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Unpacking Singapore's System of Government: The Presidency

Updated: Aug 30, 2023


Introduction

Before we cast our vote in the upcoming Presidential Elections, it is important to first ask ourselves if we truly understand what the role entails. Does the President of Singapore, also known as the ‘Head of State’, do more than attend state functions, award ceremonies and international events? Why is the President’s presence significant during these occasions? Does the President play any role at all in political decision-making – despite the Prime Minister’s leadership in Singapore’s political landscape?


This Policy Explainer is the second of our six-part series on Singapore’s System of Government. It seeks to introduce Singapore’s unique ‘Elected Presidency’ system before addressing prevalent misconceptions regarding the President’s perceived lack of duties. This will be done through a comprehensive breakdown of the President’s responsibilities.


'Head of State' and 'Head of Government'

Singapore follows a non-executive model of the Westminster parliamentary system that separates the functions of the ‘Head of State’ and the ‘Head of Government’. The Head of State, which refers to the President, typically represents the country, performing ceremonial duties as a symbol of the state’s authority and offering civic leadership as a reflection of national identity and its values. Meanwhile, the Head of Government, which refers to the Prime Minister, directs the administration and sets executive policy. An individual in this position is involved in the implementation and execution of laws, leading the legislature and setting the legislative policy agenda. This includes developing new legislation to pursue policy objectives.¹


The Elected Presidency System

In Singapore, citizens elect the President through a national ballot. This system was first proposed in 1984 by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who intended for the Elected President to safeguard Singapore’s national reserves. He feared that should a freak election occur and an imprudent or corrupt government be elected, money accumulated in the national reserves would be squandered.² Furthermore, then Prime Minister Lee intended for the Elected President to aid in upholding the integrity of the public service. According to him, it would be ‘impossible to clean up’ the public service once corruption seeped into it, hence making it necessary to install additional safeguards.³


The idea was debated, refined and eventually legislated in 1991. Mr Ong Teng Cheong was Singapore’s first President elected by popular vote. He took office on 1 September, 1993, succeeding Wee Kim Wee, Singapore’s last appointed President.


Eligibility Criteria for Presidency

An individual must meet a list of stringent criteria to be an eligible presidential candidate. These include but are not limited to:


i) Aged 45 years old and above;


ii) Holds Singapore Citizenship;


iii) Not a member of any political party at time of nomination;


iv) EITHER fulfils the relevant public or private sector service requirements:


Public Sector: Must have held office for at least 3 years as Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker, Attorney-General, Chairman of the Public Service Commission, Auditor-General, Accountant-General, Permanent Secretary or Chief Executive Officer of a key statutory board or government- linked company;


Private Sector: Most senior executive of a company with at least an average of $500 million in shareholders’ equity.


v) OR is deemed fit to run via the deliberative track.


Presidential candidate hopefuls will be granted eligibility if “the Presidential Elections Committee is satisfied … that the person has the experience and ability to effectively carry out the functions and duties of the office of President.”⁴ This is assessed via the nature of the office held, size and complexity of the private sector organisation, and the candidate’s performance in the office.


In 2016, a constitutional amendment that involved reserving an election for a particular racial group was enacted. This ‘reserve election’ will be triggered if no one from that racial group had been President for five consecutive terms. Such an amendment ensures multiracial representation in the Elected Presidency — a feature that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong posited was necessary given that the President, as the Head of State, is a symbol of the nation, and thus had to represent all Singaporeans.⁵ However, candidates who ran in these reserved elections will still have to meet the same eligibility criteria.⁶ A reserve election was last evoked in the 2017 Presidential Elections for Malay candidates after there had been no Malay President for five consecutive terms.


Duties of the President

The duties of the President can be broadly classified into three categories:

  • Constitutional;

  • Ceremonial;

  • Community.

