Commentary: Three qualities of a good candidate for President


SINGAPORE: With the writ of election issued and President Tony Tan taking his leave last week, Singaporeans are waiting to see if an election will be held come Sep 23, and eventually, for a candidate to assume the office of Singapore’s eighth President. 

By now, the three main candidates who have submitted their applications and declared their intention to run for the office are known to most Singaporeans.

A self-made businessman whose Second Chance company became the first Malay-owned firm to be listed on the Singapore Exchange in 1997, 67-year-old Mr Marican Salleh has highlighted that he’s gone through the school of hard knocks, which helped him become more compassionate. 

Chairman of marine sector company Bourbon Offshore Asia Farid Khan is a self-professed patriot, who says he’s done a lot of community work and has always wanted to do something for Singapore.

Mr Farid also says that his regional exposure and experience in dealing with people across the region puts him in good stead for the top job.

Completing the potential slate, former Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob has unveiled her campaign team and slogan, “Do Good, Do Together”.

Mdm Halimah has also highlighted her experience on the international stage, for instance, having served on various committees of the Geneva-based International Labour Organisation. 

From left: Presidential hopefuls Mr Salleh Marican, Mdm Halimah Yacob and Mr Farid Khan. (Photos: Ferus Bakar, Olivia Siong) 

RETHINKING HOW WE SHOULD ASSESS PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES

Given that the upcoming presidential election has been reserved for Malay candidates, most discussions up until now have focused on the backgrounds of the three candidates, including their heritage and conformity to traditional markers of ethnicity.

But we should look at other considerations in assessing what makes a good President.

For one, the matter of whether prospective candidates belong to the community for which the election has been reserved is in the hands of the Community Committee. Candidates would have submitted a Community declaration form and applied for a Certificate of Eligibility to show that he or she satisfies the Committee’s assessment, prior to submitting their applications to run for the Presidency to the Elections Department.

Rather than being mired in questions of ethnicity, Singaporeans should stay focused on the important choice that they will need to make, and decide for themselves how to go about making that decision, if more than one person qualifies for the position and the country goes to the polls. 

THE PRESIDENT’S THREE ROLES

The President has three key roles: First, a duty set out in the Singapore Constitution that empowers him or her to act as an important check and balance to the Government, to protect past reserves, appoint key public service office holders, and check the use of Government powers to continue to detain people under the Internal Security Act, among a few other specified duties. 

The President also has two further roles. In the President’s community role, there is much that the President can do to help less fortunate Singaporeans and champion social causes.

President S R Nathan had set up the President’s Challenge in 2000, which has since raised more than S$100 million in funds and increased awareness for various charitable organisations.

President S R Nathan set up the President’s Challenge in 2000 to raise funds for the social sector. (Photo: TODAY)

In the President’s third role, in exercising his ceremonial function, the President’s engagements with other heads of states and key policymakers from other countries allows him or her to exert an influential and strong diplomatic role to further Singapore’s international standing. Having previously served as Deputy Prime Minister, President Tony Tan took naturally to this.

It is striking that all three candidates have made the case that they’re the best person to perform the President’s community role, and two out of three have highlighted their international experience, in being the best person to perform the President’s ceremonial role.

But are these two roles the criteria by which we should judge the candidates? What makes these two roles more important that the duties that the Constitution itself sets out for our President?

In my opinion, it is far more important to assess candidates’ abilities to perform the President’s constitutional duties, and base our assessment of the person who would eventually take up the Presidency on whether he or she is capable of discharging the Office’s constitutional duties and powers.

To do so, I believe that the President has to have three important qualities.

SAFEGUARDING SINGAPORE’S RESERVES

First, the President needs to have a clear and analytical mind. This will allow him or her to make complex decisions regarding the use of Singapore’s past reserves.

The President acts as a second key to Singapore’s past reserves, which are reserves that have been accumulated in previous terms of Government. This means that any drawdown requires the President’s consent; this allows the President to act as a check against draw-downs that are not in the nation’s interests.

As part of this role of safeguarding Singapore’s past reserves, the President also has to give assent to a host of Parliament Bills that may provide for any borrowing of money, or issuance of guarantees and loans by the Government that may involve drawing on past reserves.

Although many say that the President’s job is simply not to object to proposals to draw down past reserves, and the proposals are crafted by qualified, experienced economists from the Government of the day anyway, are these decisions really so straightforward or easy?  

In exercising this duty, the President’s role in safeguarding the reserves involves far more than simply deciding when or whether to mobilise the reserves.

MPs rise as President Tony Tan enters at the Opening of the 13th Parliament of Singapore on Jan 15, 2016. (File photo: TODAY)

He or she must have a full appreciation of the scale and complexity of the decisions asked of the President; this often includes the fiscal risks of drawing down these reserves.

On a micro level, the President must have a strong grasp of the various classes of assets that make up Singapore’s past reserves, as well as the various financial instruments that can be utilised by the Government. These include monetary assets, land-holdings and financial instruments such as stocks, equities and derivatives.

On a macro level, the President must have foresight in understanding the enormous economic forces that may impact Singapore and in judging if conditions are likely to change. He or she must also be able to assess and see if he or she agrees that the proposed use of reserves is the best way to achieve the intended policy objective and if the accompanying risks are appropriate and acceptable.

