SINGAPORE – At this time, the question of who will be Singapore’s next head of state is one with no clear answers.
Various names, some linked to the establishment or public service and others from the private sector, have been hotly discussed in some circles, though no one has officially thrown his hat into the ring.
The next presidential election is due by Sept 13, and will likely be called close to the date, observers told The Straits Times.
Another president elected without going to the polls could potentially do “a lot of damage” to the legitimacy of the elected presidency, said Singapore Management University (SMU) law don Eugene Tan.
Madam Halimah Yacob, the incumbent President, was elected without opposition in 2017 as there were no other qualified candidates in the reserved election for the Malay ethnicity.
Constitutional amendments were passed in November 2016 to reserve the elected presidency for candidates of a particular racial group if there has not been a president from the group for the five most recent presidential terms.
Dr Felix Tan, political analyst and associate lecturer at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), said that very few people may eventually be willing to come forward and contest in the upcoming polls, given the stringent criteria set by the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC):
- A qualified candidate for the presidential election has to be a Singapore citizen, aged 45 years and above on Nomination Day, and has to have resided in Singapore for at least 10 years up to that date.
- He or she must not be a member of any political party on the date of nomination, among other criteria.
- The candidate must also satisfy the committee that he or she has met the public- or private-sector service requirement within the last 20 years.
- The public-sector service requirement includes having held office as a minister, chief justice, Speaker of Parliament, attorney-general, chairman of the Public Service Commission, auditor-general, accountant-general or permanent secretary for at least three years.
- To fulfil the private-sector requirement, a person must have served as chief executive of a company for at least three years, during which time the company must, on average, have at least $500 million in shareholders’ equity and have made profit after tax throughout.
The PEC must also be satisfied that the person has the experience and ability to effectively carry out the functions and duties of the office of president.
In a written reply to a parliamentary question by Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai on Wednesday, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said that there are currently about 50 public service positions that may fulfil the public-sector service requirement to qualify to be elected as president.
For potential candidates relying on the private-sector service requirement, he added, there are currently more than 1,200 companies with average shareholders’ equity at or exceeding $500 million.
Political observer Zulkifli Baharudin said the desire for more contestation in public positions is very high, and is part of how society has progressed and matured.
This is seen not just in politics, but also in public companies, where shareholders are becoming more vocal, he said.
“We should not take this negatively. We should not assume just because people don’t want the choices presented to them by the Government that they are troublemakers.
“We should welcome contestation as part and parcel of life.”
This means the upcoming election is going to be high stakes, and it will come at a high risk to any candidate taking it on.
This is reasonable because the country is taking the role very seriously, he said. “We will have to see if the candidates are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for the top job in Singapore.”
A big question is whether Madam Halimah will run for a second term.
She is popular on the ground, having championed various social causes and shown a heart for the vulnerable during her presidency, noted observers.
SMU’s Prof Tan thinks she will be a “very competitive” candidate should she seek re-election.
“No one now can, in all honesty, fault her for the fact she was elected unopposed in the first reserved presidential election in 2017. Madam Halimah has given her all in office. She has brought a high-profile and unassuming vibrancy that the office has not seen for quite some time now,” he said.
Should she come out tops in the upcoming polls, that would put to rest any assumption that a double minority – a woman and a racial minority – is electorally uncompetitive, he added.
NTU’s Dr Tan said Madam Halimah might want to consider how much more she can contribute to building up the Singapore core, especially if she gets another term.
Other more personal considerations could be whether her family is supportive of another term, as well as her own gauge of how much support she will likely receive from Singaporeans. This will be difficult given that there was no past election to gauge her previous support, said observers.
They added that it is likely that she will have to make a decision based on who the other potential candidates are, as well as whether another “government-backed” candidate comes along.
In response to queries from The Straits Times, the President’s Office said: “Madam President will announce her decision on the presidential elections in due course.”
Other names that have surfaced who have ties to the establishment include former coordinating minister for infrastructure, former transport minister and current SPH Media chairman Khaw Boon Wan, and former foreign minister George Yeo.
Others with public service ties include Mr Peter Seah, current member of the Council of Presidential Advisers and chairman of Singapore Airlines and DBS Group Holdings; and Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large.
