Written by: Amrish Pillay
Edited by Nadia Ho
The Istana, Singapore Tourism Board
The purpose of this article is to shed light on the evolutionary form and shape shifting nature of Singapore’s unique constitutional institution: its Elected President (“the EP”). It is a fervent hope that this article informs its readers on the perplexing nature of the EP, and to invoke thought and discussion regarding its relevance, justifications, and its value.
The EP’s Predecessor: The Nominated President
The office of the President of the Republic of Singapore was created on 9 August 1965 after Singapore achieved independence from Malaysia. For slightly more than two decades that followed, the Office was largely a ceremonial one, modelled after the constitutional monarchy
in the United Kingdom. The Nominated President was appointed by the Government, subject to subsequent confirmation by Parliament.
The President’s office in this form, remained largely unchanged, and had a ‘limited range of discretionary powers.’ There were four Nominated Presidents, with Encik Yusof Ishak holding the inaugural office, followed by Dr Benjamin Sheares and then Mr Devan Nair. The last Nominated President was Dr Wee Kim Wee, who held office until 1 September 1993.
In 1991, the Office of the President was fundamentally revolutionised, subsequently being regarded as ‘momentous’ and as ‘Singapore’s most innovative constitutional experiment.’ In the next section, we will take a closer look into the reformed office: The Elected President.
The Birth of the Elected President
To understand the significance of the EP, we must first gain insight into the political discourse which motivated its founding. It is believed that the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, was the main driver behind the Office’s development. As observed by two leading academics in Singapore, Dr Lam Peng-er and Professor Kevin Tan (“Prof Tan”), the creation of new institutions and safeguards ‘promoted the People’s Action Party’s (“PAP”) and probably Lee’s vision of a good state’. In effect, the EP could act as a fiscal guardian, and also a constitutional safeguard against a potential future, where ‘good rulers could not be found to run government’.
It is apt to acknowledge that at the material time, the PAP held a majority in Parliament (one which it still does at the time of this article’s writing) and had maintained an effective government since independence. Thus, amidst the lack of parliamentary opposition and a strong civil society, the EP could be a suitable watchdog against the Government. It follows that one would regard this as a laudable move by a dominant political party to insure against future abuses of power.
However, as we will discover in the succeeding sections of this article, the EP’s office has undergone periodic modification. Perhaps there may be other benefits of having the EP, and some of which may have been harvested by careful recalibration of the EP’s competencies.
The Constitutional Chameleon
A constitutionally significant moment happened in 1981. Following the standing down of then incumbent Member of Parliament (“MP”), Devan Nair, Worker’s Party (“WP”) candidate J.B. Jeyaretnam won the 1981 Anson by-election. Since independence, this was the first time a PAP candidate had lost a seat in Parliament during an election. Prof Tan believes that this set-in motion the need to protect the country from a ‘freak election’; where a sudden change in government can lead to an unwarranted drawdown in Singapore’s financial reserves.
Thus, after 1991, the EP had various competencies, inter alia, custodial powers over specific financial decisions initiated by the Government together with Parliament, as well as appointment of key civil servants. As an EP, the President has a direct democratic mandate from the people and thus possesses a moral authority. However, the EP does not act alone and unsupervised. A new constitutional body called the Council of Presidential Advisors (CPA) was created alongside the EP to advise and make recommendations to the President. A two-pronged approach was initially adopted for the scheme, with certain matters requiring mandatory consultation with the CPA, and others independently. Thus, it appears that certain core competencies of the EP required involvement of the CPA, while less important ones did not require involvement.
However, subsequent to the creation of the EP, significant changes were made. Some have suggested that these recalibrations ‘truncate’ the powers of the EP’s oversight. In 1995, by way of a constitutional amendment, defence and security measures were taken away from the EP’s oversight functions. Further changes were made in 1994 and 2002, changing the EP’s oversight capabilities in fiscal decision-making. One may argue that these alterations have reduced the EP’s competencies, altering the initial significance and authority allocated in its inception. While the aforementioned changes are not prima facie significant, three noteworthy changes were made in 2016.
Prior to 2016, in order for a private candidate to qualify for Presidency, an individual must have been a chairman of the board of directors or the CEO of a company in Singapore with paid-up capital of at least S$100 million. This was subsequently changed, with a candidate now having to have been the CEO for at least three years in a company with shareholder equity of at least S$500 million. This is certainly by all definitions a drastic increase in the threshold requirement for private candidates to qualify. Prof Tan has rightly noted that even the Speaker of the House is automatically prequalified to run for Presidency, despite potentially having never held a key role in managing financial assets. These differences are certainly noteworthy and bears questioning on its justifications and potential ramifications.
