PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Parliamentary Debate on the Constitution (Amendment) Bill

PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Parliamentary Debate on the Constitution (Amendment) Bill

PM Lee Hsien Loong | 8 November 2016 | Transcript exactly as delivered

 

Madam Speaker, I support the Bill.

Since the opening of Parliament in January, we have had a full programme. We have implemented Silver Support and MediShield Life, and we have expanded SkillsFuture. We have been busy building our infrastructure, housing and transport.

These are all good policies, but all not possible without good politics. It is good politics that enables Singapore to have a Government that produces good policies. One that is responsible and does the right thing, serves the people, safeguards our stability and success and leads the country to greater heights. 

That is why in January, I raised the subject of the Elected President, and then appointed a Constitutional Commission to review the Elected Presidency scheme. The Elected President sits at the apex of our political system and of our country. He is the Head of State, representing Singaporeans of all races and religions and he holds the second key over reserves and over public service appointments. The Elected Presidency scheme is working, there has been no pressure to change the system.

But it is my Government’s duty to review the scheme, to make adjustments well ahead of time to enable it to continue to function well, because the Elected Presidency is a long term stabiliser for our system. The consequences of any strengths and weaknesses in the design of the Elected Presidency scheme will only show up much later. Either they will build up gradually and cumulatively over the terms of successive Presidents or they may manifest themselves suddenly, but unpredictably, in a crisis one day, when we most need the second keys. Therefore, if we wait until problems are urgent and obvious before we act, it will be much too late.

We have had a comprehensive national debate on this matter over the last ten months. The Constitutional Commission received over 100 submissions from the public, held two months of public hearings, deliberated, and published their report two months ago. I spoke about the matter at the National Day Rally and I followed up in a MediaCorp interview. In September, the Government published a White Paper setting out the changes that we would make and my colleagues have held many dialogues with groups of different backgrounds and ethnicities, and yesterday, we began debating the Bill in this House.

It has been an important and necessary debate because the changes to the Constitution as major as this one, determine the direction of our country, and I am glad that many Singaporeans have taken interest, brought their minds to bear on the matter, and have given their views. 

The details are necessarily voluminous and complex. Yesterday, DPM Teo Chee Hean spent 90 minutes explaining the Bill. Today, let me focus on two fundamental points. The Elected President as an important stabiliser in our system and the need for the Presidency to be multi-racial. 

Stabiliser

First of all, why is the Elected President an important stabiliser in our system?

History of Our Constitution 

Let me start with a bit of history.

Singapore did not begin with a fully conceived Constitution. When we separated from Malaysia and became independent, all we had was the State Constitution for Singapore within the Federation of Malaysia. It was a fit-for-purpose for Singapore as a constituent state in a federation but not a complete Constitution for an independent country.

To get that, we took a practical approach. We grafted pieces from the Federal Constitution of Malaysia onto our State Constitution and so it became the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore in December 1965. It was patch-work and it was inelegant, but it provided us a working basis to start from.

It was such a messy document that in 1970, Mr Lee Kuan Yew asked the British to help draft us a more elegant, comprehensive and enduring Constitution. The idea was to have something like the United States (US) Constitution, amended only 27 times over 200 years with a beautiful, timeless form of words that everyone knows and venerates, and that will guide the country for many more years to come. The British law experts who have drafted many new Constitutions for different Commonwealth countries came back with a shiny, new Constitution. From the legal point of view, they did a first-rate job. But in the end, Mr Lee decided not to use it because the drafters did not understand our circumstances or our history, and did not have direct experience of what worked and what would not work. So we stuck to our patchwork Constitution, which took into account the idiosyncrasies of our history and circumstances. It was a document that our people understood and were used to, and which worked. As time passed, we amended it repeatedly and adapted it to our needs. Mr Lee famously described it as being like stretching and occasionally re-soling and easing into worn-out old shoes, instead of buying a brand new pair, beautiful, shiny but which would not fit as well. 

That has been our Constitutional path over the past 50 years. Our Constitution is a living document. It has evolved as our needs changed, and it has served us well.

History of political system

The journey of our Constitution reflected how our political system evolved. 

