Eligibility Criteria: A stacked deck?

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by Sagar Godbole

I recently (and rather belatedly) read the article People who could not have run for President even if the ‘Malay-only’ rule did not existdated 20 Aug 2017 on Consensus SG.  While much has been written in the Singaporean media regarding the constitutional amendments to introduce race based ‘reserved elections’ under certain circumstances, That article emphasized the restrictiveness of other ‘non-race based’ criteria for the elected presidency in Singapore.

However, I believe that while it accurately demonstrated how three of Singapore’s former Presidents as well as former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his wife Kwa Geok Choo would not have been eligible, the article fails to point out how the eligibility criteria systematically prevents any opposition party leaders from being eligible for the elected presidency which in my humble opinion is of greater significance than the fact that eminent foreigners such as Lincoln and Zuckerberg would also be ineligible.

It is important to analyse the eligibility criteria from a party politics perspective because even in other countries, such as India, where the presidency is supposed to be non-partisan, many of the candidates for presidential election are former members of political parties who resign in order to contest. In Singapore itself, at least two former elected Presidents namely Ong Teng Cheong and Tony Tan have been former members of political parties and all four of the candidates in the last contested election in 2011 were former members of political parties.

Public Sector Criteria

For a person to be eligible as a presidential candidate, she is required to satisfy the general criteria applicable to all candidates such as being at least 45 years of age, not having a criminal record etc. (detailed here) and either a public sector service record or the private sector service record.

The public sector service record requires the candidate to have served as a Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker, Attorney-General, Chairman of the Public Service Commission, Auditor-General, Accountant-General or Permanent Secretary for at least 3 years.

Being a Chairman of the Public Service Commission, Auditor-General, Accountant-General or Permanent Secretary requires a career in civil service while being a Chief Justice requires a career in the judiciary, both of which preclude being a member of or leading a political party.

Thus, the only avenues open for a person with previous political background to become an eligible candidate through public sector route are having been the Attorney General, Minister or Speaker for at least three years. The Attorney General is appointed be the government of the day meaning that any person having held the post would be one who enjoys the confidence of the government and thereby the party in power. Ministers obviously belong to the party in power while the speaker is elected by the members of the parliament thus implicitly requiring the support of the party having majority of the MPs (and being in power).

No difference from Nominated Presidency

Prior to the constitutional amendments allowing for an elected presidency, the President was elected by the Parliament. Thus, the party having a majority in Parliament could effectively select the President. One of the effects of introducing the elected presidency was to divorce the presidency from requiring the support of majority of the members of parliament. Technically without the public sector and private sector eligibility criteria, it would have allowed for an opposition political party leader to contest and win an island wide presidential election despite her party not having won majority of the seats in the Parliament. However, as stated above, the public sector criteria set out above shut out the possibility of a career opposition party politician from being a candidate unless she was a former civil servant or a former private sector CEO.

Practical implications on active opposition politicians

The eligibility criteria ought not be analysed in academic terms alone or seen in a vacuum divorced from the political ground realities in Singapore. Singapore lacks formal recognition of the post of leader of the opposition and being a member of parliament is also not included in the public sector criteria. Thus, Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang who have been the de facto leaders of the opposition do not qualify despite both having long records of public service. Both have been MPs for more than 26 years (Mr. Chiam (1984-2011), Mr. Low (1991-date)).

On the other hand, as pointed out by the author in the original article, somewhat surprisingly, Speaker of the Parliament is eligible to be a presidential candidate despite the role having no significant responsibilities in a Parliament like Singapore’s which is rather orderly, thus not requiring the Speaker to play an active role in ensuring that the debates continue in accordance with the procedure laid down. This has led to a situation that Ms. Hamilah Yacoob, whose tenure as an MP has been 10 years shorter than Mr. Low’s is an eligible candidate while Mr. Low is not simply because being on the opposition benches means that Mr. Low could never have been elected Speaker.

While the public sector criteria comes in the way of leaders of established opposition parties in the Parliament, the private sector criteria seems to come in the way of former presidential candidates. In the last contested presidential election of 2011, Tan See Jay who was the only candidate to not have any links to the People’s Action Party and who was the regional managing director of AIB Govett Asia which managed assets in of more than S$100 million received a certificate of eligibility on the basis of it being similar or equivalent to managing a company with the paid-up capital of S$100 million.  This particular criterion of having led / being CEO equivalent of a “company with the paid-up capital of S$100 million” was promptly amended in 2016 to change it to a company having, on average, ‘at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity, and having made profit after tax throughout the entire period.’ This amendment event without the other amendments related to racial reservations, directly disqualifies a former candidate (who previously garnered more than 25% support of the electorate) from future elections. Media reports have also speculated that at least two candidates who have expressed interest in running for president in the 2017 election may fall foul of the S$500 million in shareholders’ equity threshold which was introduced in 2016.

A stacked deck

Instead of looking backward to see which of the former presidents were eligible, even if we look forward, it is even possible that after a financial crisis in the future (or in a happier scenario, with an upsurge in small and medium enterprises capturing the market of erstwhile behemoth entities) there may be no longer be any companies with $500 million in shareholders’ equity thus leaving Singapore without any persons meeting the private sector criteria. However the party in power (whichever that may be) shall always have persons having served as a minister or Speaker of the Parliament. Thus, the presidential eligibility criteria in Singapore (as amended in 2016) seems like a stacked deck which favours the party in power even if we disregard the racial reservations.

No reasonable nexus between the role and the eligibility criteria

The role of the elected president of Singapore and the custodian of Singapore’s reserves is unlike any other. To my mind there is no reason to believe that a person having managed a company with S$500 million shareholders equity is any more eligible than a person having managed a company with S$450 million or even S$1 million in shareholder equity. Similarly, if we believe that there need not be any pre-qualification criteria to be a minister (including finance minister) or a Speaker of the Parliament, why does merely holding these posts make a person more eligible to be a President. Thus, I agree with the author of the original article that the eligibility criteria are ‘ill-designed filters’ but would go one step ahead to opine that Singaporeans would be better served if all the eligibility criteria were done away with leaving Singaporean voters to be the judge of who would make an ideal President. More than fifty two years after independence, it is time that the gahmen trust Singaporeans to make wise choices without having pre-filtered candidates.

Sagar Godbole

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Photo credit: Reuters

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