Law don wants to bar ministers, MPs from endorsing candidates

A law professor has called for the elected presidency to be depoliticised by prohibiting government office-holders and MPs from endorsing any candidate.

Such a ban will ensure that the Office of the President remains politically neutral, Assistant Professor Jack Lee, 45, of the Singapore Management University told the Constitutional Commission hearing on the elected presidency yesterday.

Statements made by government office-holders may also have a "distorting effect" and influence how people vote, he added.

His call reiterates a point made by several others at the last two public hearings on the elected presidency.

They had argued that the president needs to be a unifying force and the election should not be divisive. Currently, there is no rule that forbids political parties or the Government from stating a preference for particular candidates during a presidential election.

Dr Lee said any statement that can be interpreted by the public as an endorsement should be disallowed, even if ministers and MPs speak in their personal capacity.

"It is very hard for the public to distinguish between someone speaking in his political capacity as a member of government, and in his personal capacity," he said.

"It would be difficult; it would probably be better to say nothing at all during the (campaigning) period."

The ban, however, does not have to extend to members of political parties who are not government office-holders or MPs, said Dr Lee.

But Justice Tay Yong Kwang, a commission member, noted: "The strange result (of the ban) is that we are practically, during the run-up to the presidential election, silencing a group of people who have the most to say about presidential elections."

He added: "These are political leaders. If in your view this amounts to political endorsement, then there will be a great silence from the political side of things."

Dr Lee also wants the work of the Presidential Elections Committee to be more transparent. It should, for instance, give detailed reasons to a candidate for his or her application for a certificate of eligibility being turned down.

"It is important that at least the candidates themselves know... why they have not qualified, otherwise it seems very non-transparent, and they have no idea why they are not seen to have sufficient financial ability to run," he said.

This article was first published on April 27, 2016.
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