Politics compromises dignity of presidency, allows furthering of political agenda

Posted on 04 September 2011

The solution is to let electoral college throw up eligible presidential hopefuls, says Janadas Devan and Ho Kwon Ping. This commentary is a 60-second reduction of the original published in The Straits Times on Sept. 3.

Janadas Devan (left) and Ho Kwon Ping (right).

If the desired end is an apolitical presidency, then the means employed in choosing the president must also be apolitical too.

However, this year’s presidential elections was a divisive and highly politicised affair. It was also confused and unfortunate.

Why was it confused? Because the victor is accepted by the majority of Singaporeans as qualified to hold office, but he does not have a clear mandate.

And there was the suggestion that he would not have won if Tan Jee Say or Tan Kin Lian had not contested. Then Tan Cheng Bock would have been the winner.

Moreover, at least a quarter of voters saw this presidential elections as a rehash of the general election. They voted for Tan Jee Say who felt that the president need not be “restricted” by the constitution, and should act as a “check and balance” on the government and parliament.

Plus, a sizeable number voted out of frustration with the first-past-the-post system, and they saw this presidential election as a correction of an anomaly in the general election where the opposition won 40 percent of votes but only received 7 percent of parliamentary seats.

This presidential election is also unfortunate as it ended up diminishing Tan Cheng Bock and Tony Tan. The victory of one Dr Tan has been diminished by the tiniest of margin, while the near-victory of the other Dr Tan has been overshadowed by his failure to achieve his long-held dream.

It is also unfortunate that the only winner is Tan Jee Say. Jee Say recognised that the apolitical office for president can be politicised and an opportunity to extend the campaign he launched during the general election in May.

He has now made himself into a household name, more well-known than Low Thia Khiang, who is considered the de facto leader of the opposition. This presidential election has produced one winner in the form of Tan Jee Say, who now has the wherewithal to form his own political party if he so wishes and to further his political ambition in the next general election.

This fact will not be lost on other politically ambitious persons among those currently eligible to run for president. In this class of individuals, Jee Say would be included.

So what can Singaporeans expect from future presidential elections?

1. The presidential election will be a prelude to the general election or else a continuation of one. And when the apolitical presidency becomes the pursuit of politics, parliament will no longer be the primary arena of political debate. The dignity of the presidency will be tarnished.

2. Few or no minority candidates will be able to win a presidential race. With the presidential election as a giant single-seat competition, and with this presidential election a single-race affair, SR Nathan might well be our last minority president.

3. No candidate with the required calibre, with a reputation for personal integrity or fiscal prudence will want to run for presidency given the intense politicking that transpired from this recent contest.

4. Few or no candidates without prior political party affiliation will want to contest for the presidency so it will be politicians for now on.

Therefore, how can the system be reformed?

– We might need to return to parliament the right to elect the president. Plenty of Commonwealth countries are doing so. Before 1993, Singapore did that too.

However, this would be problematic as the government is choosing a person whose chief role is to act as a check on it, in particular, the use of past reserves and crucial public sector appointments.

– This is our favoured approach: Establish an electoral college to nominate the presidential candidates and elect one from among them.

The college must be large to be representative. Consisting of 50 to 100 persons, it will comprise of representatives from major stakeholder groups in society: Unions, combined university student groups, civil society organisations, political parties with parliamentary seats and so on.

From among those who offer themselves for presidency, the college can nominate three or four of them. This will be the first sieve that will produce a pool of candidates.

The eligibility criteria can either be liberalised or tightened further. We are currently agnostic on this topic of eligibility criteria.

As an additional safeguard, the Supreme Court or Public Service Commission can give the final approval to ensure only persons of integrity can run for presidency.

Shortlisted candidates cannot hold rallies. They can go on walkabouts and be interviewed by the media.

Electors should monitor what is being said in the media and social media about these candidates.

The electoral college can then exercise secret voting after in-depth interviews with the candidates. Three rounds of voting might be needed to weed out the weakest candidates, till only the winner being the candidate who has more than 50 percent of votes.

We admonish, politics is vital, but it must also be productive.

The politics in this presidential election that just past was unproductive and was for politics’ sake.

The non-executive nature of the presidency meant that a lot that was promised by the candidates cannot possibly be fulfilled.

Politics should be vested in parliament. If the aim is for an apolitical and impartial president, it is not possible in politics or ethics for bad means to produce good ends.

Ho Kwon Ping is the chairman of the board of trustees of Singapore Management University and executive chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings.

Janadas Devan is associate editor of The Straits Times and director of the Institute of Policy Studies. His father, C.V. Devan Nair, was the third president of Singapore.

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