The President is the most prominent figure on two main State occasions: The opening of Parliament and the National Day Parade. By gracing these occasions, the president serves as a unifying symbol for all Singaporeans and lends gravitas to the ceremonies.

Q: But don’t all presidents, including appointed ones, do that?
A: Yes. That is because whether elected or appointed, the President is the Head of State, as opposed to the Prime Minister, who is the Head of Government. The Head of State embodies the State in its unity and legitimacy. That is why the visage of past Heads of State is sometimes stamped on banknotes and coins. On the other hand, the Head of Government leads the operational or executive arm of the State, run by elected members of a certain political make-up and agenda. This system is unlike, say, the United States presidency, where the US President is both Head of State and Government.

Q: So when the president makes speeches for, say the opening address in Parliament, he didn’t write it himself?
A: Correct. He is reading out a speech that the Government of the day has prepared, outlining its plans for the parliamentary term. In it, the Government signals the issues that it wants discussed, and the focus of its different ministries. This is a political speech. The President cannot involve himself in the business of Parliament or the Government. This is not unlike the case for the monarchy in the United Kingdom, where the monarch as Head of State, addresses the opening of Parliament, in full royal regalia. The presence of the Head of State emphasises the importance and dignity of the occasion, raising it to the highest level of attention.

Q: Other than Parliament’s opening and the National Day Parade, what sort of other ceremonies does the President get involved in?
A: Note that it is already a very big deal if the President turns up at an event! For formal occasions, the president will be accompanied by his aide-de-camp, dressed in their livery, to tend to his needs. In Singapore, there are three ADCs. You can see them at swearing-in ceremonies, for example, for ministers and key public service appointments. The full pomp of the State is also displayed when the President receives the credentials of foreign ambassadors and high commissioners. And the gratitude of the State is amplified when the President confers National Day awards to deserving citizens.

Q: The President also seems to do a lot of travelling. For what purpose?
A: There are protocols that govern State visits which the President has to abide by. He/she may engage in discussions on bilateral issues or world events but he or she must be conscious about not stepping into executive territory, by introducing contentious topics or initiating deals. The President’s role is to project Singapore’s image to the outside world. He/she is Singapore’s top diplomat, paving the way for opportunities for Singaporeans abroad.

Q: So it means anyone can play this role right?
Not really. The President must have some standing in Singapore, achieved some success in a field and generally acknowledged as a good moral leader. People must look up to him. Because his role was mostly ceremonial in the past, the choice of president used to be in the hands of the Government. Now the presidency is an elected post, because he also has constitutional powers that he can exercise.

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.