The changes to the Elected Presidency (EP) scheme were passed by Parliament on Monday, 7 February.
The Government have also announced that the next EP will take place in September 2017.
This next presidential election will be a special one which is reserved only for Malay candidates.
It is part of the slew of changes made to the EP scheme by the Government which claimed that it was concerned about there not being a minority-race president for an extended period.
The changes ensure that this would not be so. If there has not been a minority-race president for five terms, the following EP election will be reserved only for minority candidates.
The proposed changes had only been announced last year and were quickly debated in Parliament in November last year.
Barely two months later, the changes are now in force and the next election will be reserved only for Malay candidates.
Since the proposed changes were raised, some have expressed suspicion that they were engineered by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) to bar Dr Tan Cheng Bock from running in September.
Dr Tan had come within a whisker of defeating the PAP-approved candidate, former PAP minister Dr Tony Tan, in the 2011 election.
Dr Tan Cheng Bock had last year announced that he would contest the next presidential elections.
The Government, in the meantime, has said the changes are not to bar anyone, and that it was making the changes because of its concern that Singapore, being a multi-racial society, should be represented at the highest level by the different racial groups.
While there have been many questions raised about the new rules, one in particular is worth delving further into.
This has to do with the decision to designate the next election as a reserved one.
Workers’ Party chairman and Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC, Sylvia Lim, highlighted the issue in Parliament on Monday.
“The Schedule sets out a table showing President Wee Kim Wee as the first President to be counted,” Ms Lim said. “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.”
Indeed it has.
The Government, which said it was advised by the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC), had explained that counting should begin from President Wee because he 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,” Ms Lim said.
“Why not count from the first Elected President, Mr Ong Teng Cheong?” she asked. “Is it because if President Ong was the first one to be counted, we would have to go through this year’s election as an open election and risk the contest by Chinese or Indian candidates who may not be to the Government’s liking?”
In his response, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Chan Chun Sing, said Mr Wee was the first president to exercise the powers under the elected presidency.
According to news reports, Mr Chan doesn’t seem to have elaborated further on his argument, except to insist how the Government had no political intentions, and that in fact “the changes carried high political risk and cost.”
“If this Government led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is for short-term political advantage, would we do it?” he asked. “Would we expend our political capital to do this?”
Rhetoric aside, the Government’s position on why Mr Wee should be the starting point makes him, in effect, the first elected president because he had exercised the powers under the elected presidency.
But such a view runs counter to earlier statements by Government ministers themselves, including former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, and the government-controlled media, who had all described Mr Ong as Singapore’s first Elected President.
Let us take a short walk down memory lane.
Way before the EP scheme became reality, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who had initiated the idea, “hinted” in 1985 “that Singapore might have its first elected President at the end of Mr Wee’s four-year term or, perhaps, earlier.”
The Business Times, in September 1993, just a day before Mr Ong was sworn in as President, described Mr Ong as “the first elected president.”
In the Malay Berita Harian newspaper the next day, it said “History made: Mr Ong Teng Cheong has been sworn in as S’pore’s first [elected president].”
6 years later, in 1999, the Straits Times published a chronology of Mr Ong’s achievements, including: “1993: Mr Ong Teng Cheong wins Singapore’s first presidential Election..”
In 2002, upon Mr Ong’s demise, the radio station 93.8FM had this headline: “Former president Ong Teng Cheong, S’pore’s first elected president, has died..”
And even as recent as 2007, the Straits Times was still referring to him as Singapore’s first Elected President:
“Hwa Chong Institution now has student centre in honour of Singapore’s first elected president, Mr Ong Teng Cheong.”
And if you are still not convinced that Mr Ong was indeed Singapore’s first Elected President, here are two authoritative sources which might change your mind.
First, there is the government’s own National Library website.
Right the top of its “History SG” page is this headline, in caps:
“ONG TENG CHEONG IS THE FIRST ELECTED PRESIDENT OF SINGAPORE”.
That is pretty unequivocal from the curators of our history.
And second, here was what then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 2002 said in his condolence letter to Mr Ong’s family:
“As the first elected President, Teng Cheong had to work the two-key system…”
So, there you have it.
Singaporeans, the media and even the Government itself, had referred to Mr Ong as Singapore’s first Elected President many times the last 24 years since he was first elected.
Mr Chan’s explanation on why it was instead Mr Wee who is being counted as the nation’s first Elected President is unconvincing at best, and totally disrespectful of Mr Ong, at worst.
It also denies our own political and national history which, in fact, is plain for all to see. And not to mention it is also an utter repudiation of Singaporeans’ choice when they elected Mr Ong to be the first Elected President.
All in all, a simple stroke of the pen to change our history is an act of betrayal.
Mr Ong Teng Cheong presented himself to the people as a candidate, convinced them he could do the job and they elected him through the ballot.
This, with all due respect to Mr Wee who himself was a very excellent president indeed, is what the ELECTED president is supposed to do, at a minimum.
What Mr Ong has done as Singapore’s first Elected President resonates even today with many Singaporeans, especially when he stood independent from the rulers of the party he once belonged to, in carrying out his duty on behalf of Singaporeans.
And because of his presidency, the EP went through many substantial changes and improvements as well.
Mr Ong was Singapore’s first Elected President and the changes to the EP should take reference from his tenure.
To conveniently sidestep his presidency, without any valid or convincing explanation, only fuels suspicion and speculation that the current Government has ulterior motives in pushing through the changes at such speed.
In the end, it damages the credibility of the EP, especially the reserved EP, and this is not good for the country.
Mr Chan needs to do better to convince Singaporeans that the Government has no ulterior agenda in not recognising Mr Ong’s presidency.