Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who contested in the 2011 Presidential Elections in Singapore, has questioned the government’s decision to recognise the late Wee Kim Wee, instead of Ong Teng Cheong, as Singapore’s first Elected President.

At a press conference on 31 March, Friday, Dr Tan also called for the next presidential elections to be an opened one.

He said that the government’s decision to reserve the next presidential elections for minority-race candidates only “will always be tainted with the suspicion that the reserved election of 2017 was introduced to prevent my candidacy.”

Dr Tan had come within a whisker of winning the 2011 elections, losing by a mere 7,382 votes to the eventual winner, Dr Tony Tan.

The changes to the Elected Presidency scheme were passed by Parliament on 7 February, and the next presidential elections will take place in September 2017.

The changes ensure that if there has not been a minority-race president for five terms, the following EP election will be reserved only for minority candidates.

Dr Tan Cheng Bock had last year announced, before the changes were made, that he would contest the next presidential elections.

The Government, in the meantime, has said the changes are not to bar anyone.

The government’s decision to ignore President Ong as the nation’s first Elected President has been questioned also by the opposition in Parliament.

“The Schedule sets out a table showing President Wee Kim Wee as the first President to be counted,” MP for Aljunied GRC, Sylvia Lim, said during the parliamentary debate on the amendments. “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.”

In his response, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Chan Chun Sing, reiterated that 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.”

The government said it was advised by the Attorney General on who should be recognised as the nation’s first 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?”

The Government’s position, however, 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.

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.”

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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.”

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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].”

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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..”

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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..”

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And even as recent as 2007, the Straits Times was still referring to him as Singapore’s first Elected President:

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“Hwa Chong Institution now has student centre in honour of  Singapore’s first elected president, Mr Ong Teng Cheong.”

Then there is the government’s own National Library website.

Right the top of its “History SG” page is this headline, in caps:

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“ONG TENG CHEONG IS THE FIRST ELECTED PRESIDENT OF SINGAPORE”.

That is pretty unequivocal from the curators of our history.

And also there was what then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 2002 said in his condolence letter to Mr Ong’s family:

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“As the first elected President, Teng Cheong had to work the two-key system…”

Professor of Law, Jack Lee, of the Singapore Management University, wrote on the Singapore Law website in 2016 that while Mr Wee was the first to exercise the powers of the Elected President scheme, “[the] provision [in the law] was carefully worded to avoid deeming Wee Kim Wee as having been elected, so although he exercised all the discretionary powers of an elected President, the first truly elected President was Ong Teng Cheong.”

So, there you have it.

Singaporeans, the media and even the Government itself, had referred to the late Mr Ong as Singapore’s first Elected President many times the last 24 years since he was first elected.

The basis for anyone being recognised as an Elected President is two-fold:

1. He must offer himself as a candidate in a presidential election, so that the people of Singapore have a choice to express their wish. This is at the very heart of a democratic election, whether parliamentary or presidential. This is an unequivocal stipulation in Article 17(2) of the Constitution, which states:

“The President shall be elected by the citizens of Singapore in accordance with any law made by the Legislature.”

2. Even if it turns out that there is no actual contest because of a lack of opponents, the candidate would still be recognised as the winner because he had actually stepped forward and put himself up as a candidate for the people to choose.

The Elected President scheme was introduced so that the candidate and eventual president would have to go through an open election to get the people’s endorsement. And this was required for one very important reason:

The Elected President must have the moral authority to act on behalf of the people in being a check on the government of the day. And he can only have such moral authority if he has the assent of the people who bestow such powers on him through the vote.

With all due respect to Mr Wee, he did not offer himself as a candidate in an open election. This is not his fault as the scheme was introduced halfway through his term.

Nevertheless, it would not be right to recognise him as our first Elected President.

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.

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.

And by the way, even the Constitutional Commission, appointed by the Government to look into the changes to the Elected Presidency, had stated that President Ong was Singapore’s first Elected president.

“In all my 26 years in Parliament, we have always referred to Mr Ong Teng Cheong as the first elected President,” Dr Tan said on Friday. “Even the commission’s report contains a statement referring to President Ong as the first Elected President.”

Constitutional Commission Report, page 92
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