Why Didn’t More Singaporeans Run for President?

Ryan Ong

Ryan Ong

Last updated 08 September, 2017

Only the cream of the crop can qualify as candidates, but getting elected means giving up lucrative high-level jobs.

The requirements to become President of Singapore are famously difficult. Back in 1995 and 2005, for instance, only former President S.R. Nathan was deemed to have qualified, resulting in a walkover both times. But that's not the only reason why more Singaporeans didn't step into the race.

What’s the Criteria to Qualify as a Presidential Candidate?

To be President of Singapore, you need to be:

  • A Singapore citizen
  • At least 45 years old
  • Your name must appear on the register of electors (people eligible to vote)
  • You must currently be living in Singapore, and must have lived in Singapore for at least 10 years prior to your attempt to run for President
  • You must be of sound mind, medically speaking
  • You cannot be an undischarged bankrupt
  • You cannot hold an office of profit (this basically means you can’t have any other job)
  • You cannot be a member of Parliament
  • You cannot have been convicted of an offence that would have a jail term of more than one year or a fine of $2,000 or more, in Singapore or Malaysia
  • You can’t have allegiance or citizenship with a foreign country
  • You must be a person of “integrity, good character, and reputation”

In addition - and this is the bit that disqualifies most people - you must have held a position in one of the following for at least three years:

  • Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker, Attorney-General, Chairman of the Public Service Commission, Auditor-General, Accountant-General or Permanent Secretary
  • CEO of a key statutory board or government company: the Central Provident Fund Board, the Housing and Development Board, the Jurong Town Corporation, the Monetary Authority of Singapore, Temasek Holdings, or GIC Private Limited
  • Most senior executive of a company with an average of S$500 million in shareholders' equity for the most recent three years in that office, and which is profitable after taxes
  • Any other similar position in other organisations of the same size and complexity

As of April 2017, amendments also allow for reserved elections. This can restrict the running to certain racial groups.

With Such Strict Requirements, How Many Would Actually Qualify?

In 2005, the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary mentioned that only around 700 to 800 Singaporeans qualified. Given our population size of 4.26 million at the time, that means just 0.018 per cent of the population could qualify to be President.

The stringent requirements aren’t just for show. If we look at just the “job experience” necessary (excluding issues like citizenship), even seasoned statesmen and women like former US President Barack Obama, or current Prime Minister of the UK Theresa May, would fail to qualify.

This year, given that the elections are reserved for minorities (only Malays are eligible in the 2017 election), the number of people who potentially qualify would be even smaller.

All these factors combine to explain why this round, we have a grand total of 3 candidates in the running.

singapore cbd skyline

Candidates Would Expect to Forego a Large Sum of Money

Even with it being a reserved election this year, we are likely to have a couple of hundreds Malay Singaporeans who qualify, so why aren’t more of them running? The answer is simple: the President’s salary, which is around S$1 million a year, probably isn’t very attractive to those who fit the criteria.

If you’re a CEO of a company with S$500 million or more in shareholder equity, and it’s been profitable after taxes for three years or more, your salary is likely to be much higher than the President’s. It’s not unheard of for such CEOs to make over S$10 million a year, and it gets even higher for bigger Multinational Corporations.

What it all means is this: To qualify as a presidential candidate, you probably have to be a high-flying captain of industry. If you’re that highly qualified, you’re likely to earning a good salary in the private sector.

However, if you’re elected, you’ll have to give up your current post. Financially, this would represent a step backward - one that can be huge for some.

Whether this is a good thing is a matter of perspective.

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Ryan has been writing about finance for the last 10 years. He also has his fingers in a lot of other pies, having written for publications such as Men’s Health, Her World, Esquire, and Yahoo! Finance.


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