sees himself or herself as a member of a particular community?


Is language a relevant consideration?

To begin with, and in step with the Government’s decision to institute reserved elections, the Government must concede that language is an important criteria that is intricately tied to race. To that end, does a minority applicant’s language abilities in his or her mother tongue matter to the relevant Community sub-committees, the same way it does for Singaporean students through their educational journey?

Would an applicant be expected to have passed his or her mother tongue at the ‘O’ or ‘A’ level? For example, should a Presidential candidate who sees himself as part of the Indian community pass muster if he or she can barely get on by in Tamil or the other MOE-recognized Indian languages for example? Can the Minister confirm if language proficiency is a consideration of the Community Committee? And if it is not, why not?


Ought the President’s spouse a member of the same community?

Secondly, the President’s spouse is, for all intents and purposes a customary but central part of the Presidency, reflected most vividly with the portraits of both President and First Lady prominently displayed in all government buildings. Former Speaker of Parliament, Mr Abdullah Tarmugi put it differently when he told the Straits Times about his possible candidacy in the upcoming reserved Presidential elections (and I quote), “I’d be lying if I say that friends have not been asking me about it….if you look at the people who qualify, it is not that big a pool…..I have got to think of my own preferences, my life, my family and my privacy. This is not a journey I take myself.” (unquote) The last point is worth repeating and needs to be stressed, “this is not a journey I take myself.”

On that note, has the Government deliberated whether the background of an aspiring President’s spouse is a factor for Community Committee’s consideration in assessing whether the applicant is a member of a particular community? For example, in the case of an interracial marriage, what if the spouse of the applicant does not see himself or herself to be a part of the Indian community whereas the aspiring Presidential candidate does? What if a spouse has converted to Islam in order to marry but does not partake in the practices of the faith? Madam Speaker, these questions are central to the symbolic role of the President as a unifier of the country, and even more so after the Government has determined that some Presidential elections ought to be reserved for specific races. Should there be residual doubts about how Community Committee makes its decisions, the Presidency could be anything but a unifying office not just for Singaporeans in general, but the respective minority race in particular.


Is prior community work a requirement of candidature?

A third aspect of this Community Committee I wish to clarify with the Minister is whether the Community Committee would expect an applicant to be active in community work and what this entails. This expectation has also been referred to by one academic who was quoted in the media as saying that if an applicant has not been (and I quote) “in the public eye and is not active in community work, it is much harder to make the case for seeking election to the highest office of the land.” (unquote) What are the expectations of community service among the candidates and if so, are the expectations the same with regard to all four classes of candidates, namely the public sector track, public sector deliberative track candidate, private sector or private sector deliberative track?


A National Service requirement for male candidates?

Fourthly, during the recent debate on the Constitution, one PAP MP suggested that the presidency ought to be reserved for individuals born in Singapore. The Government did not address this point during the debate but perhaps it can today. Can the Government at least affirm that the Presidential Elections Committee shall not issue a certificate of eligibility to any male candidate who has not performed his two years of national service? This would be in line with the reality that National Service brings Singaporeans of all races together towards a common purpose and would serve as an important foundation for the life experience of any future President.


Not lowering the bar for minority candidates: the public sector deliberative track

Fifthly Madam Speaker, I take the position that because minority candidates are likely to be few to begin with, many candidates are likely to enter Presidential elections through the public sector track or public sector deliberative tracks rather than the more stringent private sector track with its $500m threshold. This may render hollow the Government’s claims that it is not relaxing the criteria to make it easier for minorities to assume the Presidency as a result of the latest constitutional changes. If so, the more accurate statement would be that the stringent private sector requirements simply do not apply for public sector track or public sector deliberative track candidates, minority or otherwise. What this point does reiterate however, is the importance of the Government sharing what criteria will be used by the PEC to determine if a public sector deliberative track minority candidate qualifies for candidature as President in the first place.


What happens when a minority MP steps down from a GRC?

Finally, the very idea of race poses other considerations in certain cases of reserved elections involving public sector track or public sector deliberative track candidates. For example, in the case of Madam Speaker, should the Honourable Speaker decide to stand as a candidate, what happens to the very existence of the Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, which by law requires a Malay MP as one of its political representatives in parliament? Should it be passed, does this Bill herald a new precedent in marked contrast to the scenario in Jurong GRC some years ago when the late PAP MP Mr Ong Chit Chung passed on? Does the Bill, and the prospect of reserved Presidential elections change the Government’s thinking on this question: Would a by-election be called in a GRC when the minority member of a GRC steps down to contest in a Presidential election? Can the Government set its position out on this matter in light of the introduction of reserved Presidential elections?


Thank you.