Appointment raises questions

ALTHOUGH Singapore President Halimah Yacob is the first female and the second Malay (after Yusof Ishak) to occupy the Istana in 47 years, events leading to her inauguration on Sept 14 this year prompted a quartet of questions.

First, is it an election if voters can't vote? Second, without a popular mandate, will a leader enjoy political legitimacy? Third, was a presidential election reserved only for Malays necessary? Fourth, why are the criteria for a presidential candidate far more stringent than that for a Member of Parliament?

A law graduate, a trade unionist for 30 years and a Speaker of Parliament since 2013, Halimah was elected unopposed last month when two other candidates – Farid Khan and Salleh Marican – failed to obtain a Certificate of Eligibility from the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC).

Halimah isn't the first to become president without a contest. Of the three presidents who took office after November 1991 – the date the constitution was amended allowing a president to be elected for a six-year term – president Nathan was elected unopposed twice.

To boost the Opposition's chances of success in the 1991 general election, then secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party Chiam See Tong allowed the PAP to win unopposed in 41 out of 81 parliamentary seats.

If the 1991 poll was deemed valid, shouldn't the same yardstick be used for Halimah? The key issue is whether without a popular mandate, Halimah enjoys political legitimacy.

Political legitimacy is the voluntary acceptance by a large number of individuals of a leader's right to govern – particularly in a crisis when critical decisions have to be made.

A constitutional contretemps in Australia involving an appointed governor-general and a popularly elected leader is one example.

On Nov 11, 1975, governor-general Sir John Kerr controversially dismissed prime minister Gough Whitlam in an attempt to resolve the stalemate between the Labour-controlled House of Representatives and the Senate caused by the latter blocking funding that could run out by the end of the month.

Pending a general election, Kerr appointed Malcolm Fraser as caretaker leader of a minority government. Although Fraser subsequently lost a motion of no-confidence in the House of Representatives, Kerr denied a request to dismiss Fraser and reappoint Whitlam.

In Singapore, the argument that a reserved election was necessary to ensure a Malay occupant in the Istana raises some intriguing questions. In 1999 and again in 2005, president Nathan, an ethnic Indian, didn't face a reserved election.

In 2016, Indians accounted for 9.1% of Singapore's population, the smallest of the three main ethnic groups, while Malays comprised 13.4% and Chinese 74.3%. Presumably, the three ethnic groups were proportionately similar in 1999 and 2005.

Why did Singapore policy makers believe other ethnic groups, who were willing to vote for an Indian as president in 1999 and 2005, wouldn't support a Malay candidate 12 years later? Given Halimah's strong resume and good people-skills, this lack of confidence in her ability to win a popular mandate is surprising.

Speculation is rife that if this year's election wasn't reserved for Malays, Tan Cheng Bock, a strong challenger in the 2011 contest, would have launched another bid for the presidency. In the 2011 poll, Cheng Bock won 34.8% of the vote – 40 percentage points lower than that for president Tony Tan.

In November last year, the criterion was raised. A presumptive private sector candidate had to be chief executive officer (CEO) of a company with shareholders' equity totaling at least SG$500 million (RM1.55 billion) – four times higher than the previous benchmark of SG$100 million (RM301 million).

If the SG$100 million threshold had been retained, Farid Khan and Salleh Marican could have qualified as presidential candidates.

Apart from inflation, was there another reason for raising the limit substantially and narrowing considerably the pool of potential presidential candidates?

Furthermore, why is the criterion to become Singapore's president more stringent than that for a Member of Parliament (MP)? Given that an MP can become prime minister, who has the potential to wreak greater havoc with the country's finances, including its reserves, shouldn't qualifications for potential MPs be made tougher than that for a president?

A contrary question – is a higher qualifying gauge a better predicator of an individual's ability to govern? Prior to becoming the 45th US President, Trump was CEO of Trump Organisation, whose revenues totalled US$9.5 billion (RM40.3 billion) in 2015, according to PrivCo, a research firm that assesses privately-held companies.

Although president Obama qualified magna cum laude from Harvard and was editor-in-chief of the Harvard Law Review, his managerial experience was feather-light. Obama worked as a lawyer, a community organiser as well as a Senator in Illinois and in the US Senate.

If a Trump wannabe and an Obama equivalent were contenders for the Singapore presidency in the same year, would the PEC disqualify the Obama equivalent, thus allowing the Trump wannabe to be elected unopposed?

Opinions expressed in this article are the personal views of the writer and should not be attributed to any organisation she is connected with. She can be contacted at siokchoo@thesundaily.com