Constitutional

Constitutional powers of the President comprise discretionary powers and non-discretionary powers. The President can exercise his or her discretionary powers to veto key public appointments and government budgets. However, they must consult the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) on decisions in these areas. Non-discretionary powers refer to matters in which the President lacks the authority to decide and must act with the advice of the Cabinet or a Minister. These include the pardon of a person convicted of an offence or the appointment of ministers.⁷


Under the President’s discretionary powers, the President has the authority to reject any budget or special transactions (e.g., giving guarantees or raising loans) by the Government that draw on the country’s past reserves. This includes those of key statutory boards (e.g., the Central Provident Fund Board and Economic Development Board)⁸ and government companies (e.g. GIC and Temasek Holdings).⁹ This way, the President can safeguard against the misuse of the nation’s reserves.


However, the President must first seek advice from the CPA before making any decisions. The nation has dipped into past reserves several times, each with the President’s approval. In 2009, when S.R. Nathan was President, $4.9 billion had been taken out to fund two one-off measures (the Jobs Credit scheme and the Special Risk-Sharing Initiative) to boost the economy, which had then been hit by a deep and prolonged recession.¹⁰ During the COVID-19 pandemic, President Halimah Yacob also approved Singapore’s tapping into its past reserves to fund public health expenditures.¹¹


In addition, the President can veto the appointment and removal of key office holders in the public service. These include office holders from the judiciary (e.g., Chief Justice, Judges of the Supreme Court), ministries and statutory boards (e.g., the Chairman and members of the Public Service Commission), independent organs of state¹² (Auditor-General, Attorney-General), and security agencies (e.g., Chief of Defence Force, the Commissioner of Police).


The President also has an important say in detention orders, investigations and restraining orders. Under the Internal Security Act, the President’s concurrence is required for a person’s continued detention. Investigations under the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) may also be carried out under the President’s concurrence.


It should be noted that the President has no policymaking role, which solely remains the prerogative of the elected Cabinet and Prime Minister, who command the majority in Parliament.


Ceremonial

The ceremonial duties of the President include attending and officiating at state events and national awards, as well as representing Singapore in foreign engagements.


The former includes opening each session of Parliament and officiating at swearing-ins of key appointment holders such as the Prime Minister and Supreme Court judges. While the word ‘ceremonial’ might imply that these duties have no influence or authority, the importance of these prove otherwise.


Perhaps the most familiar of the President’s ceremonial duties is attending every National Day Parade, where they preside over the event. However, on top of engaging Singaporeans, the President is also responsible for conferring awards such as the National Day Awards, on the advice of the Cabinet.


The diplomatic duties of the President are also important to Singapore’s foreign relations. All foreign ambassadors and High Commissioners are to present their credentials to the President before assuming office, and Singapore’s own diplomatic envoys must be presented with a letter of credence by the President before assuming office overseas. The President therefore carries significance in affirming the positions and credibility of the people Singapore entrusts to maintain its international relationships.


On top of this, the President makes state visits to other Heads of State and receives foreign dignitaries. In terms of diplomacy, this is the “highest form” of exchange, promoting bilateral cooperation across various areas like infrastructure, defence, and investments.¹³


Community

The President also plays a major role in the local scene by championing social causes and interacting with Singaporeans, unifying the nation.


In 2000, former President S.R. Nathan started the President’s Challenge, a social enterprise dedicated to uniting Singaporeans from all walks of life to help the less fortunate.¹⁴ Subsequent Presidents have continued to support and expand the initiative beyond fundraising. President Halimah Yacob has also expressed strong support for the Singaporean of the Year Award, which is given annually to a person or group who has made an impact in society.¹⁵ The community duties of each President varies, subject to the social causes they choose to patronise.


As a way to engage and interact with Singaporeans, the Istana, where the President resides, is open to the public for five days a year. During these open days, the President will mingle with visitors, who also get a peek at the grounds. President Halimah Yacob has introduced initiatives such as Picnic@Istana, Volunteer Gardeners@Istana, and Garden Tours@Istana to further increase public access to the Istana.¹⁶


The President also endorses the President’s Award, a series of awards that are presented annually to individuals and groups who make a positive impact on society or in their line of work.¹⁷ The awards fall under four categories: social causes, innovation and creativity, contributions to society, and youth talent and volunteerism. The awards seek to encourage and inspire Singaporeans to take action in the various areas.


