Every presidential candidate declares that he is an “independent’’ check, able to relate to the Government of the day as equals and use his or her powers objectively in the interest of the country. The term “independence’’ has come to be synonymous with “non-partisan’’, an attribute that the Constitution demands of any aspiring candidate. But the issue is more multi-faceted than it seems.

Q: It's a no-brainer. The President has, of course, to be a unifying figure for the nation right?
Yes. That is one consideration, A non-partisan President is expected to rise above political affiliations and represent all citizens, regardless of their political beliefs or backgrounds. He must exercise his powers independently, providing a check on the government's actions and preventing potential abuses of power. He prioritises national interests above political considerations.

Q. Of course! You can't check the government if you belong to the ruling party, and you would be expected to check on the government if you belong to the opposition. That means the person who is a party member must resign from the political party right?
Right. Past president Ong Teng Cheong, who was a Deputy Prime Minister, had to quit the People’s Action Party to stand in the first PE. So did Dr Tony Tan, a former Cabinet minister who was in the private sector. For the 2011 PE, Mr Tan Jee Say quit the Singapore Democratic Party to contest as well. He had failed to secure a parliamentary seat that year. Another presidential contender that year was Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a former PAP MP. But he had already quit the party in 2006. In the last PE, Madam Halimah Yacob resigned from the Speaker's position as well as the PAP. For the 2023 PE, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam resigned last month to qualify for the contest. Mr Ong, Dr Tony Tan, Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Mr Tharman had held positions in the PAP’s central executive committee.

Q: So what's the problem? They quit right?
The action of resigning is simple enough but no one can be sure if political ties have definitely been severed, especially if a party member quits only because he wants to run for president. Obviously, such a candidate would insist that this separation of past political affiliation and public duty can be achieved, even if they had served the party for decades. Some critics have called for a time-bar, anything from 3 to 10 years, before a former party member can truly be a non-partisan candidate. But the 2016 Constitutional Commission said that this would be ignoring “practical realities’’ as many qualified candidates who want to serve would be rendered ineligible because of prior political affiliations. It added that the electorate will likely form a judgment on the independence of any candidate, and can choose not to elect the person if they are not convinced of his independence from the political party in power.

Q: But can the political parties campaign on their ex-member's behalf or support their candidacy?
Well. It has been the practice since the first PE in 1993 for PAP politicians to make clear which candidate the party is backing, with ministers and affiliated groups like the NTUC labour movement doing the same. It’s been more or less normalised. Some people say that it is a legitimate way for politicians and organisations to express support, while others have worried about the potential of such endorsements undermining the president’s independence and politicising the presidency. When Mr Tharman announced that he was stepping down from the Government and from the PAP on June 7, endorsements came almost immediately from senior PAP leaders including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean and then-Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin. NTUC also applauded the move.

Asked whether political endorsements should be stopped, the 2016 Constitutional Commission more or less repeated the line about the practicality of such a move and leaving the matter to voters. It said that it was not feasible to prevent endorsements by politicians speaking in their public, as opposed to personal, capacities. They might have strong and potentially relevant views on the merits or demerits of candidates, it said. It added that such endorsements “might be a factor that voters might wish to consider in the exercise of their vote’’.

Q: What about the Presidential Elections Committee? The person must at least convince the PEC that he or she would be non-partisan if elected?
The PEC only has to be sure that the candidate meets the legal requirements for qualification. In this case, it ensures that the candidate does not belong to any political party. It also has the discretion to determine if the candidates are of “integrity, good character and reputation’’. How this is done is anyone’s guess. No one knows for sure because its work is so opaque. Is the PEC susceptible to political pressure to approve or disqualify candidates? The Constitution gives the PEC the final say on eligibility. And because the PEC deliberates behind close doors, it has drawn criticisms for non-accountability.

Q: Did voters ever think that past political affiliations and endorsements of candidates mattered?
That depends on how the voting results are analysed. Mr Ong Teng Cheong was openly endorsed by the PAP as well as the NTUC, which helped him with his campaign. He took 58.7% of the vote against challenger, Mr Chua Kim Yeow, who had asked voters if they wanted to extend the PAP’s dominance into the presidency and did minimal campaigning. Reflecting on this after he stepped down, Mr Ong said he could have gotten more votes if people did not see him as a PAP man. The issue for voters was whether they “wanted a PAP man as president to check on a PAP government’’ or plumb for a neutral independent like Mr Chua as many educated Singaporeans did.

The other contest was in 2011, which had the PAP man Tony Tan pitted against what is seen as an opposition bloc comprising two former PAP members and a former PAP politician. The resulting campaign took on political overtones as a couple of candidates saw the role of president as more activist than it should be.

Dr Tan took 35.2% of the vote, compared to 60.1 per cent the PAP garnered in the general election a few months earlier. This is sometimes seen as an indication of the public desire for a President with no ties to the PAP.

Q: But Mr Ong Teng Cheong went public about his differences with the Government didn't he? And he was a PAP man!!
Yes. Mr Ong showed that he was own man just a year into the office when he questioned a government move to curtail his veto powers. The matter was referred to a High Court tribunal which ruled in the Government’s favour. At various points during his six year presidency and even after, he told the media about his lack of access to information about the reserves, including land values. He queried the government’s treatment of Net Investment Income as part of current reserves. He declined to sign off on a statutory board’s claim that its budget would not draw on past reserves until he was satisfied with its explanation. He was also upset that he was bypassed when the government decided to sell POSB, a statutory board with reserves under his protection, to DBS bank.

Q: So if someone who says he is independent is elected, can he do an Ong Teng Cheong?
Remember that Mr Ong was the first president to be elected into the office and a lot of issues hadn’t really been settled. He had to test the limits of his powers and come up with a working relationship with the Government. His efforts resulted in a clearer definition of terms including the mode of accounting that should be adopted and what Net Investment Income comprised.

It is for the President to decide how he wishes to communicate with the public although there is an expectation that he should keep some matters confidential. His public expressions of opinion should not veer into political territory that would mark the presidency as another power centre. After the raucous 2011 PE which was conducted more like a general election, a rule was imposed to have future candidates sign a declaration they understood the role of the President.

Nevertheless, some people still believe that an independent president should “take on’’ the Government, although Presidential powers are limited to saying no to the Government on just two key issues, protecting the reserves and over key public service appointments. He or she should not say no, simply to demonstrate independence. It could also well be that he or she was being objective and neutral when agreeing with the government’s proposals on these two issues.

Q: So, will we see a repeat of Ong Teng Cheong? Or not?
Since Mr Ong’s presidency, no other president has had run-ins with the executive over his custodial powers. Former top civil servant S R Nathan became president in a walkover, and continued into a second term uncontested. The presidencies of former Cabinet Minister Tony Tan and former Parliament Speaker Halimah Yacob were also peaceful, so to speak. In the public domain, all the presidents focused on community causes.

Since 2017, a more intricate engagement process is in place to bridge differences between the President and the executive, including mandatory consultation with the Council of Presidential Advisors and the involvement of Parliament. It is more likely that compromises are struck behind closed doors before they enter the public domain. If the President persists on using his veto, the matter will be brought to the people’s representatives in Parliament. The government needs a two-thirds majority to over-ride the veto. If it reaches this point, it would mean that relationship between the president and the government has broken down.

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.