Elected presidency: Don't set eligibility bar too high

There are still about 19 months until Singaporeans go to the polls to vote for their president - the next election isn't due until August 2017 - but already the wheels are in motion to ensure that only candidates who meet a stricter set of standards are eligible.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong outlined some of the ideas in Parliament on Wednesday, and a new Constitutional Commission chaired by the Chief Justice will study these proposals and make recommendations to the government later in the year.

As things stand, the main criteria to be a presidential candidate is quite clear-cut: Those from the public sector must have served in key appointments such as ministers, attorney-generals or permanent secretaries.

Prospective candidates from the private sector, meanwhile, are required to have once held a comparable position or seniority in a large corporation with a paid-up capital of at least S$100 million. It is this particular benchmark that is likely to be revised upwards. Mr Lee illustrated how Singapore has grown over the last 25 years since the elected presidency was first introduced.

Inflation alone means that S$100 million back in 1990 is equivalent to S$158 million in today's dollars. There are now 2,114 companies with over S$100 million in paid-up capital - that is 13 times more than the 158 firms with that amount in 1993, the year that Ong Teng Cheong became the country's first elected president.

The Singapore economy, too, is much larger. Nominal gross domestic product stood at S$72 billion in 1990; it was S$399 billion last year.

As with all institutions and schemes, it is healthy to revisit their criteria every so often and make any necessary adjustments, given the country's progress and circumstances at that time.

Mr Lee likened the elected presidency to a shoe that has fitted well over the last 25 years but will need to be mended and adjusted on a regular basis to remain functional and in good repair.

The bar, however, should not be set too high such that the pool of credible and willing candidates from the private sector that can stand for election becomes so small that Singaporeans feel that they are not getting much of a choice.

Already, under the existing criteria, more people may be qualified for the job, but in reality only a select few actually turn up at the Elections Department to collect their application forms. In addition to having a strong level of financial competency and the ability to work hand-in-hand with the government, it is just as important - or even more so - that those who aspire to be president must have the heart and will for the job, and be able to connect well with the ground.

The president, after all, is above politics and represents all Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion.

It's worth noting that the pool of people that possess all these qualities and more is already small to begin with, and it would be a pity if voters were not able to choose from the best possible slate of candidates if the hurdle is set too high.

As Mr Lee said in August 2011 before the last presidential election, the ideal person for the role must be someone of character and standing.

"We want somebody with an illustrious track record of accomplishments who has the experience, the competence and the judgment to fulfil the roles of the president and who will hold the office with dignity and distinction. Not everybody can do this," he said.

There is sufficient time for the Constitutional Commission to look at all the different proposals carefully and consult widely with the public and other stakeholders before coming up with its set of recommendations.

President Tony Tan Keng Yam will also weigh in with his views after the report is in, and Parliament will have to debate any potential amendments to the Constitution before they are put to a vote.

What's clear is that the elected presidency scheme is here to stay for the long haul. As Mr Lee said in Parliament, the president would lack the mandate to wield his custodial powers if he wasn't elected by Singaporeans.

The hope is that when it is time for citizens to cast that all-important vote on Polling Day, the names on the ballot will include those who are truly deserving and capable of holding the highest office in the land.

This article was first published on Jan 29, 2016.
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