Presidency and Politics: Addressing Misconceptions

What type of President do the people of Singapore want next? One perspective comes from former MP Zulkifli Baharudin, who opined that the President must be a unifying figure who ‘bears the conscience of Singapore’ and ‘reflects Singaporeans hopes and fears’.¹⁸


It is important to address misconceptions surrounding the President’s powers. Despite the President’s ability to act as a ‘check’ against certain governmental matters, such ‘checks’ are confined to the country’s reserves and key appointment holders. They do not extend to all policy-related issues. The presidential elections are therefore not an opportunity to oppose the policies of the Government of the day. To avoid voting for a presidential candidate solely based on the desire for more opposition, Singaporeans must thus be cognisant of the specific 'checks' the President can employ within other government structures.¹⁹


Conclusion

The role of Singapore’s President extends far beyond attending the NDP and waving to the masses. It is a job best matched to a candidate of high merit who can represent the people and the nation in both domestic and foreign matters. As the institution of the Elected Presidency is in a state of ‘evolving infancy’, the system’s continuity is highly dependent on people’s understanding of the role of the President.²⁰ To exercise one’s vote wisely, it is thereby imperative that we pay more attention to the Presidency and the upcoming Presidential Elections.


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¹ Bulmer, Elliot, “Non-Executive Presidents in Parliamentary Democracies,” International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2017, https://www.idea.int/sites/default/files/publications/non-executive-presidents-in-parliamentary-democracies-primer.pdf.
² “PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Parliamentary Debate on the Constitution (Amendment) Bill on 8 November 2016,” Prime Minister’s Office, November 8, 2016, https://www.pmo.gov.sg/Newsroom/pm-lee-hsien-loong-parliamentary-debate-constitution-amendment-bill.
³ Ibid.
⁴ Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, 2020, https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/CONS1963.
⁵ Prime Minister’s Office, “PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Parliamentary Debate on the Constitution (Amendment) Bill on 8 November, 2016.”
⁶ Yong, Charissa, “Parliament: 2017 presidential election will be reserved for Malay candidates, says PM Lee,” The Straits Times, November 8, 2016. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/parliament-2017-presidential-election-will-be-reserved-for-malay-candidates-says-pm-lee.
⁷ “President’s Duties: Constitutional,” The Istana, Accessed August 5, 2023, https://www.istana.gov.sg/The-President/Presidents-Duties/Constitutional.
⁸ “Statutory Boards,” Singapore Government Directory, February 9, 2022, https://www.sgdi.gov.sg/statutory-boards.
⁹ “President’s Duties: Ceremonial,” The Istana, Accessed August 5, 2023, https://www.istana.gov.sg/The-President/Presidents-Duties/Ceremonial.
¹⁰ Chew Valerie, “First drawdown of national reserves,” National Library Board, January 9, 2017, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_1489_2009-03-20.html.
¹¹ Tham Yuen-C, “Covid-19 crisis, safeguarding reserves, flying the S’pore flag: President Halimah reflects on her term,” The Straits Times, July 30, 2023, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/politics/covid-19-crisis-safeguarding-reserves-flying-the-s-pore-flag-president-halimah-reflects-on-her-term.
¹² “FAQ: General,” Auditor-General’s Office, July 19, 2023, https://www.ago.gov.sg/faq-general.
¹³ President’s Office, “President’s Duties: Ceremonial.”
¹⁴ “What We Do,” President’s Challenge, Accessed August 5, 2023, https://www.presidentschallenge.gov.sg/who-we-are/what-we-do/.
¹⁵ Ibid.
¹⁶ “President’s Duties: Community,” The Istana, Accessed August 5, 2023, https://www.istana.gov.sg/The-President/Presidents-Duties/Community.
¹⁷ Ibid.
¹⁸ Goh, Yan Han, “Countdown to Singapore’s Presidential Election: The who and the what,” The Straits Times, May 13, 2023, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/politics/countdown-to-singapore-s-presidential-election-the-who-and-the-what.
¹⁹ Ibid.
²⁰ Ibid.

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