TL;DR -Ready for some mental gymnastics?
Dr Tan Cheng Bock held a press conference to express his disagreement that the next presidential election be reserved for Malays. He questioned if it’s right to count President Wee Kim Wee as the first elected president of Singapore.
Even the government (sort of) agrees with Dr Tan..?
It’s understandable why Dr Tan raised that question. Many Singaporeans are asking that same question too. It doesn’t help that many of the government’s official communications refer to Mr Ong Teng Cheong as Singapore’s first Elected President. Take for instance the Istana webpage:
“The first Presidential election was held on 28 August 1993. Mr Ong Teng Cheong was elected, and he served a six-year term from 1 September 1993 to 31 August 1999.
Mr S R Nathan became the second Elected President on 1 September 1999.”
The Istana webpage refers to Mr Nathan as the second Elected President, indicating that Mr Ong was the first Elected President. Then there is the condolence letter that then-PM Goh Chok Tong sent to Mr Ong’s eldest son when Mr Ong passed away in 2002:
“As the first elected President, Teng Cheong had to work the two-key system of safeguarding our reserves and key appointments in the public sector”
If even the Istana and then-PM Goh Chok Tong consider Mr Ong as the first Elected President, you can’t really blame Singaporeans to think the same way.
But it’s not about who is the first Elected President
That being the case, how can the government still justify reserving the next presidential election for Malays? To understand, you must perform some mental gymnastics. Ready? Let’s start with the recommendation of the Constitutional Committee. From paragraph 5.37 of the report of the Constitutional Committee Report:
“… the hiatus-triggered safeguard could be structured as follows: When a member from any racial group has not occupied the President’s office after “x” continuous terms (emphasis ours), the next Presidential election will be reserved for a candidate from that racial group.”
We can assume that the Commission was referring to the office of the Elected President. In paragraph 5.39 of the report, the Commission proposed setting “x” at the value of 5. In other words, the Commission proposed that if a member from any racial group has not occupied the Elected President’s office after 5 continuous terms, then the next Presidential election will be reserved for a candidate from that racial group.
That’s the interpretation that Parliament took in amending the Constitution. Section 19B, Subsection (1) of the Constitution reads:
“An election for the office of President is 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.”
The Constitution talks about a person holding the office of the President. So who was the first person who held the office of the Elected President? According to Section 164, Subsection (1a) of the Constitution:
“The Legislature must, by law specify the first term of office of the President to be counted for the purposes of deciding whether an election is reserved under Article 19B”
The Legislature (i.e. Parliament) decided to specify the first term of office of the President to be counted from Wee Kim Wee’s term. The basis of that is from Section 163, Subsection (1) of the Constitution:
“The person holding the office of President immediately prior to 30th November 1991 shall continue to hold such office for the remainder of his term of office and shall exercise, perform and discharge all the functions, powers and duties conferred or imposed upon the office of President by this Constitution as amended by the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Act 1991 (Act 5 of 1991) (referred to in this Article as the Act), as if he had been elected to the office of President by the citizens of Singapore (emphasis ours), except that if that person vacates the office of President before the expiration of his term of office, a poll shall be conducted for the election of a new President within 6 months from the date the office of President became vacant.”
So, while Mr Ong Teng Cheong is our first Elected President, according to our Constitution, Mr Wee Kim Wee is the first person to have held the office of the Elected President. And Parliament voted to start using the term of Mr Wee Kim Wee as the first term of office of the President to be counted for the purposes of deciding whether an election is reserved.
All very logical… But can be better explained
That required some mental gymnastics and reading the legal details. It’s definitely not intuitive. But it’s all logical if you start from the first principle set out in the recommendation by the Constitutional Commission that it’s about the person holding the office of the Elected President, not who is the first Elected President.
That said, the government should have given a better explanation. Why did it decide to count from the first term of the office of the Elected President rather than go with the more intuitive option of counting from the term of the first Elected President?
Their choice has indeed caused much controversy. It has even caused some to suggest that what the government’s decision has decreased the legitimacy of the next Elected President. So perhaps the government shouldn’t just brush aside Dr Tan’s questions, but do a better job in explaining why they chose the option that they did.
But… we don’t think that will happen any time soon…