Being President 'is not for me'
Professor Cham Tao Soon, who retired from Council of Presidential Advisers in 2010, talks about the changes reflected in the White Paper published last week. He also tells TNP he has never thought of running for President
When he proposed the late S R Nathan's presidential candidacy in 1999, what surprised him was the hostility he faced.
Professor Cham Tao Soon, 77, said: "Some told me 'We have so many able Chinese, why did you go nominate an Indian?'
"But he proved to be a very good president, well-liked by all races. When it was time for his second term, there was no problem."
That is why Prof Cham, a former member on the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA), backs the Constitutional Commission's proposal that the elected presidency guarantees a minority President from time to time.
Under this framework, if Singapore does not have a president from a particular race for five consecutive terms (30 years), the next presidential election should be reserved for candidates of that race.
In its White Paper released last week, the Government took up the suggestion. (See report on facing page.)
The Special Adviser to SIM's Governing Council told The New Paper: "If you want to believe that this is a Singapore for all races, then it'll look funny if you don't have a minority president after 30 years.
"So I think you do need a special provision. In an open election, it'll be difficult to have a minority candidate. In the long run, what the Prime Minister said is correct - you need to have a minority president from time to time to represent Singapore."
Prof Cham, who is President Emeritus of the Nanyang Technological University and Chairman of NSL (formerly NatSteel), also commented on the move to increase the six-member-strong council to eight.
He said: "At that time, I was one of the six who came from my own domain and field of expertise. The members came together, bringing their own experience.
"I suppose you can say eight members means more experience, more insight."
It was an honour to be appointed by Mr Nathan to serve on the council for six years (2004 to 2010), added Prof Cham
But he does not miss the "frequent" meetings that he had to attend, thanks to the many hats he wore.
"It's a relief because I don't have to attend so many meetings any more. I'm trying to cut down a lot of my meetings. I'm no longer young," he said with a chuckle.
The President must consult the CPA in exercising his discretionary powers in connection with appointments and the reserves. This means there were serious issues to be mulled over during CPA meetings.
Prof Cham said the meetings were nothing like the intense war of words that some might imagine.
Instead, conversations are neutral and take place calmly. There is no need to hide anything and members ask questions they think would help them come to a decision.
He said: "Why do people think it's got drama? I don't understand.
"Sometimes, there are some people who feel very strongly about certain things and when somebody disagrees, they get emotional.
"But generally, you shouldn't take a position that there is only one right way. In life, there's no right or wrong."
When asked how long the longest meeting he has had with the CPA was, Prof Cham said: "I'm afraid I cannot reveal how long each meeting is but it is thorough enough."
He added that all CPA members are required to take an oath of secrecy.
Asked if he felt the burden as bearer of important state secrets, Prof Cham said: "It's okay. It actually helps you make subsequent decisions.
"Knowing the background is very important. It's not wealth but information that is more powerful."
He added that being tight-lipped is part of his nature.
"People say I'm good for keeping secrets. It's in my DNA. I talk a lot, but people find that they don't get anything out of me," he said with a chuckle.
Now that he has been on the CPA that advises the President closely on certain matters, has he considered running for the post?
No, he said without missing a beat.
"I never thought about it."
"If you look at Mr Nathan, he's generally someone who likes to be with people.
"I don't think I'm the type, I don't think I can fit in. It's a very onerous task. He was so busy with functions."
Prof Cham, who was appointed in April to set up the Singapore Rail Academy, is also eager to keep the last bit of free time left for himself.
The grandfather of two reserves his weekends for family, and keeps work dinners to twice a week at most.
Preferring to lead a private life, Prof Cham said: "You can't even go to a hawker centre. I asked Mr Nathan if he went for holiday trips overseas.
"He said he did, but with the whole entourage, even for his own private holiday.
"It's not for me."
WHO: Cham Tao Soon, 77
- Chairman, NSL
- Chairman, Soup Restaurant
- Chairman, Singapore Quality Award Council
- Chairman, Singapore Railway Academy
- Chairman, Singapore Symphony Orchestra Council
- President, Academy of Engineering
- Council member, Tan Chin Tuan Foundation
- Special Adviser, SIM Governing Council
- Member, SAP APJ Advisory Board
- Former member on the Council of Presidential Advisers
Main changes to elected presidency
In a White Paper released last week, the Government outlined changes to the elected presidency. Here are some main changes:
Now: Candidates need to be chairman or chief executive officer of a company to be eligible. New: The terms "chairman" and "chief executive officer" to be replaced with a general reference, such as "the most senior executive position of the company, however that office may be titled".
Now: $100 million paid-up capital as an indicator of a private company's size and complexity. New: $500 million shareholders' equity, with a review from time to time to meet changes in the economic environment.
'LOOK BACK' PERIOD
New: A 20-year "look back" period - the candidate's relevant experience should be within 20 years of the Presidential Election.
New: A hiatus-triggered model, where a contest is reserved for candidates of a certain race if there has not been a president from that particular race for five consecutive terms (30 years).
COUNCIL OF PRESIDENTIAL ADVISERS
Now: A six-member council that advises the President on some matters related to the fiscal reserves or key public service appointments.
New: Two more members will be appointed to the council which will advise the President on all matters related to fiscal reserves or key public service appointments.