The President also has the final responsibility in ensuring that any use of past reserves is prudent, with rigorous checks and balances put in in place to minimise losses.

In short, the President needs to play the dual roles of economic analyst and financial custodian.

A case in point, the Government decided during the 2009 global financial crisis to draw from Singapore’s past reserves to fund special schemes aimed at counteracting the impacts of the crisis.

Collectively known as the Resilience Package, the schemes included, among others, initiatives to help companies hold onto jobs for workers such as the Jobs Credit Scheme and worker retraining such as the Skills Programme for Upgrading and Resilience, and a Special Risk-Sharing Initiative aimed at stimulating bank lending.

President S R Nathan’s permission was sought to fund the Resilience Package from past reserves in 2009 in the wake of the global financial crisis. (Photo: TODAY)

This was a complex package of initiatives, for which the Government sought then-President S R Nathan’s approval. More than simply injecting liquid assets into the economy, the Resilience Package involved the targeted use of specific financial tools and assets to stimulate the economy. These include the use of various classes of assets as collateral or backing for bank deposits and lending activities.

The S$4 billion that was eventually drawn for the Resilience Package from past reserves was subsequently returned in 2011, when Singapore recovered from the crisis. 

Indeed, the questions and answers the President has to be satisfied with are billion-dollar ones. Aside from granting his approval for the draw-down, then-President S R Nathan also approved a S$150 billion guarantee on all bank deposits in Singapore earlier in 2008, backed by past reserves.

Besides funding a fiscal stimulus during an economic crisis, Singapore’s past reserves have also been used to fund land-related projects, such as land reclamation, the creation of underground spaces like the Jurong Rock Cavern, and land acquisition projects like the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme.

However, such instances do not constitute the drawing down of past reserves. Rather, they involve a conversion of past reserves, from financial assets to land-holdings. In other words, the land that is acquired or created through the use of financial assets continue to make up Singapore’s past reserves.

Land-related projects like Jurong Rock Cavern can be funded by past reserves. (Photo: JTC)

As these examples show, managing Singapore’s past reserves are not simply a matter of looking over a pot of money. Rather, they comprise a complex mix of assets, both liquid and fixed.

Safeguarding Singapore’s past reserves therefore requires the President to possess a strong understanding of Singapore’s economic circumstances, and whether these merit the use of past reserves, and the form or type of assets that are to be mobilised in the drawing down of these reserves.

PUBLIC SECTOR APPOINTMENTS

Aside from safeguarding the country’s past reserves, the President also ensures the integrity of Singapore’s public service – as the President has the power to veto certain key public sector appointments such as the Attorney-General, the Chief of Defence Force and the Commissioner of Police, among others.

Similar to the President’s custodial role over Singapore’s past reserves, this right to veto was established to pre-empt the possible appointment of unsuitable candidates to important public sector roles. While we have yet to see this veto power exercised, it nonetheless plays an important role in ensuring the integrity of these key public service appointments. 

In my mind, a second quality the President therefore needs to possess is the ability to read people and processes, particularly in the context of the public service.

The President needs to possess a sound understanding of Singapore’s public service, as well as the various channels and mechanisms through which policies are formulated and implemented. This will provide him or her with a reasonable basis upon which to assess the suitability of key public sector appointments.

The President has veto power over key public sector appointments, including the Chief of Defence Force. (Photo: Howard Law)

COUNCIL OF PRESIDENTIAL ADVISORS

A third quality the President needs to have is humility – this means recognising when he or she needs to draw on others’ expertise and wells of wisdom, in order to come to the best decision, free from political leanings or emotions.

In this regard, the eight-member Council of Presidential Advisors (CPA) plays a vital role, in acting as counsel to the President. The President is required to consult the CPA when exercising his or her discretionary powers over the use of Singapore reserves or the appointment and removal of key public service officers.

It is vital that the President works closely with the CPA to arrive at the best decision for Singapore, not least to avoid gridlock on issues where a speedy decision is needed. Furthermore, the CPA ensures a diversity of expertise and opinions. As the old saying goes, two heads are better than one and nine are likely superior to one.

Where the President’s decision to exercise his or her constitutional discretionary powers contradict the CPA’s recommendations, the final decision can be made through a parliamentary resolution supported by at least two thirds of all elected Members of Parliament.

Taken together, the President, Parliament and CPA represent interlocking components in the governance of Singapore’s past reserves and determining important public service appointments. Both require a consensus to be reached by the Government of the day, the President, the CPA and in exceptional cases, Parliament.

Each component therefore acts as a check on the others, and the President plays a critical role in this structure of government in ensuring that decisions made on these two counts are in Singapore’s vital interests.

LOOKING AHEAD TO SINGAPORE’S NEXT PRESIDENT

It is clear that Singapore’s elected President plays an important constitutional role.

Given the importance of this role in protecting Singapore’s national interests and reputation, it is crucial that Singapore’s next President possesses an analytical mind, a close understanding of public sector processes and personnel, as well as deep humility. 

As we wait with bated breath for an eventual candidate to take up the office, it is important to keep these important roles and responsibilities of the elected President in mind. 

With or without a contest, the worst thing to hear people say when discussing the role of the President is without a doubt: “President do what? Help charities and host dinners right?”

Woo Jun Jie is assistant professor in the Public Policy and Global Affairs Programme, Nanyang Technological University, where he teaches Singapore politics and foreign policy. 



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