How to pick a good president

If the contest is not about ideas and policies, or financial competence, or character, then how's a voter like me to choose between candidates?

As a voter, I confess I entered the voting booth for the 2011 Presidential Election without a clear idea of what I was basing my vote on.

My uncertainty stemmed from what I saw as a paradox: The president was supposed to be a non-partisan figure above politics who is the winner of an election, an exercise often divisive, and inevitablypolitical.

So I was hoping the Constitutional Commission report on the elected presidency, released to the public on Wednesday, would help me better understand what is at stake and what my vote means in a presidential election.

Of course, defining the presidential polls to voters was not the remit of the commission. Its job was to recommend improvements to the elected presidency, and it offered many proposals to tighten the eligibility criteria, ensure minority candidates are elected from time to time, and refine the role of the Council of Presidential Advisers. Its recommendations were carefully explained with cogent and easily understandable reasons.

Still, I could not help but also read the report through the lens of my dilemma as a voter: When there is a presidential contest, what exactly is being contested?

The report contained many signposts on what the presidential election should not be, but fewer clues to what it should be.

For instance, it is clear that the presidential election should not have the clash of ideas and policies that characterises a parliamentary election.

"In contrast, candidates for presidential elections have no policy agenda to advance. There is little, if any, need for the vigorous contest of ideas that takes place during a parliamentary election," the report said.

The commission proposed rules to "restrict or exclude acts that might inflame emotions, cause divisiveness or encourage invective" so that campaigning is conducted "with rectitude and dignity as befits the office and comports with the unifying role and purpose of the presidency".

Since the elected president holds custodial powers over the national reserves, maybe a voter should be asking who is the most competent and honourable candidate who can handle decisions about very large sums of money.

But stringent eligibility criteria, which the commission proposes to further tighten, means all candidates must reach a satisfactory level of character and expertise before the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) allows them to stand.

The choice then is not a stark one, since all candidates are deemed to have the qualities for the job.

If the contest is not about ideas and policies; or financial competence; perhaps it is one about character? So voters would choose the candidate whose character they must trust, for example.

However, the report cautioned that if candidates make attacks on one another's character and competence, it will lead to a divisive, politicised election.

"With the PEC playing the role of scrutinising the candidate's character and experience, the significance of potentially divisive electoral issues such as character, competence and expertise would be minimised," the report said.

Somewhat at a loss as to how I am to assess a potential presidential candidate, I turned to history. But historical precedence is not particularly helpful too. In the first presidential election in 1993, one of the candidates was openly reluctant to run and did so only out of a sense of duty to give voters a choice.

The four-way contest in 2011 was in many ways a case study of what some observers think a presidential election should not be: A fragmented, politicised affair where some candidates made campaign promises that were clearly not in the president's powers to deliver.

In the absence of a clear-cut understanding of what is at stake, voters are likely to end up projecting their own ideas of what the election should be about.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong observed as much in a television interview broadcast last Sunday, when he said that "whatever the formal purpose of the election is, the informal agenda, because of the background issues or the sentiments which are brewing in the population at that time, can have an influence on the election".

He raised the example of Brexit, a referendum in which the British people voted to leave the European Union. It was supposed to be a vote on whether to accept a package of terms for Britain's membership in the union, but it became about dissatisfaction with immigration and unhappiness with the governing establishment class, Mr Lee said.

The commission noted and "strongly endorsed" a widely held view among feedback it received that there is a great need for greater education on the role and powers of the elected president.

I could not agree more. This needs to be a sustained effort as, like all public education exercises, it will take time to change minds and will bear fruit only in the long run.

But first, those running such a public education campaign have to address clearly some basic questions about electing the president. When there is a presidential contest, what exactly is being contested? How are voters to assess which candidates to support if they have all been scrutinised by the PEC?

In the end, I had to find a working answer for myself. I return to the question of how a non-partisan figure above politics can emerge from a highly fraught, political process.

Much of the heat of campaigning could be generated because "ironically, the role of the elected president as a 'check' on the Government would seem to incentivise candidates to campaign on an anti-government platform", the report said.

But this need not be so, as shown by the first elected president Ong Teng Cheong, who came from within the Government as a former deputy prime minister. He earned the people's respect because of the seriousness with which he took his custodial duties, shown by his determination to ascertain the value of the reserves he was tasked with safeguarding.

Perhaps the focus on whether a president has what it takes to carry out his custodial duties has overshadowed his role as "a personification of the state and a symbol of national unity", as the report described the office of the president.

This yardstick may be too abstract to resonate immediately with voters, but it has been the role of the president as head of state since the office was instituted at independence. The addition of custodial powers in no way diminishes this.

At the presidential election next year, the candidate who appeals to me will be the one who brings people together instead of pitting one group against another.

He - or she - should also be a calming presence and pull the country together in times of crisis.

Most importantly, I will be on the lookout for the candidate who conducts himself in a manner such that if he wins, Singaporeans who did not vote for him would have no problem with him being president.

This article was first published on September 11, 2016.
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