People who could not have run for President even if the ‘Malay-only’ rule did not exist


The controversy over this year’s presidential election has been focused on the ‘Malay-only’ rule. However, let us put that aside for a moment, and look at the numerous other onerous criteria that a person must satisfy in order to run for President. This includes having been a Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker, Attorney-General etc. for at least 3 years, or, having served as the chief executive of a company worth at least $500 million, and have made profit after tax throughout the entire period. For convenience, let us call this the ‘presidential barrier’.

(A full explanation the ‘barrier’ can be found here.)

It is argued the presidential barrier is both too narrow and too wide at the same time, and is not conducive to a healthy, representative democracy where the best candidates can stand for election. Sounds paradoxical? Let me explain.

Too narrow

There are many great Singaporean men and women who, during their peak, could not have stood for election, had the elected presidency and the presidential barrier existed then. Here are just some of them:

1. Yusof Bin Ishak, the 1st President of Singapore


Yusof Ishak’s highest appointment was the Chairman of the Public Service Commission; however, he was served as Chairman only for 5 months before he was appointed President. He therefore did not serve the 3 year minimum period as required by the current regulations.



2. Benjamin Sheares, the 2nd President of Singapore 


Benjamin Sheares’ was a well-renowned surgeon and a former medical professor. He was in private practice when he was appointed President, and had never held a public service role, or led a company worth $500m in today’s money. He served as President for three terms.



3. Wee Kim Wee, the 3rd President of Singapore


After dropping out of secondary school, Mr Wee worked as a journalist for nearly three decades before being appointed as High Commissioner to Malaysia. As a result, Mr Wee, one of Singapore’s most famous Presidents, would not have qualified as he was never a Chief Executive nor a Minister. He was the chairman of the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, but only for a year before becoming the President. Hence he did not satisfy the ‘3 year rule’ (nor is the role of Chairman necessarily a Chief Executive role).

4. Kwa Geok Choo

A brilliant lawyer and a Queen’s scholar from Malaya, the late Mdm Kwa drafted part of the Separation Agreement between Singapore and Malaysia. She was one of the pioneers of women’s rights in Singapore. However, she would not have satisfied any of Presidential criteria, having never been a Minister, or Chief Executive, or held any equivalent role.

Last but not least…

5. Lee Kuan Yew


At the point of time that the Singaporean people found it fit to elect Lee Kuan Yew as the nation’s first Prime Minister, Mr Lee would not have satisfied today’s Presidential criteria. He was previously a lawyer and trade union activist, and later was an opposition Member of Parliament. He did not hold any public office, nor was he the Chief Executive of any company prior to the day he was elected to lead the country. Most people agree that he did a good job in his new role anyway.

Other famous people

To further illustrate the point about how there exists talented and capable people who would make good presidential candidates and yet fail to cross the presidential barriers, here are some notable individuals around the world who could not be president, even if they were Singaporean.

  • Mark Zuckerberg – Too young; Mr Zuckerberg is only 33 years old.
  •  John F Kennedy – Too young; Mr Kennedy was only 43 years only when elected President of the USA
  • Tony Blair – Too young; Mr Blair was only 43 years only when elected Prime Minister of the UK. Also, as an opposition politician, he never served as a Minister or a Chief Executive of a company.
  • Nelson Mandela – The former President of South Africa was never a Chief Executive of a company worth $500m, nor was he a government minister. Additionally, having spent 27 years in jail (as a political prisoner for opposing apartheid) he would not be able to run for President.
  • Abraham Lincoln – One of America’s most famous Presidents never led a company and never served on any Cabinet, having only been a member of the House of Representatives (an rough equivalent to an MP here) before elected as President (and then going on the end slavery in the USA).

Too wide?

In addition to being too narrow, the criteria is also arguably too wide – it allows people who may not be ideal candidates to nonetheless stand for President. This not just includes any government minister, good or bad, but also individuals who find themselves managing companies worth over $500m not as a result of their ability, but because they were lucky enough to be born into the right family (e.g. someone like Donald Trump).

Furthermore, it might also be considered rather odd that the Speaker of Parliament can run for president, given that the level of responsibility associated with the role is very different from, say, being the Chief Justice, or a government minister, or being the Chief Executive of a company for more than 3 years.

In summary, the existing presidential barriers present a huge problem. If we want good presidents, we need to allow good candidates to nominate themselves, and not cut them out through the ill-designed filters that we currently have. The reserved election will only happen once every 5 terms, but these other onerous criteria will remain.

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5 thoughts

  1. Dear Mr Hoe

    Firstly, not that I taking a stance or supporting anyone, but your argument is heavily flawed. Firstly, the $500 mil figure must first be augmented to match the times of Presidents Yusof Ishak, B Sheares and WKW. To apply a 2017 $500 mil to the 1960s, 70s and 80s makes your argument seriously weak. Secondly, all conditions (business milieu, PPP, GDP and legislative) are drastically different between now and the 3 decades cited, and even drastically different between each of the 3 decaddes cited. The comparative writing of changed contexts itself is too simplistic for any article. Thirdly, to compare citizens of the US (Kennedy, etc) to S’pore is the irrelevant, given the US constitution is not ours and the US Laws on presidency themselves has also evolved since the Lincoln’s century and even from the 1960 US presidential elections. Basically, comparing presidents between two vastly different systems (US and Singapore) is way too far-fetched, as there is little to no conceret basis for comparison. It’s like comparing a hamburger with fishball noodle (not even close to comparing pear with apple as both are fruits).

    Perhaps it would be more plausible to argue using more comparable and localized conditions, which will be more relevant. For example, given the average size of businesses in S’pore of a certain scale (both Pte Ltd and public listed Singaporean owned companies and what is the current number corporations/companies where CEOs manage business volume of $500mil – one could ask if it is realistic to set a $500mil benchmark? How many CEOs are there in Singapore who does that (before we even discuss other criteria)? Will it be a more open arena if it is set at $300 mil, as after all, $300 mil itself is no small figure.

    Thank you for the effort to make a point on current issues, but the argument needs serious rethinking.


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