Last November, the Singapore Parliament passed the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Act 2016 to amend the Singapore Constitution, with the most significant change being the introduction of reserved presidential elections in Singapore. Subsequently, in February this year, Parliament amended the Presidential Elections Act (“PEA”), introducing a slew of changes that would take effect in this year’s Presidential Election (“PE17”).
As PE17 draws near, this article seeks to provide a summary of the key changes to the presidential election system that one should take note of.
Reserved elections system
With the amendment of the Constitution, a presidential election will now be reserved for a community if no person belonging to that community has held the office of President for any of the 5 most recent terms of office of the President. (The term “community” refers to the Chinese community, the Malay community, or the Indian or other minority communities.)
Should there be no eligible candidates from the community for which an election is reserved, the election would be open for contest by individuals of all communities, and the subsequent election would then be deemed a reserved one.
The purpose of having such a system is to ensure that there is no monopoly over the office of President by a particular race, which can undermine the credibility of the office of President as representing all Singaporeans, and raise doubts as to the multi-racial character of the nation.
This system was alleged to be unconstitutional by former human rights lawyer M. Ravi, who launched a constitutional challenge earlier this May. In particular, Mr. Ravi alleged that the system discriminated against Singapore citizens on grounds of their race in the appointment to the office of the President.
However, the High Court dismissed Mr. Ravi’s challenge because he lacked the legal standing to mount such a challenge. The Court also affirmed the validity of Parliament’s passing of the constitutional changes.
Timing of the reserved elections
Following the amended PEA, President Wee Kim Wee is considered to have served the first presidential term in Singapore. As he and the 4 subsequent holders of the office of President belong to the Chinese or Indian communities, PE17 will be reserved for a member of the Malay community.
The timing of the reserved elections was contested by Dr. Tan Cheng Bock who filed an application to the High Court earlier this May. Mr. Tan submitted that President Wee Kim Wee, unlike his successors, was not elected by Singaporeans and did not serve 6-year terms. Therefore, the 5 presidential terms should only be counted from the term of President Wee Kim Wee’s successor instead. This would in turn make PE17 an open election. However, Dr. Tan’s application was subsequently dismissed, prompting him to appeal to the Court of Appeal.
Dr. Tan’s appeal was heard on 31st July, with the Court of Appeal reserving judgment.
As part of a prospective candidate’s application, he or she will have to submit a community declaration, which will state the community that an applicant considers himself to be a member of, to the newly constituted Community Committee. Should the application be accepted, the Community Committee will then issue a community certificate stating that the prospective candidate belongs to that community.
This process is useful for determining whether one is eligible to run for office in a reserved election, as well as when the next reserved election will be if the current election is an open one.
Stricter eligibility criteria
The eligibility criteria for prospective applicants from the private sector has been tightened significantly.
Previously, an individual who had served as the chairman or chief executive officer of a company with at least S$100 million in paid-up capital could run for President. From PE17 onwards however, an individual from the private sector seeking to run for office is required to have experience and ability comparable to that of a chief executive of a company with S$500 million in shareholders’ equity for his most recent 3-year period of service as chief executive.
Additionally, the company that he or she helmed must have made profit after tax for the entire period that he or she served as the chief executive.
The purpose of tightening the eligibility criteria is to ensure that only an individual with the appropriate calibre, expertise and experience can run for office. This is especially important since the responsibilities of the role as President has increased significantly from 1990 to now.
Previously, the deadline to apply for a certificate of eligibility was set at 3 days after the issue of the Writ of Election (“Writ”). This deadline has now been increased to 5 days.
Also, in previous elections, Nomination Day (i.e. the day on which presidential candidates are nominated) was to be held at least 5 days after the issue of the Writ. Now, Nomination Day can only be held at least 10 days after such issue.
These changes in timelines are beneficial to both prospective candidates and the relevant authorities, since the former would have more time to prepare their applications, while the latter would have more time to evaluate the applications received.
Mandatory statutory declaration
Prospective candidates are required to submit a statutory declaration where they affirm that they understand what the role of the President encompasses, as stated in the Constitution. This is to ensure that prospective candidates are cognisant of the constitutional powers and limits of the President, and do not overzealously make promises that they are not empowered under the Constitution to deliver.
From PE17 onwards, a person is not allowed to publish, permit or cause to be published election survey results from the day the Writ is issued till the close of all polling stations on Polling Day.
Similarly, a person is prohibited from publishing, permitting or causing to be published on Polling Day any statements on how voters have voted at the election, or any election forecast results, before all polling stations have closed.
Recounting of votes
During the previous presidential elections, a candidate or counting agent had to apply for a recount before a recount of votes could be conducted. With the changes to the PEA, the Returning Officer is now obliged to conduct a recount should the number of votes between the candidate with the most votes and the candidate with the second-most votes not exceed 2% of the total number of valid votes.
Individual liability for offences by corporations, unincorporated associations or partnerships
Where a corporation, unincorporated association or partnership has committed an offence under the PEA, an individual might be deemed as guilty of the same offence if he was involved in the commission of the offence, or had knowledge that the offence would be committed but failed to take reasonable measures to prevent the commission of the offence.
The role of the office of President is vital in ensuring, among other things, the safeguarding of Singapore’s national reserves. It is therefore important to ensure that the most suitable individuals are appointed to assume key roles in the public sector.
Both prospective candidates and the electorate should be aware of the key changes to Singapore’s presidential election system so that they can make well-informed decisions at each step of the presidential election process.