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Thoughts on the Reserved Elected Presidency (and the Walkover)

The year-long debate on whether presidential elections should even be “reserved” for a particular race, as to whether Wee Kim Wee should be deemed an elected President to determine if this election should be reserved,  and to the Malay-ness of the three prospective candidates, has finally come to a close. No matter what your view on the matter, Singapore will have its first female President come end of September, elected by means of a walkover.

Presidential Independence

If you have ever taken an auditing course, you would know about the concept of audit independence, essentially defined by two legs: independence of mind and independence in appearance. Even if you were to be truly impartial and free of bias, you would also need others to reasonably view you as such.

The very basis of Singapore’s Elected Presidency was premised on this concept of independence. According to PM Lee, the reason for making the President elected was so that he would have the ‘mandate and moral authority’ in exercising his discretionary powers. In fact, during the first presidential elections in 1993, the government went out of the way to persuade a reluctant Chua Kim Yeow to run in order to ensure the President would be elected to office by the people.

Since then, there has only been one other contested election–the “Battle of the Tans” in 2011. The other three (including this one) have been walkovers. Despite what K Shanmugam says, it is still difficult to be convinced that such a President elected by walkover will be truly independent. Such a President is in effect elected by law rather than by the people. (Though, some food for thought: we elected the government that set the laws on electing the President. So perhaps we indirectly elected the President? Then again, this makes it little different from appointing a President.)

Perhaps the government themselves didn’t want a walkover. The amount of preparatory work leading up to the supposed election didn’t seem to suggest otherwise. There was a microsite put up, and even roadshows conducted at selected community centres over the past two weekends to trial a new electronic registration process in selected constituencies. With this assumption, the Presidential Elections Committee indeed has independence of mind, but the independence in appearance criterion is not satisfied to a layperson especially given that the committee is set up by the government itself and the outcome conveniently circumvents the ‘loss of political capital’ problem as espoused by Chan Chun Sing the other way. Or, as some may put forth, the government, after sensing the ground sentiment, realised that many might vote for the non-establishment candidate(s) as a form of protest and decided to play it safe. After all, they have the next four years to regain any political capital lost. Then again, had the committee approved the other two candidates, it would form an unhealthy precedent and undermine the purpose of having such criteria. The committee acted to protect the legitimacy of the criteria, which was the correct thing to do.

With a walkover inevitable, there isn’t any easy way for the government to salvage the situation anyway. A referendum on the sole candidate may as easily backfire; if the candidate receives less than 50% of the votes, what then?


Much has also been debated as to the revised private sector criteria, whereby one now needs to be the top executive of a company worth at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity. Notably, the public sector criteria remained largely untouched. This change effectively whittles the number of potential private sector candidates, thereby increasing the probability of a public servant being elected to office. As we saw with this walkover, the bar was set a little too high for this election such that there are no private sector candidate who explicitly met the criteria chose to step forward (it is unfortunate that there are people from the private sector who qualify but chose not to run).

In a PAP-dominated government where many public servants, like ministers and, ahem, speakers, are affiliated with the ruling party, this screams “kelong”. Though, in the government’s defence, this actually makes sense when you consider the purpose of the Elected President at its inception–to make sure that an irresponsible government of the day is kept in check by someone who knows what he’s doing. In the Constitution, there is a currently unenforced provision that provides for the entrenchment of the Elected President’s powers. If, say, someone of Donald Trump’s calibre becomes the Prime Minister at the next election, and his party doesn’t hold enough seats to reverse the President’s powers, he may at least be kept (partially) in check by the presumably more responsible PAP ex-government.

As it is, PAP isn’t in any immediate danger of losing power, not least while PM Lee helms the party. For now, the changes are likely to be viewed by many as an act of self-preservation. Though, party members, in approving the changes, could have justified the decision ‘for the greater good’, to ensure that there is at least a stable transition to the fourth-generation leadership, which, frankly, seems to be in a mess right now. For the betterment of Singapore, or for self-preservation? It’s a line that’s rather hard to draw.

Race-based Politics?

Then, of course, there is the elephant in the room–race. We’ve been instilled since young that Singapore is a meritocracy, where everyone stands an equal opportunity to succeed no matter his race or religion. We got kicked out of Malaysia in 1965 because we rejected its Bumiputera policy of favouring Malays. Now the implementation of a hiatus-triggered race-reserved system seems incongruent with our values.

The government’s official stance is that to ensure that the minority races are not marginalised and feel adequately represented in Singapore. Implicitly, it seems as though the government is wary of the danger (i.e. extremism) resulting from an alienated minority. Fair enough. The mechanism encourages people from minority races to step up. Indeed, prior to this election, no Malays ran for the office of Elected President. But then this move also opens up another can of worms. Are members of racial minorities in Singapore so incompetent that they need to slant the playing field for them to win? Will a reserved President have the moral mandate to lead where your only competition is disqualified even though he may be every bit as qualified as you, just that he wasn’t born this way? And a more troubling concern–if no one from that race eventually steps up, will that particular race be viewed as inferior? As it is, we only had one explicitly eligible candidate during this reserved election.

The problem with a race barrier versus a meritocratic barrier is that with the latter, you at least have some control over it. Want to be President? Sure, run for public office, be hardworking, prominent and you may just get the chance when you turn 45. But race? You’re essentially born this way (though there has been some controversy as to how ‘Malay’ each of the prospective candidates were before the walkover).

Concluding Thoughts

Like many others have echoed, I am disappointed with the outcome of this supposed election. A self-serving reason would be that I no longer have an off-in-lieu for the election public holiday. But more than that, as much as I would like to believe that the entire process was fair and impartial, I can’t help but feel as though everything was being orchestrated towards a single outcome, one that definitely wasn’t helped by a particular “Madam President” Freudian slip made by a minister in Parliament. That already fails the independence in appearance test, even though it may eventually be proven that all the committees and decision-making leading up to this were done with utmost independence.

On the bright side, the ‘selected’ President is not a bad candidate at all, and may very well be the best candidate for the job even in an open election.

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