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.
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).
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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