As a newly independent country, with the State Constitution as a basis, we started off with a unicameral legislature. It is a big word to mean a single House of Parliament. At that time, the PAP occupied every seat in Parliament and had the full support of the people. The opposition was virtually non-existent. Mr Lee and his team could have done anything they wanted if they had wished. But we were fortunate that our founding fathers were capable, responsible, and trustworthy stewards, and they used the freedom of action which they had, to steer Singapore safely through many dangers. They operated the system in the long-term interest of Singapore. As Mr Lee once said, if he had wanted to, he could have changed this into a one-party state. But he did not because he preserved the democratic system in order that you have a government which is lean, subject to competition, and which would serve the long-term interests of the country. 
But even then, Mr Lee and his team were conscious that the system was not inherently robust, and that they needed to build up state institutions like the civil service and the courts. We would always need good people in politics, but we also required sound institutions.

By the early 1980s, the time was ripe for us to consider what more we needed to do because by the early 1980s, after two decades of nation building, we had accumulated a nest egg of reserves. Mr Lee was worried that one day we might have a freak election result and the money would be squandered by a profligate government. Our public service had also established a reputation for impartiality, integrity and quality. If the service ever got corrupted, especially the key appointments, it would be impossible to ever clean it up again. In fact, in the 1959 General Elections when the PAP first came to office, Mr Lee and his colleagues thought very carefully before deciding to fight to win. Because they knew they were in a weak position vis-à-vis the Communists in the PAP. If they fought to win after the PAP got in to the Government, they would have a big fight with the Communists in the PAP. Nevertheless, they decided to go for it and to win. The consideration was, if they did not win and another team came in, corrupt, and corrupted the civil service that would be the end. If the PAP came in a term later, it would be unable to put things right again. That is how important maintaining the integrity of the public service was to our founding generation of leaders.

So after 20 years with the reserves to worry about, with the civil service at a high quality, Mr Lee proposed the idea in 1984 of an Elected President. The idea was debated, refined and eventually legislated in 1990.

For the past quarter century since we have implemented the scheme, the Elected Presidency scheme has worked well and become a valuable part of our political system. It is unique. Other political systems may have stabilising institutions like an Upper House, a Constitutional court, or an Executive President, separate from the Parliament. But no other country has anything quite like Singapore’s Elected President.

It is a unique system, very difficult to get right, because the balance is a delicate one. A symbolic Head of State, but elected through a national ballot with a popular mandate, but not a mandate to govern. He can use his mandate to say no in certain areas but not to push for policies or to initiate action. 

The Presidential election itself presents some difficulties. In a fiercely contested campaign, emotions and sentiments can build up, and issues that have nothing to do with the role of the President can become hot. Candidates may then make claims, promises and declarations which go beyond the President’s powers and competence under the Constitution. We saw that happen in the 2011 Presidential Election. One candidate championed a $60 billion economic plan, supposedly to create jobs and enterprise. Another candidate made proposals such as better recognition for national servicemen or more help for the poor and unemployed. But these are the Government’s responsibility, for the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to decide. The person who is standing for election as the guardian of the reserves is offering us his platform to open the doors and make free. It is not for the President to promise these things in a campaign, or push for them after being elected. But in 2011, some candidates’ attitude was, “Never mind, just say it. Get elected first, worry about the Constitution later on”. They do not. But for all these difficulties, I am convinced that the Elected President has been a plus for our system. Having this stabiliser is critical and has already made a difference. Even though it is not easy to get right, we should persevere to improve the system. We can find ways to mitigate the difficulties, and will do so because the alternatives to the Elected President will create other, probably worse difficulties.

Alternatives 

What are the alternatives? There have been different suggestions including by the Constitutional Commission, who raised the issue in their report, though it was not within their terms of reference, because they felt strongly that this was important and should be brought to the Government’s attention. Let me discuss three of the ideas.

Non-Elected President, Custodial Powers 

The first suggestion is to have a non-Elected President, but with the same custodial powers as the Elected President, namely reserves and personnel, key appointments.

I do not think this is wise. To veto the Government is a major decision. You must have a democratic mandate to make that call. When the elected Government asks an unelected President to approve something and the unelected President says yes, there is no problem.  But when an unelected President has to say no to an elected Government, he will find it very hard to stand his ground and the public will find it hard to accept. The Government will argue, with justification, “Who are you to say no? We are elected, you are not. We represent the people’s will. Please approve what we propose”. The President’s “No” will not stick.

