Qualifying for the Istana

“Raising the bar” may do more harm than good.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew firmly believed that Singapore’s success and survival depends on the strength of its institutions and not primarily on the wisdom of individual leaders. One of those institutions has been under review since January this year when PM Lee Hsien Loong announced the establishment of a Constitutional Commission to examine several aspects of the Elected Presidency (EP).

The 9-person commission was tasked with studying and offering recommendations on three aspects:

  1. The eligibility criteria for qualifying as a presidential candidate
  2. The framework governing the custodial powers of the President, especially with regard to the role of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA)
  3. The opportunity for individuals from minority races to be elected to Presidential office.

In 1991, when the EP was introduced, the government introduced stringent eligibility criteria for presidential candidates in accordance with the significant responsibilities and high honour of the office. Candidates who work in the private sector must have held the position of CEO or Chairman of a company with a paid-up capital of at least S$100 million, for a period of at least three years. Candidates from the public sector must have served in key positions such as judges, Cabinet ministers, permanent secretaries or heads of statutory boards. The candidate must also be deemed by the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) as a person of “integrity, good character and reputation”.

Despite these stringent criteria, some suggest that the bar needs to be raised even higher for private sector candidates (nobody is making the same claim for public sector candidates). To be more specific, calls have been made to raise the paid-up capital threshold. During the Parliamentary debate on the President’s Address in January, MP for Marine Parade GRC Edwin Tong said the threshold is “obsolete and outdated” and called for the threshold to be raised. At one of the public hearings held by the Constitutional Commission, lawyer Ranvir Kumar Singh suggested that the paid-up capital requirement be raised to S$500 million.

In his own speech to Parliament after the President’s Address, PM Lee did not specifically say that the qualifying threshold needs to be raised – he said that the criteria need to be “updated” and “reviewed”. But given his claim that the S$100 million paid-up capital threshold would be S$158 million with inflation today, and his reference to Singapore’s growing economy and increased complexity of financial institutions, it is highly unlikely that the government advocates lowering the bar.

S$100 million is arbitrary

The idea behind “raising the bar” is that Singapore’s rapidly growing financial reserves require even stronger safeguards, one of which is the President who functions as a “second key” to the reserve. One way to strengthen the Presidency is to ensure that only the most competent and responsible individuals sit in the Istana, and the proposed solution is to raise the paid-up capital requirement. The larger the company a person heads, the more confident Singaporeans can be that this person would function as a proper custodian of Singapore’s reserves.

But does the size of a company that a person leads directly correspond to his/her competence as a custodian of a country’s financial reserves? Former Attorney-General Walter Woon argues that the S$100 million figure is “purely arbitrary“. NUS Adjunct Professor Kevin Tan claims that that anyone who can run a S$100 million can probably run a S$300 million company as well. In contrast, the human rights NGO MARUAH points out that the 2008 financial crisis demonstrated that even the CEOs of the largest companies in the world made “self-serving and irresponsible decisions” that hurt shareholders and taxpayers.

In my view, the paid-up capital requirement is important as an indicator of a private sector candidate’s competence – albeit an imperfect indicator – but the exact number is not crucial. And the specific competences that this indicator hopefully points to are people management and decision-making as a CEO or Chairman, not investment prowess and business sense which are irrelevant to the job of the President.

How relevant is the paid-up capital requirement?

In fact, I argue that assuming responsibility for large amounts of money is not even the most important aspect of the President’s job. The clearest evidence of this is the fact that the same stringent requirement is not expected of public sector candidates – a former Supreme Court judge would have never handled the same budget as the CEO of a large company. In fact, all of Singapore’s elected Presidents came from the public sector. But more importantly, the President only assumes his/her role as the “second key” to the reserves when the Government requests access to past reserves, which is infrequent. The only time that the Government has ever tapped into past reserves was during the financial crisis in 2009, when S$4.9 billion was drawn from the reserves to fund the Government’s economic recovery plan.

Of course, requests for access to past reserves may become more frequent in the future, depending on who’s in power and what the economic circumstances are. But even then, MARUAH argues that a presidential veto of a government spending Bill is unrealistic because it is “politically inexpedient” to do so and because the President would need the support of the CPA or at least one-third of Parliament to do so. After all, even if the President believes that drawing from past reserves is unnecessary and harmful, will he really have the political capital to reject the government’s request, especially after the request has been evaluated by government economists, the Finance Minister and elected MPs? Furthermore, the President’s hand is not the only one on the “second key” – he/she is guided by the advice of the CPA, which the constitutional commission is considering strengthening.

