Presidential Election 2023: Pre-Election Perspectives

By August 29, 2023 Local Politics

With PE2023 on the horizon, there has been plenty of debate in the public sphere regarding the best candidate to assume the role as Singapore’s head of state.

The decision by the Presidential Elections Committee not to certify one of the hopeful candidates as eligible set tongues wagging briefly, while the remaining candidates’ media interviews, publicly stated opinions on social matters and social media posts have since all invited scrutiny.

Some have questioned the selection process for candidates and, in light of recent political scandals, pondered the best means of action to indicate their dissatisfaction while retaining a suitable candidate. Others have emphasised the key institutional role of the president and the need to make a choice between candidates based on their character and capabilities.

Given the competing discourses in the public space, we launched a survey to investigate the attitudes of Singaporeans towards the Presidential Election, the knowledge people have of the role, and the attributes desired in the winning candidate.

Voter Engagement

Respondents indicated a high level of engagement with the electoral process. Roughly two-thirds (67%) of Singaporeans said they were looking forward to participating in the 2023 Presidential Election, even though the role is largely ceremonial and candidates must not have any party affiliation.

At least some part of this eagerness may be explained by a desire among the populace to exercising their voting rights, with only two presidential elections since 1993 having been contested in a vote and the last election in 2017 ending in a walkover. 70% of respondents agreed that it was important PE2023 does not end in a walkover, with 38% strongly expressing this sentiment.

Awareness of President’s Powers

Respondents were generally confident that they were aware of the responsibilities of the president, with 58% agreeing with the statement. However, the ability of respondents to identify the president’s powers was largely inconsistent.

We asked those who had agreed/strongly agreed (58%) that they were aware of the president’s powers to identify those that were not within the office of the president, including some false dummy options in a list.

A large majority (72%) of this group were aware that the president had the power to block the government’s access to the reserves. This may not be surprising as much attention has been given among government figures, the media and the public to the president’s role as the ‘custodian’ of Singapore’s reserves, predicating the stringent selection process for candidates.

However, more than half of this group were unaware that the president appoints the prime minister, appoints nominated members of parliament (NMPs), and has oversight powers over the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) and over detentions made under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act 1990.

This lack of knowledge may be partly explained by the ceremonial nature of some of these powers, such as the appointment of a prime minister, while the limited use of the other powers in the public view may contribute to the gap in understanding of the president’s role.

Fewer than half of those confident in their knowledge were able to identify each false dummy option in the list. The dummy options were selected due their association with the role of ombudsman in other countries, whose role often involves relaying public grievances with governing bodies to those in power.

These findings suggest that there remains room to promote greater public awareness on the role of the president, and the role of the president in safeguarding the reserves remains the function that dominates public consciousness.

Qualities Desired in President

When asked about the traits that respondents wished to see in the president, the most respondents agreed/strongly agreed that it was important for the president to identify with Singaporeans of all backgrounds (93%) and lead initiatives that can help improve the lives of Singaporeans in need (93%).

The largest proportion also strongly agreed (55%) that it was important for the president to identify with Singaporeans of all backgrounds.

Being able to empathise with Singaporeans of all backgrounds may be a quality sought among the populace as it largely dovetails with the conception of the president as a unifying figure embodying the whole of society.

Meanwhile, leading initiatives that improve the lives of Singaporeans in need is not a role prescribed for or limited to Singaporean presidents, but it aligns with an understanding of the president representing the unity of society.

Furthermore, Singaporean presidents leading charitable initiatives has considerable historical precedent. Former president Ong Teng Cheong was responsible for multiple charitable projects – including the President’s Star Charity in 1994 – while the President’s Challenge was launched by former president S. R. Nathan in 2000.

A strong majority also agreed/strongly agreed that the president should be non-partisan and politically independent (72%).

On the other hand. respondents were mostly ambivalent towards the international renown of the president. 58% of respondents disagreed/strongly disagreed or neither agreed nor disagreed that it was important for the president to be well known internationally. 34% of respondents neither agreed nor disagreed that this was important.

While this finding reinforces the image of the president as a unifying figure in Singapore society, it may also indicate diminished awareness of the president’s role in representing Singapore in official diplomatic functions, which may be key in bilateral relations.

Factors Affecting Candidate Suitability

A large majority of respondents indicated agreement that a candidate’s suitability to become president was dependent on their previous profession and affiliations. A near-identical proportion of respondents agreed/strongly agreed that the candidate’s suitability was dependent on their past profession (76%) as compared to their past personal and organisational affiliations (77%).

While some Singaporeans have expressed reservations over the strictness of the eligibility criteria for the presidency, which limits the pool of eligible individuals, there is general agreement that the criteria ensure the right candidates stand for election. A slightly larger proportion of respondents agreed/strongly agreed that the public sector criteria (63%) ensured the right candidates as compared to the private sector criteria (54%).

Overall, the findings of our survey suggest that Singaporeans may not have complete knowledge of the president’s powers and responsibilities, but they are eager to exercise their vote in selecting the next office holder. The public is likely to scrutinise each candidate’s professional credentials and prior affiliations, with a preference for candidates who are capable of demonstrating autonomy in the political sphere.

Beyond all else, it appears that Singaporeans wish to select the president who would serve best as a unifying figure in society, overcoming societal divides and elevating those who may be left behind.

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