Governance of a City-State
Presidential Elections: Strengthening the Legitimacy of the System and its Outcome in 2023 and Beyond

Since the Elected President scheme was promulgated in 1991, Singapore has seen five presidential terms but only two contests — in 1993 and 2011. It was reformed in 2017 to guarantee ethnic representation and enhance suitability of candidates in this system of direct election of our Head of State.

It is interesting to learn how Singaporeans understand this young, evolving institution and explore how to improve this as the next election looms. After all, an informed citizenry and well-considered votes will strengthen a system designed to provide ballast to governance in the country.

What is the level of political literacy concerning the Presidency?

Deficits in Understanding the Presidency

On  July 31, media platforms CNA and Today released findings of a survey they conducted among 1,500 21 to 33-year-olds to test what younger voters know about Singapore’s Presidency.

These respondents demonstrated a high awareness of the President’s custodial powers but, there was far lower awareness of how the President interacts with the key centres of political authority in Singapore.

While two-thirds recognised the President generally takes instruction from Cabinet, half did not know that he or she does not give instruction to Cabinet. Almost half incorrectly believed that the President can change existing policies, only half knew the President does not give instruction to Parliament, and only a third knew that the President does not take instruction from Parliament.

The extent to which these responses reflect the level of knowledge among the broad swathe of Singaporean voters today is not clear, but that is a question to ponder.

Nonetheless, it is important to note what the President’s functions are, as outlined in Article 21 of the Constitution. It states that except for a few key discretionary powers, the President shall “act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or of a Minister acting under the general authority of Cabinet.” The President has powers, but there are also the limits of those powers. Most critically, the President does not have policy-making authority and does not instruct Cabinet or Parliament, nor receive instructions from Parliament.

This leads us to the recent theme in public discourse — the extent to which a President should be “independent” from the government. Electing someone who will contradict it on day-to-day policy matters, or propose his or her own policy agenda to the government publicly, is not the task before us.

Former Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced his candidacy on June 8. Since then, three other prospective candidates have emerged — Mr George Goh, Mr Ng Kok Song, and Mr Tan Kin Lian who had contested in the 2011 election.

Goh emphasised the need for a “truly independent person” to be a check on the government, while Mr Shanmugaratnam was referred to by the Prime Minister as having an “independence of mind”. Mr Tan has said he would like to advocate for various public policy positions.

The President is above partisan politics; a national unifier, a figure who represents the nation to those outside it. Indeed, former cabinet ministers and certain public sector and judiciary figures automatically qualify as candidates for the Presidency, suggesting that those who were part of the establishment, government and governing party are considered appropriate candidates, as are those from the highest levels of corporate Singapore.

The important question is whether a President’s previous affiliations whatever they may be, and character, help or hinder his or her independent decision-making in areas with discretionary power. This judgement lies with voters.

They must assess a candidate’s own political literacy in recognising the authority of other duly-elected leaders in Parliament representing the people’s mandate, from which the Cabinet is formed too. This will allow for the smooth-running of the governance system.

The President operates within policy frameworks set up by that duly-elected government while advancing the country’s interests in the other ceremonial and community roles. The President works with the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) especially concerning the power to veto national reserves spending and senior appointments in the public, legal, judicial, and defence services.

Prospective candidates must resist overstating the President’s powers; portraying themselves as influential and independent figures capable of effecting significant policy change as it lies outside the office’s scope. This could mislead voters, create unrealistic expectations, and unnecessarily undermine the legitimacy of the office.

Reasons for the Deficits

Why do these disjuncts in understanding exist, such as knowing the role of the President but not knowing his or her relationship with Cabinet and Parliament?

There could be at least three reasons: First, during the institution’s genesis, the emphasis was on the President being a “check” on a “rogue government” that might want to squander the national reserves. This office was, however, not intended as a counterforce to the duly-elected government on other policy matters.

Second, the Singaporean institution is unique, with our President having five important custodial powers. This is unlike the constitutional monarch of the United Kingdom who acts on the government’s advice, and also unlike the President of the United States who is elected to position, and heads the Executive branch with significant policymaking role within the country’s Federal system.

Third, limited accounts of the Singapore President’s interaction with the Cabinet and the Prime Minister exist apart from instances involving the calculation and the use of national reserves in past crises. This is to be expected, arising from what is necessarily the discreet and private nature of these exchanges between the President and Prime Minister.

Improving Understanding

If political literacy is an important ingredient to the legitimacy of our key governing institutions, both before the Writ of Election is issued and for the longer term, how can we enhance this literacy and ensure candidates’ campaigns align with the President’s precise role? How do we ensure that candidates do not oversell their role?

First, a coordinated approach involving the Elections Department Singapore (ELD), the agency in charge of preparing and managing elections, media platforms, and educational institutions, can be helpful.

Authoritative and easily accessible material in English and key vernacular languages, can explain the President’s scope and power, with examples of what is within President’s authority to do and what is not.

ELD, as well as the media, can engage younger audiences through short informative visuals and videos on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook, simplifying the legalese of the presidency and election rules. Citizens will then be equipped to discern the quality of candidates’ campaign.

Second, to educate our future electorate over the longer term, concerted effort can be made in schools such as organising mock elections and presenting a simplified but accurate Constitution to raise political awareness. Experiential learning will provide future voters a better grasp the nuances of our political systems, including the Presidency.

Third, and a more challenging goal is to allow scholars and past presidents to work with the government to publish a record, spanning a week or even a month  to flesh out how the President interacts with the CPA, takes the advice of Cabinet conducting the business of the office, and gives assent to legislation passed in Parliament. This needs significant planning to achieve.

Measures adopted for the 2023 election can mitigate unnecessary controversy and allow us to focus more on what candidates wish to bring to the office. They help voters make an informed choice. Longer term efforts will enhance the political legitimacy of our state institutions and stability of governance in Singapore.


Dr Gillian Koh is Senior Research Fellow and Sarah Lim, intern, at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore.

Top photo from Freepik.

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