Is it about the presidency, or is it about power?
Singapore's last presidential election, held in 2011, was an exciting one. This air of excitement had less to do with the profiles of the candidates – all were Chinese men, their homogeneity further emphasised by the fact that all their surnames were Tan – and more to do with the prospect of there being an election at all. Although the role of President of the Republic of Singapore was turned into an elected office after constitutional amendments in 1991, the truth is that Singaporeans have done very little actual electing; after Ong Teng Cheong's election in 1993, S. R. Nathan ran unopposed in both 1999 and 2005.
The 2011 presidential election ended with Tony Tan, a former deputy prime minister and the ruling People's Action Party's preferred candidate, winning by the skin of his teeth. Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a former PAP Member of Parliament but not the officially-preferred Tan, fell behind by just 0.35% of the vote.
The next presidential election is due by August 2017, and the Constitutional Commission appointed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the beginning of this year has come back with its findings. The report, which already has been accepted in principle by the government, suggests some significant changes to the presidency. It tightens the qualifying criteria, and proposes a convoluted system to ensure that someone from one of Singapore's major ethnic groups gets elected President from time to time. It also expands the role and composition of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA).
Many reasons have been given for these proposed changes: from the need to reflect the economic situation of the country (presumably, the more money a country has, the bigger the company a prospective candidate needs to have been involved in managing before he/she can be considered suitably capable) to the government's burning concern over minority representation in the highest office of the land.
But there's still a long way to go to prove, to more skeptical Singaporeans at least, that this whole process wasn't just about making sure that close shaves like 2011 don't happen again.
It's already been reported that these proposed changes – likely to be adopted by the government when they present their White Paper in Parliament – would disqualify both Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Tan Jee Say, who was in third place in 2011. Only the incumbent, Tony Tan, and Tan Kin Lian will still be eligible, but Tan Kin Lian won the least votes in 2011, and has already said he won't stand for election again.
In any case, it looks as if the next election could be reserved for a Malay candidate; the proposed changes say that if the office has not been held by a person from a particular ethnic group for five terms or more, the next election will be reserved for someone from that ethnic group. If no qualified candidate can be found from that ethnic group, then the election will be open to all, but the next election will be reserved for that ethnic group once more. (I told you it was convoluted.)
Notably, the Commission also recommended the imposition of rules to regulate campaigning methods, as well as criminalising the making of false promises that cannot be delivered on due to the nature of the office.
All this smacks of a desire to tinker with the system to achieve particular outcomes rather than actually address systemic issues like accountability, transparency and equality.
After all, it's hard to believe that the government is truly worried about minority representation, when they've failed to introduce anti-discrimination legislation that would address racial profiling and racist practices (such as those taking place in the rental market), and when all the identified contenders for premiership come from more or less the same male, Chinese cookie cutter.
If we truly want to improve the elected presidency, there are ways to go about it without enacting cumbersome and confusing rules. All the talk about having a minority President has been about how to tweak the system to force a minority President, rather than address institutional racism and how it makes it more difficult for minorities to reach positions of power and influence. Yet the latter is the bigger conversation that Singapore actually needs; token minority Presidents are far less impactful than the dismantling of racist institutions.
Similarly, widespread political education ensuring that Singaporeans are educated about what the President can or can't do would, in the long run, be more effective in defending the electorate against false promises. You know what they say: criminalise bullshit, and you'll be obliged to police speech forever to protect a naive population. But teach people to recognise bullshit, and they'll call it out on their own.
These big, gaping holes naturally leave people suspicious. Why amend the Constitution again, when other solutions, albeit less immediate, can be found? The lack of a good answer has left many to assume that all this has been done to prevent Tan Cheng Bock from standing for election – and maybe even winning – next year.
If this is the case, then it's a sad situation. It would point to an absolute desire for control on the part of the PAP; so much so that they would go to the lengths of amending the supreme law of the land to make sure that their own former MP cannot run for office simply because he isn't the candidate of their choosing. And if this is what's really going on here, then our problems are far bigger than trying to figure out who gets to be President next.