This is a fairly recent addition to the scope of a President’s duties. It can be dated to the presidency of the late S R Nathan, when he held two six-year terms in office, from 1999. He launched the President’s Challenge in 2000 to raise funds for the needy. Subsequent presidents expanded the platform. Dr Tony Tan put the spotlight on elderly volunteerism and social entrepreneurship. Current president Halimah Yacob focused on skills upgrading and employment.

Q: So besides the constitutional and ceremonial role, the President has a social role?
Yes, this is another visible aspect of the office. The President is a unifier, bringing people together through social causes. He or she graces social events that have a strong community building thrust and lends weight to charities that want to raise funds or get more volunteers. The President is also the patron of many groups. For example, President is Chief Scout and Patron of Girl Guides, Singapore and the Singapore Red Cross.

That is why some awards are given out in the President’s name, such as awards for top teachers and top nurses. They reflect the nation’s gratitude to deserving public servants who work away from the public spotlight.

Q: That means the President can be quite busy attending events!
Definitely! President Halimah, for example, has a packed diary attending events organised by community and welfare groups, grassroots, as well as ethnic and religious organisations. Again, these engagements demonstrate the president’s role as a unifier, is even-handed in the treatment of the diverse communities in Singapore, and a champion of social causes. The president can choose to speak up for their personal areas of interest, expertise or cause as well.

Q: Oh? They can decide on themes?
Yes. Madam Halimah, for example, was vocal about the role and rights of women in Singapore and often spoke up against family violence. The late Mr Ong Teng Cheong, an ardent pianist, was heavily involved in the promotion of arts and culture in Singapore.

Q: Does this mean that the President can direct the Government to do more for different groups, like struggling artists and musicians? Or give more subsidies to the poor or the disabled?
The President can use his own resources or raise funds for them, or speak about their plight. He or she can even galvanise support through his good offices, but the President cannot lobby the Government openly for anything. This would be tantamount to engaging in politics. While there is scope for engagement between both sides on issues of interest to the President, he or she must be careful not to make the office an alternative centre of executive power.

Q: Can I meet the president?
You can try! The best opportunity would be the Istana Open House, which takes place five days a year on public holidays. This is an informal occasion for the president to meet and greet visitors and for them to explore the expansive Istana grounds and even the first floor of the main building. Note that security will be tight. The Istana is, after all, the “palace’’ in Malay.

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.