The departure from the two-pronged scheme started in 1991, consultation with the CPA is now a general and mandatory duty whenever the EP exercises discretionary power, except in certain circumstances. This is a transition from the somewhat advisory role the CPA had, to a policing role. It is crucial to note that members of the CPA are not elected by Singapore Citizens, but rather appointed by the President, the EP and the Chairman of the Public Service Commission.
At this juncture, it is pertinent to observe that during the years leading up to the creation of the EP, the idea of an Upper House was tossed into the debate. This idea was initially rejected, but then MP Associate Professor Lau Teik Soon (“Lau”) raised the idea once more, calling for a ‘senate’ comprising ten to twelve elected members. However, this gained no support in Parliament.
Certainly however, the most profound change to the EP’s office was the introduction of the ‘reserved election’ mechanism. Implemented following the constitutional amendments in 2016, an election will 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’. In essence, if–for example– there were no Malay Presidents in the last five presidential terms, only Malay individuals would qualify for subsequent nomination. After its introduction, former President Hamilah Yacob stood unopposed in the 2017 Presidential Election, as no other Malay individuals qualified.
Interestingly, because of the race criteria, it is believed that no more than ten Malays were able to run for office in 2017. It bears weight as well, that prior to stepping into office as President, Halimah Yacob was the ninth Speaker of Parliament. As Speaker of Parliament, she was prequalified to run for Presidency, despite not having to prove a certain degree of financial competency or acumen. On the contrary, private candidates do.
However, such a mechanism may have great value. It reintroduces the ceremonial and symbolic significance of the EP’s office, similar to its standing–before 1991. In a multi-racial and cosmopolitan country like Singapore, it is important that the President–being above politics–is a unifying figure, representative of the makeup of Singapore. Notwithstanding, as Prof Tan contends, race is merely a social construct, and such a mechanism is simply at odds with the competitive nature of the EP. Deservingly, as with the aforementioned changes to the EP’s office, perusal of its justifications and potential ramifications should follow.
Since its inception in 1991, it is evident that the Elected President’s Office has undergone significant revision. This article serves to illustrate how the Singaporean Government has reshaped the office throughout the years. It truncated its oversight capabilities, increased the threshold for qualification, limited the autonomy of the EP, and introduced a new race criterion.
Despite calls for a return to having a Nominated President and establishing an Upper House, the Government chose to continue with the current scheme. It follows that debate around the justifications and intentions of these changes should continue. Why is having an Upper House still ‘inherently unworkable’? Why was there such a big and sudden change in the fiscal requirements for private candidates? Will the reserved election mechanism really benefit Singapore?
While the future of Singapore’s Elected President seems uncertain, one thing is certain: to meet the needs of Singapore–or perhaps, the needs of the reigning Government–the EP’s Office will continue to evolve in the decades to come..
 Jaclyn L. Neo, ‘Introduction: constitutional design and change in ‘reforming’ Singapore’s Elected Presidency’ in Jaclyn L. Neo and Swati S. Jhaveri (eds), Constitutional Change in Singapore: Reforming the Elected Presidency (Routledge 2020), 2.
 ‘Former Presidents’ (President’s Office) <https://www.istana.gov.sg/The-President/Former-Presidents> accessed 4 September 2023.
Kevin Tan Yew Lee, ‘The Elected Presidency in Singapore: Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Act 1991’ (1991) Singapore Journal of Legal Studies 179, 193.
 Yvonne C.L. Lee, ‘Under lock and Key: the evolving role of the Elected President as a fiscal guardian’ (2007) Singapore Journal of Legal Studies 290, 290.
 Kevin. Y.L. Tan and Lam Peng Er (eds), ‘Introduction’, in Managing Political Change In Singapore: The Elected Presidency (London: Routledge, 1997), 3.
 Kevin Y.L. Tan and Lam Peng Er, ‘Looking back at the Elected Presidency: Design choices and unintended consequences’ in Jaclyn L. Neo and Swati S. Jhaveri (eds), Constitutional Change in Singapore: Reforming the Elected Presidency (Routledge 2020), 26.
 Article 371 of the Singapore Constitution
 Li-ann Thio, A Treatise on Singapore Constitutional Law (Singapore: Academy Publishing, 2012), 423
 Academia SG, ‘Presidential Expectations: AcademiaSG Lecture by Prof Kevin Tan’ <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lxucBRv1Zs> accessed 19 September 2023.
 Article 19B of the Singapore Constitution.
 See Singapore Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 7 November 2016, vol. 94. (Second Reading, Constitution of the Republic (Amendment) Act 2016).