<Presidential Elections (Amendment) Bill – Speech by Sylvia Lim>
(Delivered in Parliament on 6 February 2017)
In November last year, Parliament debated the Constitution Amendment Bill which provided for the Presidency to continue to be an Elected office and for Presidential elections to be reserved for ethnic communities. The Workers’ Party rejects both these concepts and thus opposed the Bill then. As this Bill today seeks to entrench these further, we oppose this Bill.
Lest we be misunderstood or misconstrued, I should state, once again, that we wish to see multi-racial representation in the office of our Head of State. However, such multi-racial representation should be achieved not by way of reserved elections, but by the former system of appointing Presidents. We have canvassed our arguments during the debate on the Constitution amendments, and we do not intend to rehash them today.
Let me move specifically to two aspects of this Bill which are very problematic – first, how to count Reserved Elections and secondly, the eligibility criteria for candidates from the Private Sector.
How to Count Reserved Elections
Clause 3 introduces a new Section 5A that, to determine whether an election is reserved under Art 19B of the Constitution, one has to refer to the new Schedule. The Schedule sets out a table showing President Wee Kim Wee as the first President to be counted. Together with the subsequent Presidential terms of President Ong Teng Cheong, two terms of President SR Nathan and one term of President Tony Tan, these form 5 terms where a non-Malay President was in office. Thus, the government reaches the conclusion that this year’s Presidential Election will be reserved for Malays. This is a conclusion that has left Singaporeans bewildered and suspicious.
To recap, during the November debate, the Prime Minister told the House for the first time that the government had received advice from the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) on how to apply the hiatus-triggered mechanism for reserved elections i.e. which President’s term to count from. We were told that the advice was that counting should begin from President Wee Kim Wee, who was the first President to exercise the powers of an Elected President. This advice was surprising and illogical to many Singaporeans, given that President Wee Kim Wee was never elected to office. When I asked Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean then whether the government would publish the AGC’s advice for Singaporeans to better understand the reasoning, the government appeared reluctant to do so, and even asked me whether I was suggesting that the Prime Minister was not being truthful!
There has been a lot of public reaction to the announcement that this year’s Presidential Election would be reserved for Malay candidates. After the last Presidential Elections 6 years ago, Singaporeans are right to be skeptical about the government’s motives now. In 2011, Dr Tony Tan was the government’s preferred choice, but had to fight off 3 other candidates, scraping through to victory with a mere 35.2% of the popular vote, and a razor thin margin of 0.35%. For the next Presidential Election, we hear a sudden announcement by the government that it would be reserved for Malay candidates, based on reasoning which is totally unconvincing. How many people really believe that the Presidential Election this year is reserved for Malays to ensure minority representation, and why now?
Three months have passed since that debate. I have been reflecting on the decision to use President Wee as the reference point. I realized that this decision to count from President Wee was not a matter of getting legal advice to interpret any existing laws. If one looks at this Bill and the Schedule, the government is asking Parliament to simply make it the law that President Wee is the first one to be counted. Why not count from the first elected President, Mr Ong Teng Cheong? Is it because if President Ong was the first one to be counted, we would have to go through this year’s elections as an open election, and risk a contest by Chinese or Indian candidates who may not be to the government’s liking? Isn’t the decision to count from President Wee an arbitrary and deliberate decision of the government, to achieve a desired outcome?
Eligibility Criteria for Private Sector Candidates
Clause 3 also introduces a new Section 5C which deals with the eligibility criteria for Presidential candidates from the private sector. Section 5C touches on the definitions of shareholders’ equity, profit after tax and insolvency events. These definitions are needed due to the new requirement for candidates to have run companies of shareholders’ equity of at least $500 million which have been profitable. But what does Section 5C provide? Basically nothing but to say that Parliament is delegating its legislative authority to the Minister to make regulations.
As a general principle, Parliament can delegate its legislative power to a Minister to make rules, and regularly does so, for matters of a technical or more operational nature. But what disturbs me is that these definitions are not just technical or operational. These definitions will determine who gets to run for President!
More importantly, if one refers back to the Constitution Amendment Bill passed in November, it was provided in the new Art 19(6) that it is the Legislature that is supposed to specify how the Presidential Elections Committee is to determine the value of shareholders’ equity and profit after tax, and it is the Legislature that is supposed to specify what constitutes an insolvency event. Since the Constitution entrusts these specific matters to the Legislature to deal with, it is not right for Parliament to simply delegate this responsibility to the Minister to do so. Parliament should not abdicate its responsibility and give a blank cheque to the government to draw up these definitions.
Madam, as I mentioned at the start of my speech, the Workers’ Party opposes the Bill. We will later call for our dissent to be specifically recorded.