We are putting the spotlight today on the eligibility of candidates for the presidential election. There are two tracks for candidates: those from the public sector and those from the private sector. Potential candidates must fill in a form indicating which track and under what clause they qualify. The Presidential Elections Commission makes the final decision on eligibility. And, yes, it is complicated.

Q: Why is there even an application and screening process in the first place?
A: The role of the President is very complex because he has oversight over our reserves and key public sector appointments. This means he needs to have financial knowledge and wide-ranging experience managing big organisations. The ceremonial functions of the office also require a person with some stature, who can represent and unify the country.

Q: Is it true that the eligibility criteria for private sector people are more stringent than for those who enter via the public sector route?
A: Yes, it is. The public sector track requires that the candidate to have served for at least three years in certain roles such as Minister, Permanent Secretary, Chairman of the Public Service Commission, Chief Justice, Speaker, Accountant-General, Auditor-General, or as CEO of one the HDB, JTC, Temasek Holdings and the GIC. The size of the organisation and how well the candidate performed in his or her role is irrelevant. However, the time served must be within the past 20 years. Considering past appointment holders and ex-politicians, the number of eligible persons can reach several hundreds.

Q: Then what about the private sector and what is this $500m that is being talked about?
A: The private sector person must meet some numerical targets. The $500m refers to shareholder equity, which is roughly calculated as total assets minus total liabilities. Most people know this to be one threshold. However, it is not the only criterion. The company must have been profitable for a period of three years and the candidate must show that he or she had been the person helming the company. One part of the Constitution sets out these requirements in the context of a single company having $500m or more in shareholder equity. If the candidate is the CEO of such a company that is profitable, he will qualify automatically. In another part of the Constitution, the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) is called upon to consider applicants who have qualifications that are either similar or equivalent to that of CEOs of single $500m companies. For example, a person may head several companies at the same time which together amount to $500m share equity. Such a private sector person can apply through the ‘deliberative track’.

Q: Why is this so difficult to achieve?
While there are more than 1,200 companies which exceed the $500 million threshold figure, not all of them are run by Singapore citizens. The last public figure disclosed that if this was added as a criterion, the total number of such companies is only 165! In addition, the companies concerned must show profits over the preceding three years. Many companies took a beating profit-wise during the Covid 19 pandemic so if we start looking a profit figures, the number of companies would be even smaller.

Q: I heard that this criteria was only changed recently in 2016. Why?
The public sector criteria have remained pretty much the same since 1991, although there was a suggestion that the term of appointment be extended from three to six years. But the private sector criteria of $100m paid-up capital was deemed too laxed as the economy expanded. Both tracks are based on somewhat different considerations. There is an assumption that a former holder of high public office would know the ins and outs of financial systems, have enough management expertise and know what public duty entails. For the private sector, the bar includes business success which is sometimes contingent on outside factors like the global economy.

Q: What stage of the election process are we in now?
It hasn’t even started! A writ of election has to be issued first, stating Nomination day and Polling day. Under the Constitution, the term of the presidency is six years so we need to elect a new President by 13 September 2023. The writ of election will provide a deadline for presidential hopefuls to submit their applications for eligibility as well as when the PEC must make its decision known.

Q: Has the PEC disqualified candidates before?
Yes. In 2017, businessman Mohd Salleh Marican and company executive Farid Khan applied through the private sector route. They were disqualified because their respective companies did not meet the $500 m threshold.

Lights on Istana

Through ‘Lights on Istana’ we hope to bring clarity to the facts and foster constructive discourse on the key themes of the upcoming Presidential Election.