Non-Elected President, Powers Vested in Council of Presidential Advisers

A second suggestion is to revert to a ceremonial President, chosen by Parliament, not elected in a national election but vest the second key in the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA). Give the power to the CPA.

However, the same argument for electing a President with custodial powers would apply to a CPA with custodial powers. An unelected CPA, a council of non-political wise men, working as an advisory panel to the Elected President who makes the final decision and has a democratic mandate. That works well. The President has a mandate, the President makes the final decision, and the advisory panel gives him wise, informed, impartial advice, non-elected but with experience brought to bear.  But once the CPA itself becomes the decision maker, if the CPA members are unelected, the same problem that an unelected President has saying no, the CPA will have in saying no. So what is the solution? The solution then, we elect the CPA. In effect, the CPA becomes an Upper House. Then instead of having one national election to choose a President, we would have elections for six, eight or ten Presidential Advisers. Instead of having one Presidential race risking being politicised, we would have six, eight, or ten CPA races, at similar risk. The problem will be amplified and not reduced. 

Non-Elected President, no Second Key 

The third alternative is to return to the status quo ante. Go back to a non-Elected President, purely ceremonial like before 1990. Do away both with the President’s custodial powers and with the CPA. Let Parliament be supreme, with unrestricted power to do as it pleases. No safeguard, no stabiliser, no fault tolerance but that would be very unwise.

I believe that over the past 25 years, even though the Elected President has never had to veto any spending proposal by the Government, by the very existence of his powers, he has influenced Singapore politics for the better. The prospect of a veto alone has lessened the temptation for political parties to promise the world to voters in General Elections. Everyone knows that a government who says, “Just spend the money”, $60 billion, $80 billion, $100 billion on free university education, free healthcare, cheap homes, has first to persuade the President to unlock the reserves. And that is an important reason why opposition parties have been quite cautious with their spending proposals even during General Elections. Without the second key, I am quite sure some opposition parties would have gone to town many elections ago and the PAP Government would have come under pressure to match their generosity, and might well have found it difficult to hold the line.

You heard about the Australian experience yesterday. It holds many lessons. During the commodities boom, the Australian Government started to accumulate budget surpluses. They wanted to save these surpluses for the future. It established a sovereign wealth fund, called the “Future Fund”, to cover Australia’s future pension liabilities. But the political dynamic of the electoral contest resulted in elections becoming auctions. So what happened? Seven consecutive years of personal income tax cuts, increased subsidies and benefits for pensioners. Somebody subsequently did a report which concluded that during the boom, out of every AUD$19 the Australian Government received in additional revenue, it saved AUD$1 and it spent AUD$18. So in total they gave back AUD$180 billion either through taxpayers, through tax cuts or by spending it. When the commodities boom ended, as all such booms do, Australia went into deficit. The Future Fund is empty. The Government had to make very painful spending cuts and still the budget will be in deficit for years to come. Singapore is not in such a position, and for that, some credit must go to the system of the Elected President with veto powers over reserves. 

Some agree that we should have safeguards on the reserves, but argue that the powers should be vested in Parliament instead of a separate institution. That may help, but as DPM Teo pointed out yesterday, in Parliament, the pressure is to do more rather than to spend less. I cannot recall the last occasion in this House when any political party or Member of Parliament (MP) has pressed the Government to spend less or to raise more taxes. In fact, on the contrary, when the spending proposals come up and we press the MPs on how are they to be paid for, the answer is, “you do not have to worry. This is a good investment”. That is why we need the second key to be held by another elected institution, separate from Parliament, and that is the Elected President.

Furthermore, making everything depend on one institution, namely the Parliament, creates what the engineers would call a single point of failure. Everything hinges on the outcome of a single general election, on the Government elected into Parliament in that one vote every five years. If the election takes place when the country happens to be worked up over some issue, then the Government that is elected may take action that the country will later regret. And that is why in countries with an Upper House and a Lower House, often hold their Upper and Lower House elections separately. Staggered timings, and different constituencies, not exactly the same. So that when you decide the future of the country at the ballot box, you are never risking everything in one throw of the electoral dice.  What the Chinese call 孤注一掷, put all your chips there and risk it. That is why we decided that the second key should be held by the Elected President, a different and independent institution, elected in a separate Presidential election, with a different term of office from the Government.

