The “deliberative track’’ for both public and private sector routes to the Istana have come under the spotlight in the coming 2023 presidential election. Ex-GIC stalwart Ng Kok Song is applying to the Presidential Elections Committee to consider him as a public sector candidate under this track while entrepreneur George Goh has asked to be assessed as a private sector candidate. Past presidents fulfilled requirements under the automatic public sector track because they were appointment holders in the Government and in the civil service. Questions have been asked about the similarities and differences between both routes and what a “deliberative track’’ is about.

Q: What's the key difference in qualifications for both routes? Which is the 'easier' route?
They can’t be directly compared. But it’s easier to be automatically qualified under the public sector route than the private sector route. Or at least, there is much less documentation to put up! As we said before, the requirements for public sector candidates remains much the same as when they were first proposed in 1991 - three years service in a position that is listed in the Constitution within the past 20 years. This is under 19.3 (a). About 50 public service roles meet the criteria. The private sector automatic qualification criteria was raised from running a company with $100m in paid-up capital to $500m in share equity in 2017. This applies to those running other business structures such as a parent company with subsidiaries. The criteria was further refined such that the private sector aspirant had to be the most senior person in the company which must have made profits over a period of three years. This comes under 19.4 (a) of the constitution.

Q: But why is this the case?
The argument is that both sectors require people of different skill sets. You can’t measure the performance of public sector aspirants, unlike those in the private sector. Instead those appointments listed in the Constitution are regarded as proxies: good enough to equip a candidate with the expertise and ability to be President. There is also the argument that they would be familiar with governance practices and know how to account to the public in the exercise of power. The Constitutional Commission did recommend some changes to the public sector criteria but they were rejected by the Government which preferred to take a “cautious’’ approach. For example, it wanted to extend the period of service from three to six years and have a look-back period of 15 years instead of 20 years.

Q: So they don't need financial experience and management ability?
Not as performance indicators at least. The list covers both appointment holders in big ministries and small ones as well as big Government statutory boards and companies . It also includes the Speaker of Parliament, who has a much smaller budget and staff compared to other appointment-holders. Madam Halimah Yacob qualified because she had been Speaker for a bit more than three years. There was another consideration: The 2017 PE was a reserved election for the Malay community, which would necessarily mean a smaller pool of candidates. Two private sector candidates from the Malaya community did not receive certificates.

Q: But why was it raised in the first place?
The argument was that the Singapore economy had grown. In 1993, only 158 companies would have qualified but by 2016, that 158th company would have a paid-up capital of $1.6 billion. So it was tightened to $500m share equity as this was deemed a better indication of how a company’s current performance is doing. According to Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, there are now 165 Singaporeans helming Singapore-registered firms with over S$500 million shareholders' equity. The Constitution allows the PEC to increase this threshold, subject to parliamentary approval.

Q: Nobody kicked up a fuss?
Some people did. They said it was just a way to keep the pool small to bar anti-Establishment people from running. Remember that of the four presidential candidates in the 2011 PE, three were from the private sector. Dr Tony Tan, the Establishment candidate, won by a whisker with 35.2 per cent of the vote. Dr Tan Cheng Bock, using his credentials as non-executive chairman of a listed company, came second with 34.85 per cent, ahead of asset fund executive Tan Jee Say (25.04 per cent) and former NTUC Income CEO Tan Kin Lian (4.91 per cent). Fast forward to today and both Dr Tan and Mr Tan Jee Say cannot qualify under the current rules as they were either not the most senior executive in their companies or because their companies were not big enough.

Q: Okay. So what's so special about the deliberative track then?
This track in the public sector route has never been used. All public sector candidates were automatically qualified. In the first PE in 1993, for example, the late Ong Teng Cheong was Deputy Prime Minister while his rival, the late Chua Kim Yeow was a former Accountant-General. They qualified automatically.

For the 2023 PE, Mr Ng Kok Song has declared his intention to run under the public sector deliberative track, although he retired from the public service in 2013. He is now the chairman of Avanda Investment Management. This is probably because he believes the likelihood of being awarded the certificate is higher if he used his public sector credentials as a former Chief Investment Officer in GIC, a Fifth Schedule company which manages Singapore’s reserves. While he co-founded Avanda, the company’s shareholder equity, at about $73 million, falls far short of the $500 million mark.

The public sector deliberative track was provided so as to capture high-calibre candidates with the necessary expertise or ability to perform the functions of the President because of other attributes, but whose jobs do not fall into the list. This could include, for example, ambassadors and professors.

Q: And the private sector route?
There is also a deliberative track under which a presidential hopeful would have to show that he has the experience and ability to match those on the automatic track. That is, he must show that his private sector job is comparable to that of a senior executive running a $500million share equity company that remained profitable for three years. This is 19.4(b)

In the 2005 PE, Mr Andrew Kuan, a former Chief Financial Officer of Jurong Town Corporation who runs his own executive search firm, was turned down by the PEC as he lacked the requisite financial credentials and responsibility required by the Constitution. Mr S R Nathan was re-elected unopposed for his second term as President.

In the 2011 PE, Mr Tan Kin Lian, who ran a co-operative, and Mr Tan Jee Say, a top executive in an asset management company, made the cut under the deliberative track, when the threshold was $100 million in paid up capital. There was some surprise because it was unclear if their jobs met the capital requirement. The PEC, however, assessed that both men were running organisations deemed of equivalent complexity.

In 2017 PE, after the rules were tightened, the PEC decided that Mr Mohamed Salleh Marican and Mr Farid Khan did not qualify under the private sector deliberative track. It did not make the reasons public. What is known is that both candidates ran companies that fell short of the S$500 million (US$378 million) shareholder equity requirement. For 2023 PE, Mr George Goh will also use the deliberative track, by combining a few companies which he runs concurrently to reach the $500 million equity threshold. He declined to give more details out of respect for the PEC as he had yet to submit his application for the certificate to the Elections Department

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.