Observers also brought up names like Mr George Goh, entrepreneur and non-resident ambassador to Morocco; Mr Ho Kwon Ping, founder and executive chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings; and Mr Lee Hsien Yang, former chief of Singtel and brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Of these, Mr Yeo and Mr Seah have publicly ruled out a run.
Mr Yeo had said in August 2022 that he would not be running, calling himself a “free spirit” and that the presidency was “not a prospect which attracts me”.
Mr Seah had called the likelihood of his running a “wild rumour” in a March 2023 article by Bloomberg.
Mr Lee Hsien Yang is also unlikely to run, said observers. While a Bloomberg article in March reported him as saying that he had been approached to run for president and would consider it, lawyers had assessed that he may not be eligible to do so.
The finding by the disciplinary tribunal and Court of Three Judges that Mr Lee had lied under oath may affect his chances of candidacy, they said.
Mr Lee, who is the younger son of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, has also indicated that with the ongoing probe, he may not return to the country.
Prof Koh, according to the eligibility criteria, does not meet the public-service requirements as his highest public-service post is ambassador-at-large.
However, consulting firm Kantar Public’s head of policy development, evaluation and data analytics, Dr Leong Chan-Hoong, said: “He is well liked by many, and he serves the interest of Singapore and Singaporeans and, of course, he is a familiar face on the international stage.”
When asked, Prof Koh said: “I confirm that I am not qualified to run and have no interest in running for the presidency.”
As for Mr Khaw and Mr Ho, they are eminent personalities who are capable of occupying the post if they qualify, given their experience in various capacities. But whether they want to put themselves forward is a different question, said Mr Zulkifli.
“If they are chosen as a candidate that the Government wants to endorse, they could be persuaded. But they are not likely to go on their own to offer themselves and then face someone who is endorsed by the Government,” he said.
One potential candidate, Mr Goh, appears to be prepared for that, added Mr Zulkifli.
“While he has not made a formal announcement, he has clearly been making preparations to that effect,” he said, referring to Mr Goh’s website set up earlier this year and his increased social media presence.
NTU’s Dr Tan said Mr Goh stands a chance as he is loosely affiliated with the current establishment and has close affiliations with the ruling party, having been part of the public service.
“But they (candidates like Mr Goh) will have to ramp up their political presence if they want to count themselves as potential candidates,” he said.
What is more worrying is when the field gets too crowded, and the incoming president becomes, at the end of the day, someone who might not necessarily have the confidence of the majority of Singaporeans, he added.
“So while competition is healthy, in such a situation, it might not always bode well for the incoming president.”
He added that he was surprised that no female candidates have been mentioned in discussions on potential presidential candidates.
However, the likes of Mr Goh, Mr Ho and Mr Seah do not seem to meet the objective criteria based on publicly available information, observers noted.
For example, Mr Seah was formerly chief executive of Overseas Union Bank, but the stint ended in 2001, more than 20 years ago.
SMU’s Prof Tan added that Mr Seah could be regarded as having a “hybrid” background of private- and public-sector experience.
If he seeks candidature and is granted the certificate of eligibility, it would set a significant precedent, he added.
For Mr Goh and Mr Ho, who both founded companies and took on executive chairman roles, one question will be whether the executive chairman is considered the most senior executive role in the firm, said observers.
Responding to ST, Mr Ho said that he did not intend to run, while Mr Khaw said: “I have no plan to do so. My family and I have settled down to the current status and are blissfully content.”
Mr Goh did not respond by press time.
Mr Zulkifli added that the criteria have become more complicated as the system has been refined and improved.
There has to be a balance before it becomes too difficult to qualify objectively, and more candidates are subject to discretion, he said. That would make the role of the PEC even more important, and throw up more questions of who sits on the committee and how independent it is.
“You can’t have criteria where no one qualifies objectively and all end up doing so subjectively, which then makes a farce of the criteria,” he added.
Mr Zulkifli also said that there are enough candidates who can be good presidents.
“The question is whether people want to avail themselves of the post, as there’s a possibility of doing so and losing,” he said.
Compared with those who run to become MPs during a general election and are in their 30s, presidential candidates are of a certain age and have a certain life experience, he noted.
“You’re asking someone who is enjoying their life, perhaps with grandchildren, to give that up for a job with demands that are so great,” said Mr Zulkifli.
“While the job has custodial and ceremonial powers, the person occupying it cannot see it purely as that. They must see it as a lifelong mission for themselves for the sake of Singapore.”
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