We are trying to design our political system to have the right balance between a decisive Executive and having adequate stabilisers. At one extreme, without stabilisers, the system will be unstable. If anything goes wrong, the consequences can be very serious. At the other extreme, if the stabilisers are too strong, we risk gridlock, difficult to get anything done. We started very close to the first extreme, a unicameral, single Parliament, untrammelled. Then we made a careful shift. We introduced this safeguard, the Elected President, to protect reserves and appointments, and address specific vulnerabilities which we have in Singapore.

Seen against the range of democratic systems that exist in different countries, this is not a fundamental shift from our system of Parliamentary democracy but it is an important one, because every political system needs stabilisers.

Let me illustrate with two, quite extreme examples, Britain and the US. The country which comes closest to a Parliament which has no constraint is the United Kingdom (UK). There is no written Constitution. Theoretically, the House of Commons, by simple majority can make any decision. Decide to do away with the monarchy, abolish the House of Lords, or even doing away with the elections altogether. Still, even in Britain, the courts have become a check on the Government. The courts have taken an expanded view of their traditional role interpreting and administering the law, but doing it in such a way now that they make judgments and orders that are in effect executive decisions. For example, 40 years ago, during the Northern Ireland conflict, the UK Government enacted tough measures against Irish Republication Army terrorists. They restricted civil liberties, they tightened court procedures and they implemented internment, which is detention without trial. By and large, these measures were met with robust judicial acceptance and approval but in more recent times, that has changed. After 9/11, when jihadist terrorism prompted the Government to push for similar measures, the judicial response has become more critical and challenging. When the UK Government tries to deport convicted foreign terrorists, the cases are endlessly litigated, and the judges make their interpretation of the facts and what the Minister is entitled to do, and the Government finds itself impotent to act.

That is one extreme. The other extreme is the US which lays great store on checks and balances. The US has elevated the separation for powers almost into a sacred doctrine. The Congress, the Executive, and the Supreme Court. Three centres of power, constantly checking and balancing each other. The Congress itself is divided between the House and Senate, separately elected, and often with different parties controlling each one. The tension is always there, and sometimes results in gridlock. Some people would say, usually results in gridlock. But the US accept that, because their overriding priority and philosophy is to prevent an overbearing government. Because of the historical experience of the British, they wanted to make sure that their government would never impose the same tyranny on their people. 

Right now, the US is about to go to the polls, in a few hours’ time, to elect a new President. The world is watching with bated breath, exceptionally concerned what the outcome will be because this time the two candidates represent radically different world views, and in the case of one candidate, a very unconventional approach to the issues and the challenges that the country faces. The outcome will matter a lot, to the US and to the world but one factor which people take some comfort in is the strong checks and balances in the US political system. They make it not so easy to make things happen but they make it very difficult for things to go disastrously wrong. So whoever wins, hopefully it will not be so easy for things to go completely out of kilter. When I was in Washington in August, just before National Day, I was asked this question at the press conference with President Obama. I made this point, speaking slightly out of turn, and President Obama commented wryly, “the wisdom of the founding fathers”. There was wisdom there. James Madison, one of the founding fathers, wrote in the first of the Federalist Papers, a series of essays which sets out the philosophy and arguments, and the options as the US debated how to craft the Constitution. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary”. And he goes on to say, “A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control on the Government, but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” In other words, elections are very important to choose the Government which the people need and deserve, but you cannot just rely just on that simple, bare idea. You need other ideas to make a complete and a stable system. 

That is wisdom. I do not think a system like the US can work for Singapore but we too need some “auxiliary precautions”, some stabiliser, besides the “primary control”, which is the fact that Parliament is elected by the people and for us that stabiliser is the Elected President.

Therefore, we should keep the Elected President and fine-tune its stabiliser role. Hence, we are raising the eligibility criteria, we are strengthening the CPA, and we are revising the entrenchment framework. That is one major part of this Bill. 

Multi-Racialism

Now, let me speak specifically about the racial provisions.

Amongst all the changes in this complicated Bill, the one which we thought hardest about, and where the most is at stake, is the question of ensuring multiracial representation in the Elected Presidency. To raise the qualifying criteria is relatively straightforward, because it is an objective bar. To strengthen the CPA is a matter of fine-tuning. The provisions on veto and entrenchment are essentially a legal drafting problem, setting the right balance between flexibility and rigidity in the Constitution, but it can be done.  It may take several tries, this is our third try, but it can be done.

