Now that the campaign for the Elected Presidency is under way, it is also perhaps a good time to recall some of the changes and recommendations made by the Constitutional Commission in 2016.
The commission, chaired by the Chief Justice, was appointed by the Government to review the presidential scheme. In its final report issued late last year, it made some key recommendations. The most significant one is, of course, the Reserved Election which would only allow candidates of a particular race to qualify under such an occasion.
The upcoming Reserved Election in September will see Singaporeans choose their 8th president. One of the candidates for the office is Halimah Yacob, former Speaker of Parliament, PAP Minister of State and Member of Parliament.
Mdm Halimah, who is seen as the outright favourite to win the contest, qualifies to run by virtue of her having been the Speaker, which is one of the qualifying criteria for the elected presidency.
Under the old rules, before the review by the Constitutional Commission last year, holders of qualifying public office were required to have held the office for at least three years.
In its final report submitted to the Government, however, the Constitutional Commission recommended that this be raised to six years instead.
The Commission explained its reasons for the suggestion:
“This attempts to capture at least some elements of the applicant’s performance. The length of time spent in an office can be an indirect indication of that person’s success in discharging the responsibilities of that office, tending to filter out those who were either removed or not re-appointed because they had been found wanting.”
And it further explained:
“Article 19(2)(g) currently requires applicants to have held a qualifying office for at least 3 years. Some contributors opined that this duration was too short and should be lengthened. The Commission agrees and is of the view that applicants should be required to have spent a longer period of time in a qualifying office for several reasons.
“First, it takes time to acquire and hone the requisite skills. Second, the length of time one spends in an office can be an indirect indication of that person’s success in discharging the responsibilities of that office…
“Therefore, the Commission proposes that all applicants under limbs (i) to (iii) of Article 19(2)(g) must have held the relevant qualifying offices for a period of at least 6 years.”
The Commission’s reasons seem entirely valid. We are, after all, talking about a person who is going to assume the highest office in the land, and where the very existence of the office is for the main purpose of protecting the people’s hard-earned reserves.
The Government, in its White Paper issued in response to the Commission’s report, rejected the suggestion.
Here, it is important to know the reason for the rejection.
This was what the Government said [emphasis added]:
“The Government agrees that it is important that applicants be required to have spent adequate time in a qualifying office. At the same time, the precise minimum duration to be set is ultimately a question of balance. Given the concurrent changes to other aspects of the eligibility criteria, the Government prefers to adopt a cautious approach, and retain the qualifying tenure at three years at this time.”
It is “a question of balance”, the Government said, without much elaboration. What does “a question of balance” mean? No one seems to know for sure. It would seem that it is left to the discretion of the Government.
Would not the Government want the person for the job to be not only suited for it but to also be eminently and indisputably qualified? Why not accept the tenure length of six years, which seem entirely reasonable and, in fact, responsible?
Why is this relevant or important to Mdm Halimah’s candidacy?
Well, besides the obvious question of whether she has the experience and expertise to deal with fundamental financial matters as the Elected President, she would not have qualified as Speaker if the Government had accepted the Commission’s recommendation to increase the required tenure in public office from three to six years.
This is because Mdm Halimah had only held the office of Speaker for about 41/2 years, having been appointed to the role in January 2013 and recently resigning from it in August.
Her tenure was less than the Commission’s recommendation of six years minimum.
This leaves us with a very pertinent question, implied and in fact highlighted in the Commission’s report: has Mdm Halimah spent enough time in her role as Speaker to be considered experienced enough to take on the Elected President role?
The Commission apparently felt that six years were required for an applicant “to acquire and hone the requisite skills”, and that “the length of time one spends in an office can be an indirect indication of that person’s success in discharging the responsibilities of that office.”
Singaporeans should therefore ask themselves if someone who has spent a mere 41/2 years in a qualifying office is experienced and knowledgeable enough to take on the significant role of safeguarding their collective life savings, to ensure that the future of the next generations are also safeguarded.
If your investment officer said he has only 41/2 years experience in the job, would you trust him with your life savings?
One would have thought that six years or more would be a more reasonable time frame.