Other than acting as a safeguard to the financial reserves, the President assumes other roles relating to guarding racial and religious harmony and the integrity of the civil service. For example, the President can initiate an anti-corruption investigation through the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) without the approval of the PM or the CPA. The President is also a diplomat who represents Singapore to the world. Since these roles are continuous and even allow the President limited autonomy in decision-making, surely they are more important than the President’s role as the “second key” to the reserves. The paid-up capital requirement has little relevance to these more important duties.

Raising the threshold is dangerous in the long-run

Since the paid-up capital requirement is an arbitrary, imperfect indicator of an individual’s competence, as well as irrelevant to the most important roles of the President, it would serve no purpose to raise the threshold. In fact, raising the threshold may be harmful to the Presidency and the country in the long run for two reasons. Firstly, since the threshold is an imperfect indicator of an individual’s competence, raising the threshold will reduce the pool of talent without ensuring that the remaining candidates are more competent than those who have been excluded. This contradicts the principle of meritocracy and is ultimately self-defeating.

Secondly, and more importantly, the restricted pool will be even more unrepresentative of Singapore’s diversity than it already is. This runs contrary to Part 3 of the Constitutional Commission’s mandate, which is to find ways to ensure that individuals from minority backgrounds are elected as President from time to time. This is important since all the candidates in the Presidential Elections of 1993 and 2011 were Chinese. (There were no elections in 1999 and 2005 because President SR Nathan was the only candidate who qualified.) In both sectors, but more so for the private than the public sector, minority races are under-represented at the top echelons. By drawing from an even smaller pool of elites, it will be even less likely that Singapore will have a Malay, Indian or Eurasian President in the future – or that Singapore will ever have a female president.

As someone from a minority ethnic group, I place great importance on the full participation of minorities in Singapore’s society and the accessibility of minorities to positions of leadership. It is no exaggeration to say that multiculturalism and racial equality are fundamental tenets of Singapore’s existence – it is literally the basis of our independence. Given the importance of this founding principle, I value evidence of multiculturalism played out in practice and not only in theory. I also value Singapore’s international image of multiculturalism, especially since I constantly receive befuddled looks when I introduce myself as a Singaporean – followed by the inevitable reply, “But you don’t look Singaporean”.

Diversity in the Istana is important evidence of Singapore’s multiculturalism and equality. A lack of diversity can foster a disconnect between the Office of the Presidency and breed cynicism amongst Singaporeans. This undermines the role of the President as a symbol of unity for the country. At the same time, it’s important to remember that the ultimate goal of diversity should not be to produce Indian Presidents, Malay Presidents or female Presidents – the goal is to produce Singaporean Presidents who could be Chinese, Malay or Indian, male or female. Since raising the paid-up capital requirement can reduce diversity in the Istana without necessarily increasing the quality of candidates, I argue that it should be kept at its current level.


I’ve argued that the paid-up capital requirement is an arbitrary, imperfect indicator of an individual’s experience and competence in handling large amounts of money, and is also irrelevant to the most important duties of the President. Hence, raising the S$100 million threshold will not necessarily produce better presidential candidates. What’s worse is that raising the threshold will reduce the representativeness and inclusiveness of the Presidency by further limiting access of minority ethnic groups and women to the Istana.

In fact, a case could even be made for lowering the threshold, not only for private sector candidates but for public sector candidates as well. In her submission to the Constitutional Commission, the Executive Director of AWARE, Corinna Lim, claims that the current thresholds for both the private and public sectors exclude women with illustrious careers such as Dr Noeleen Heyzer, Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, and Dr Kanwaljit Soin. She argues that the paid-up capital requirement should be reduced to S$50 million, and that the other public sector positions should be included, such as Ministers of State, senior ambassadors, and other senior members of the judiciary. While her argument is focused on women, the same logic can be applied across the board – there may be highly competent and respectable potential candidates who narrowly miss the mark according to the current threshold. Instead of using high thresholds to weed out “unqualified” candidates, greater responsibility should be placed on the electorate to judge the character and competence of candidates

Of course, no matter what the threshold is, a similar argument can always be made to lower it. Scrapping the threshold altogether is also not tenable – since candidates run independently of parties/organisations, which normally function as sieves, there have to be some qualifying criteria. I do not know how we will arrive at the golden threshold, but I am sure of two things – that raising the bar is counter-productive, and that we need greater public discussion about the Presidency beyond the Constitutional Commission.


3 thoughts on “Qualifying for the Istana

  1. Pingback: Quick Thoughts on CNA’s “Race, Politics and Economy” | Paradox of Life

  2. Pingback: On Racial Voting and Meritocracy | Paradox of Life

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