But whether to ensure that people from different races can and do indeed become President is the most difficult question, because it goes right to the core of our fundamental belief in a multi-racial society. As the Head of State, the President is the symbol of our nation. He represents all Singaporeans. Therefore, the office must be multi-racial. At the same time, whichever ethnic group the President belongs to, he has to be multi-racial in his approach. He has to reach out to all races, connect with every Singaporean. Fortunately all our Presidents, so far, have done that. If the President, who is the symbol of a multi-racial nation, always comes from the same race, not only will he cease to be a credible symbol of our nation, but the very multi-racial character of the nation will come under question. Every citizen, Chinese, Malay, Indian, or some other race, should know that someone of his community can become President, and in fact from time to time, does become President.

This is not a theoretical matter – for us race is a very live consideration, with real world implications. We have made enormous progress in our racial harmony, certainly, but we are not completely there. As a small, open, multi-racial country, our ethnic groups are always subject to different external pulls and influences. Our racial harmony can be affected by developments in other countries and this applies to all our ethnic groups. 

Take the rise of China, with which we have substantial relations. I spoke about this in the NDR, and Ms Tin Pei Ling, I was happy to hear, spoke about it yesterday too. China’s rise is a tremendous plus for Singapore, and for the world. Our companies do a lot of business in China, and many Chinese companies participate in our economy. We work on Government-to-Government projects, Suzhou, Tianjin, and now the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative. We have toing and froing intensively, tourism, culture, education. Every Chinese New Year, without Chinese artisans, we will not have all the 灯笼 (lanterns) at Riverside Hong Bao. Every community event, there is some engagement, some flow, some connection, with some part of China which can add some extra colour and vividness to our Singapore Chinese Culture. We want to grow this cooperation with China and take full advantage of our familiarity with the culture and language.  Not just bilingualism but biculturalism and we make a big effort to develop those links. . Yet, there is a risk. Because of our population composition and cultural familiarity, people may misunderstand us to be a Chinese country, and forget that in fact, Singapore is an independent sovereign country, cooperating with other countries on the basis of our own national interests and positions. It can lead to misunderstandings, it can lead to unrealistic expectations and it can lead to us being carried away, even domestically, and forgetting this fundamental fact about Singapore. That we are independent, sovereign and multi-racial in Southeast Asia. That is what we must always remember. 

We are not a Chinese country, but a multi-racial, multi-religious Southeast Asian country with an ethnic Chinese majority, but not a Chinese country. We have to show this. We have to show this domestically, to our own population, the Chinese population as well as the non-Chinese population. We have to show this externally to other countries too. So that is one important way in which the external world influences our domestic racial cohesion and considerations.

Secondly, amongst our closest neighbours, race and religion are hot issues. We look at Indonesia, Basuki Tjahaya Purnama, you may know him by another name Ahok, is running for re-election as Governor of Jakarta. Ahok is a Chinese and a Christian. His opponents cited a Koranic verse to tell Muslims not to vote for Ahok. They called him a “Kafir”, an infidel, a strong word. Ahok responded in a YouTube video and accused them of lying and misinterpreting the Koran. Then they attacked Ahok for blasphemy. Ahok was forced to apologise but his opponents staged a huge demonstration in Jakarta last Friday. The protestors yelled “We want a Muslim Governor!” and “Burn Ahok!” There was violence and rioting.  And today I read in the newspaper that Ahok went to the police yesterday and the police interviewed him for nine hours. They are investigating whether he committed blasphemy. In Malaysia, politics is based on race and religion.  It is anti-thesis of the way politics is conducted in Singapore. Political Islam is a dominant feature. PAS has tabled a hudud bill in Parliament. The Barisan Nasional Government has allowed it to be put on the Order Paper. Non-Muslim parties are deeply upset about this, but they know that in such matters, they do not decide. The divide between the races is very deep.

In Singapore, we worry about race and religion ourselves too. What will happen to our society if we have a terrorist attack? What more if the attack is by a Singaporean, self-radicalised after visiting extremist websites? Will we stand together, or will we split along racial and religious lines? A terrorist attack is frightening but if it comes from outside, I think it is not so hard to understand, we pull together. If it should come from within, are we sure that we can heal back together so easily, unless we work very hard at it before the fact.  These external events and influences will affect our social cohesion.

