Updated benchmarks needed for future presidential candidates: PM Lee

SINGAPORE - Changes to Singapore's elected presidency system are afoot, chief among them the likelihood that the qualifying criteria will be tightened to ensure that only the most capable make the final cut.

The government is also mooting the idea of a mechanism to ensure that a minority candidate can be periodically elected if the country has not had a particular minority race as president for some time.

Outlining these ideas in a major parliamentary speech lasting 90 minutes on Wednesday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stressed the importance of Singapore having "good politics and good policies".

His address to the House was in response to President Tony Tan Keng Yam's remarks at the opening of Parliament on Jan 15, when he announced that the government would study whether improvements to Singapore's political system were needed.

The Constitution was amended in 1991 to provide for the election of the president, and the first to be elected to the office was Ong Teng Cheong in 1993.

The next presidential election is due by August 2017.

Mr Lee reiterated that having qualifying criteria ensures that candidates for the post will come from among those with high senior-management competence and experience; such individuals would have job scopes that require them to assess and decide on financial proposals involving billions of dollars, and the fitness to hold demanding appointments.

A prospective candidate is required to have once held key appointments such as speaker of parliament or chief justice or cabinet minister, or have had experience running large organisations with a paid-up capital of at least S$100 million.

"The principle remains valid, but the details may need to be brought up to date," said the prime minister, who distributed a chart to all MPs to illustrate the scale of Singapore's growth in the last 25 years and how the size and complexity of companies here have increased multi-fold.

Inflation alone would have swelled 1990's S$100 million to about S$158 million in today's dollars, he said.

Singapore's gross domestic product (GDP) in 1990 was S$72 billion; last year it was S$399 billion. The government's expenditure went from S$11 billion in 1990 to nearly S$68 billion last year.

The benchmark companies used in the setting of the qualifying criteria have also since grown much larger. Mr Lee cited the example of Singtel, which was incorporated in 1992 and listed a year later. In 1993, its paid-up capital was S$500 million; today, it stands at S$2.64 billion.

When Singaporeans first went to the polls to vote for their president in 1993, only 158 companies had more than S$100 million in paid-up capital. The figure soared to 1,200 in 2010 and has since risen to the current 2,114.

After the four-way battle of the last presidential election ended with Dr Tan victorious following a vote recount, presidential elections committee chairman Eddie Teo, in a letter to Mr Lee, noted that the criterion of S$100 million in paid-up capital was set more than 20 years ago, so it was unclear if the threshold continued to reflect the original intent of the requirement.

Mr Teo also noted that the smallest companies in Singapore with a paid-up capital of that amount today would "fall well short" in both size and complexity, based on the original set of benchmarks. "This is an issue that the government may wish to review," he wrote. Mr Lee told the House he agreed with the assessment.

The prime minister added that it was timely to look into ensuring that minority candidates could have a chance to become president. With future presidential polls likely to be contested, it would become "much harder" for minorities to be elected, he said. Singapore has not had a Malay head of state since the elected presidency was introduced 25 years ago. Mr S R Nathan, an Indian who served two terms as president, was elected unopposed on both occasions.

"We should consider a similar mechanism for presidential elections, to ensure that minorities can be periodically elected if we have not had a particular minority as president for some time," he said.

There are also plans to study if the views of the Council of Presidential Advisors, which advises the president, should be given greater weight.

A new Constitutional Commission will be set up to study these issues and make recommendations, said Mr Lee. To be chaired by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, it will include jurists, academics and corporate executives. Mr Lee said he hoped the panel would be done with its work by the third quarter of this year.

Depending on the recommendations and the government's response to them, the authorities will follow up by tabling the necessary legislation within the year.

Along with other changes to the political system - improving the non-constituency member of parliament scheme and raising the number of opposition MPs from nine to 12, among others - Mr Lee said the aim is to strengthen the system, make it more open and contestable and to remain accountable to Singaporeans.

"It has to be a system where all political parties, and especially the PAP, have to fight hard, stay lean and responsive to the people, and win the right to govern at each election, where Parliament will always be the place to debate and decide important policies, where alternative views always have a place, where the opposition will never be shut out, and the government will be held to account, so that the government of the day - whoever that may be - is always kept on its toes," he said.

Good policies and good politics have carried Singapore through a good 50 years of independence, he added.

"In 50 years, most of us will not be around. We do not know what Singapore will be like, or whether the PAP will still be the government. But we can and must help Singapore build a political system that will give us the best shot at prosperity and progress, a system that future generations can continue to improve and adapt to meet their future needs."

This article was first published on Jan 28, 2016.
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