Assistant Professor of Law, National University of Singapore
First published on ConstitutionNet on 30 September 2016
In February 2016, and only for the second time since Singapore’s independence, the government convened a Constitutional Commission to consider changes to the constitution. Led by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, the commission was tasked to consider and recommend constitutional changes to safeguard minority representation in the Presidency. This was one of its three tasks, the other two of which were to review the eligibility criteria for presidential candidates and to review the framework governing the exercise of the President’s custodial powers, particularly the role and composition of the Council of Presidential Advisers (see its Terms of Reference).
Safeguarding minority interests as a necessary aspect of peaceful coexistence among the different racial groups is a frequent fixation of the government in multiracial Singapore. Demographic data in 2015 shows that persons of Chinese ethnicity constitute more than three quarters of the total citizen population (at 76.2%) while Malays form the largest minority at 15%, followed by those of Indian descent at 7.4%. Eurasians are classified along others as “Others”, which together constitute 1.4% of the citizen population. Indeed, the safeguarding of minority rights was also a concern for the first constitutional commission convened in 1965 and chaired by Singapore’s first post-independence Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin. That commission was tasked to consider how the rights of minorities can be adequately safeguarded in the Constitution. There, the Commission opted for a strong emphasis on equal individual rights for all. In recent years, however, there has been a shift from individual rights to protective measures aimed at groups. The Group Representation Constituency (GRC) scheme, for instance, is one such measure that the government adopted to ensure minority representation in Parliament. Under the scheme, certain constituencies are contested on a team basis in parliamentary elections with at least one member belonging to a designated minority group.
In its report released on 7 September 2016, the Constitutional Commission recommended a model of reserved elections for the presidency to safeguard minority rights. This means that if there has not been an office holder from a racial group for more than five consecutive terms of six years each, then only candidates from that particular group can contest the next election. While it was not within its Terms of Reference, the Commission also recommended that the presidency be reverted to its previously nominated, as opposed to elected, form as it opined that this was better suited for its symbolic function as a unifying figure for all races in Singapore. The government has, however, emphatically stated that this specific reversal is not an option.
By instituting safeguards for minority representation, the government seeks to reaffirm and strengthen the presidency’s symbolic function as a unifying figure for all racial groups in Singapore. However, this symbolic function sits uneasily with the elected nature of the presidency and changes to ensure that minority candidates would be elected as President would necessarily restrict political choice.