We are building a radically different society in Singapore than other countries in the region, than China, because that is overwhelmingly one ethnic group, the Hans, than our neighbours, who are working on a different basis than we are. We are seeking to be multi-racial, equal and harmonious. Gradually enlarging our shared Singaporean identity, while celebrating our different cultures and faiths. Allowing minority communities ample space to live their own ways of life, never forcing everybody to conform to a single norm set by the majority. We have to work consciously and systematically at this. It will not happen by itself, nor will we get there if we blithely assume that we have already arrived and do not talk about it, do not do anything about it, and we are okay. That is not the way to be okay. 

The President is the most important unifying symbol of the nation. Singaporeans look up to the President as the personification of all that Singapore stands for and all that we stand for in Singapore. So it is a fundamental necessity that the Presidency be multi-racial.

If we have a nominated President, we can do this informally. Parliament can choose Presidents from all races over a period of time, as it did. The office will de-facto be multi-racial, without explicit, formal, Constitutional arrangements.

But if the President is elected in a national election, if we do not make deliberate arrangements to ensure a multi-racial outcome, the Presidency could well become a single-race office because minorities do find it harder to win in a national election.

This is not an easy subject to speak about openly. Many of us want to be race-blind. We feel that we ourselves are race-blind. We are understandably uneasy about any suggestion that perhaps we are not so. I am heartened that is our ideal and aspiration but at the same time we have to be realistic about where we are today. You have seen the surveys. They show that at least a significant minority of Singaporeans consider race as a factor when they vote, and will not vote for somebody of a different race to be President. Not everybody, but not a small minority either. And that puts the minority candidates at a disadvantage in an election. 

Mr Murali spoke about this yesterday, and he knows this from personal experience. I knew this when I sent Mr Murali to Bukit Batok to fight a by-election in a SMC, knowing that it is not so easy for a non-Chinese to do that. I did it because he knew the ground, I knew him, and I judged that this was a risk that I was prepared to take. He fought hard, he won, but he can tell you, and I can tell you, that he had to fight harder than if I had sent a similar Chinese candidate familiar with the ground to go and fight and win. It is a reality of Singapore society and Singapore politics. 

It is not just Singapore. This is so in every country, including the US. In 1992, when Bill Clinton first stood for President, he ran against George HW Bush, the senior George Bush. The blacks voted for Bill Clinton. Toni Morrison, who is a black female Nobel laureate for Literature, described Bill Clinton rapturously as “the first black President”. Years later in 2008, Hillary Clinton, his wife, ran against Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination in the primaries. Bill Clinton repeated this phrase and described himself as “the first Black President”, to shore up Hillary. He thought it would help. Instead, he caused an uproar in the African-American community. The blacks voted overwhelmingly against Hillary, for Obama. Then Obama became President. It was a real breakthrough for African Americans. People said marvellous – race no longer matters in US politics, but they were too optimistic. 

After eight years of a black President, in the current election you have two white candidates, Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump. What is the election about? At one level, it is about globalisation, jobs, insecurity but on another level, race is front and centre. Trump supporters are overwhelmingly white, lower and middle income voters. They feel threatened by the demographic changes happening in America. Theirs is a white protest vote. The blacks are again overwhelmingly voting for Hillary Clinton, but with somewhat less enthusiasm than when they voted for President Obama. And the Latinos, also ethnically as a group, are voting against Mr Trump and are turning out in big numbers, because they see that perhaps Trump may win if they do not vote.

The moral of the story is that race and religion are very deep-seated realities in every country. We must take them very seriously. So even though there is no pressure, and the minority communities have not pressed for it, we should make arrangements now, to ensure that the Presidency will be multi-racial.

We have decided to do this through what the Constitutional Commission has called the hiatus-triggered model, which means that Presidential elections are generally open to candidates of all races but if we have not had a President from a particular community for five consecutive terms, then the next term will be reserved for candidates from that community. If one of them is elected, we will have a President from that community. This means that in the course of six Presidential terms, there should be at least one Chinese President, one Malay President, and one President who is either Indian or Other Minority, provided qualified candidates appear. Which means that out of six terms, there will be at least two non-Chinese Presidents, which means one in three Presidents will be non-Chinese, which is bigger than the proportion of non-Chinese in our population. Some people have objected that this arrangement goes against the principle of meritocracy. I understand their concerns, but I would like you to consider two points. 

