Featured News Opinion OPINION: Are Presidential Elections in Singapore More Democratic Than General Elections?

OPINION: Are Presidential Elections in Singapore More Democratic Than General Elections?

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The presidential election allows Singaporeans to vote directly for the President, who plays a largely ceremonial role. But the Prime Minister, who wields real power, is not chosen directly by the people.


The presidential election fever is heating up with campaign logos, speeches, and photo ops. Each candidate has come up with his own brand. Singaporeans have been following the candidates, asking questions and even heckling them, which is unusual in Singapore.

Singaporeans are seemingly taking a keen interest in the viewpoints of each candidate, expressing a desire for a “real fight” after “ the disgraceful 2017 farce” when the President was elected unopposed.

Amidst all the activity now, one may almost forget that this is an election with virtually zero political power.

The presidential election in Singapore presents candidates directly to Singaporeans, and Singaporeans get to vote for the candidate of their choice. The person gaining the most votes gets the job. In other words, Singaporeans will get the President of their choice by majority vote.

The vote for those who actually wield real political power, on the other hand, is less straightforward. For example, Singaporeans do not directly vote for the Prime Minister, the most politically powerful person in Singapore. Instead, they vote for their members of Parliament (MPs) in a general election. And the leader of the party with the largest number of elected MPs gets to be the Prime Minister.

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Let’s also not forget the high criteria set to run for president.

Is it easier then to become Prime Minister than it is to be President? And, if so, why?

In Singapore, the President’s office is a largely ceremonial one. While the President is the official head of state, the Prime Minister actually governs the country. So, shouldn’t the Prime Minister’s office be harder to achieve?

It is also imperative to remember that Singapore has the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system, which allows less popular (and at times, virtually unknown) candidates to gain political power by hanging onto the coattails of more popular candidates.

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It is also a system that benefits the dominant People’s Action Party (PAP) as it is the larger parties that have the resources to contest GRC seats effectively. Whichever party wins a GRC immediately gets at least four seats in Parliament as opposed to just one in a Single Member Constituency (SMC). Indeed, the PAP won all the GRCs until 2011 when the Worker’s Party (WP) managed to wrest Aljunied GRC from the incumbent PAP. The then PAP minister, George Yeo, who lost in Aljunied GRC was so disappointed that he left politics altogether.

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This means that if one joins the “right” party, one can become an MP via the GRC system. It provides a way for a weaker candidate to get into power on the back of a strong candidate.

Yet, for the President’s office, a largely ceremonial role, we have all the trappings of a really democratic process. The mind boggles!

While Singaporeans cannot be blamed for getting caught up in election fever, given that our general elections tend to be rather muted events with a host of rules of what candidates can or cannot do, the presidential elections provide a welcome distraction, allowing Singaporeans to forget that this is an election for a post that has no political power.

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One might argue that the President possesses great power to influence others. However, it is arguable if the President (hitherto, always an establishment figure) has ever argued for a position that is detrimental to the establishment. So, even as we are putting so much time and energy into this presidential election, let us not forget that we should strive for the same degree of democratic scrutiny in our general election.

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Let not the drama of the presidential election lead us to think that this is real democracy at play. After all, the president has no real power.

The real questions are:

  1. Is our presidential election more democratic than our general elections?
  2. And, if so, why?

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