Thoughts on Voter Education: Presidential Elections event

On 6th September 2017, CAPE held its first dialogue on “Voter Education: Presidential Elections” at Yale-NUS College with the support of Saga College to increase understanding of the new reserved election system and the Elected Presidency (EP).

We invited three speakers to share their thoughts on various related topics:

  1. Professor Kevin Tan, Faculty of Law, NUS: “From Inception to Amendments: History of the Elected Presidency”
  2. Professor Leonard Andaya, Department of Southeast Asian Studies, NUS: “What Makes A Malay?”
  3. Professor Barbara Andaya, Yale-NUS College: “Contextualising ‘Post-Race’ & ‘Post-Gender’ in 21st Century Singapore”

The discussion was moderated by Amelia Chew, a Yale-NUS student reading the Double Degree with Law who had presented at the public hearings for the Constitutional Commission on the EP.

In the 1980s, there arose a fear of a freak election where a rogue government would come to power. The EP was designed to serve as a check in such a situation with their additional discretionary powers, which included safeguarding the reserves. Such was the belief in the new EP system that the Constitution had a provision to require Presidential agreement to any amendment to their office. Without the President’s agreement, a two-thirds majority vote at a national referendum would be needed to amend the office.

Yet, this provision was never brought into force and the EP’s powers were subsequently reduced to avoid hindering the work of the government. The ever-changing nature of the EP’s functions makes it difficult for Singaporeans to realise what the President’s role actually comprises of and its significance. Before the EP, the position was largely ceremonial. It was generally understood that the President would grace important events and represent Singapore, whereas the new discretionary powers of the EP give the sense that the President could be an opposing force to the government. This was most prominently felt in the 2011 Presidential elections, where some candidates asserted that they would speak up for Singaporeans, which K Shanmugam, Minister for Law, disagreed with.

Short of being an opposing force, the President can indeed serve a check and balance against Parliament, as it can object to supply bills passed by Parliament. However, in 2016, Parliament passed Constitutional amendments that restrict the President’s powers, by making it possible for the Council of Presidential Advisors and the Parliament to collectively override the President’s decision. This is worrying since Parliament, with its majority-PAP makeup, can easily change the President’s powers as it wishes — only a two-thirds majority is needed to amend the Constitution. If the Parliament can ultimately make changes, then there is no check and balance – power is effectively (and worryingly) concentrated in the Parliament.

It is clear is that the President’s role is intended to be much more important than before 1991, and that elections are key to legitimising their power, evidenced by the change from an appointed into an elected office. However, the heightened eligibility criteria and reserved election system restrict the possibilities of election and hence legitimisation. Public servants in certain positions unrelated to financial management automatically qualify, though private sector candidates require financial management experience to do so. This precludes diversity in candidates’ backgrounds, given that some candidates qualify much more easily. Many Singaporeans expressed frustration and discontent and the uncontested election of Mdm Halimah Yacob, resulting in the hashtag #notmypresident making the rounds on social media.

We also talked about the problematic aspects of defining ethnicities and in particular, “Malay” ethnicity. Any ethnicity is a construct created by society at that point in time, and is also historically determined. Not only do physical attributes of Malays vary, Malay communities also hold different attitudes towards what makes them Malays. These communities often differentiate themselves from each other – for instance, Javanese Malays and Boyanese Malays – demonstrating that Malayness is a contested idea. Under these circumstances, it is possible that a person can select and highlight certain aspects in order to fulfill a certain community’s criteria.

This brings up questions on how to define communities and how other minorities may be able to qualify and be represented in the EP role. Such criteria is rather irrational and prevents us from moving toward a society where anyone of any race can have the same opportunities and achievements. Our progress is also hindered by the fact that the opportunity for a breakthrough of a Malay person and woman being legitimately elected as President (that is, in a contested open election) is gone, because the second Malay and woman President elected can no longer claim such a revolutionary moment.

The dialogue raised many questions, and these questions are ever so pre-eminent with Mdm Halimah Yacob rising to the role of EP without contest. As one of the speakers said, if we are in a privileged position knowing the problems, we should try to engage. What do you think of the future of the EP and of your role in shaping it?

By Carol Yuen

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