First, the candidate in a reserved election must still meet the same qualifying criteria. He must be competent for the job of wielding the custodial powers. He must be as qualified as any other candidate who stands and wins in a non-reserved election. Secondly, the symbolic role of the President is just as important as his custodial role. As a symbol of the nation, the race of the candidate is relevant. So while individually, a good candidate of any race will be satisfactory, collectively, over a period of time, we need that mix of Presidents of different races, and the election mechanism must be designed to produce such a mix over time, and that is what the hiatus-triggered model delivers.

When should the racial provision start counting?  The Constitutional Amendment Bill states that the Government should legislate on this point and the Government intends to legislate when we amend the Presidential Elections Act in January next year.

We have taken the Attorney-General’s advice. We will start counting from the first President who exercised the powers of the Elected President, in other words, Dr Wee Kim Wee. That means we are now in the fifth term of the Elected Presidency. We will also have to define the ethnic group of each of the Elected Presidents we have had so far. There is no practical doubt, but as a legal matter we have to define it because you cannot convene the Committee retrospectively to certify them. The Act will deem Dr Wee Kim Wee as Chinese, Mr Ong Teng Cheong as Chinese, Mr S R Nathan, who served two terms, as Indian, and Dr Tony Tan as Chinese.

Therefore by the operation of the hiatus-triggered model, the next election, due next year, will be a reserved election for Malay candidates and that means if a Malay candidate steps up to run, or more than one Malay candidate step up to run, who is qualified, Singapore will have a Malay President again. As Minister Yaacob Ibrahim observed yesterday, this would be our first after more than 46 years, since our first President Encik Yusof Ishak. I look forward to this. 

Madam Speaker, these are practical arrangements we must make, in order to make our multi-racial system work. We recognise where we are and we will work to strengthen our multi-racial society. Our ideal is to be race-blind. We “pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion”, and we must continue striving towards this goal. As we get closer to this ideal, and minority candidates are regularly Elected President in open elections, we will need the hiatus-triggered reserved elections less and less.

Why now?

We have spent a lot of energy and time on the changes to the Elected President this year. I personally have paid a lot of attention to this. I feel strongly that this is my responsibility and something that I need to do now.
Let me explain why. I have been involved with the Elected Presidency almost from the start. As a young Minister, I helped Mr Goh Chok Tong and his team develop Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s concept into a complete scheme, and I helped Professor Jayakumar to draft the White Papers in 1988 and in 1990. Since the Elected Presidency began, I have been operating the mechanism that we designed, and discovering its glitches. I helped to refine and amend the scheme as we went along. And after becoming Prime Minister, I have worked closely with two Elected Presidents, Mr S R Nathan and Dr Tony Tan, including asking Mr Nathan for permission to draw on the reserves during the Global Financial Crisis. 

So I think I can say that I know the system; what the design intent was, when we first formulated the scheme, how it has worked in practice, how conditions have changed, how our ideas have evolved and how we should fine tune and improve the scheme, to make it work for our long-term future.

These changes are my responsibility. I am doing it now, because it would be irresponsible of me to kick this can down the road and leave the problem to my successors. They have not had this long experience with the system, and will find it much harder to deal with.

I am sure the result will not be perfect. I fully expect that one day, my successors will find it necessary to make further improvements and adjustments to the Elected Presidency scheme but I believe the changes in this Bill will make the Elected Presidency work better for Singapore, now and in the future. But please understand that whatever we do, it is not cast-iron and fool-proof – things can still go wrong in Singapore, with Singapore politics. A Government may be elected with good intentions, only to find its policies turn out badly. A President may be elected on a basis different from his Constitutional role. Relations between the President and the Government may become strained, or even break down. Most fundamentally, Singaporeans may become split along fault lines of race, religion, income, or class, and then no political system will produce a stable government for the country. All these are possible, despite all the safeguards we put in place and yet we know that without the Elected President, we have more cause to worry about things going disastrously wrong.

Strengthening the Elected Presidency will reduce the chances of this happening but ultimately our safety, and our future, lie in the hands of Singaporeans. We must rely on Singaporeans to remain united, so that our politics can be constructive and cohesive. To get people to come forward to serve the nation in many different ways. To elect good people into Parliament and Government, and to serve as President, and then we can all work together with those entrusted with authority and responsibility to deliver the results that we know Singapore can achieve.

Madam Speaker, I support the Bill.

Governance