Singapore's presidents



Between 1959 and 1965, Singapore’s head of state was known as the Yang di-Pertuan Negara (Malay for “Head of State”).The post was created to replace the governor as head of state when Singapore attained self-governing status under British rule. When Singapore became an independent nation on 9 August 1965, the seat of Head of State was renamed Office of the President and Yusof bin Ishak, Singapore’s first Malayan-born Yang di-Pertuan Negara appointed since 1959, became the first president of the Republic of Singapore.1 The country’s first four presidents, who held office between 1965 and 1993, were appointed by parliament. They were Yusof, Benjamin Henry Sheares, C. V. Devan Nair and Wee Kim Wee.2 After the legislation on elected presidency came into effect on 30 November 1991, Singapore held its first presidential election on 28 August 1993 and Ong Teng Cheong became the country’s first elected president.3 He was succeeded by S. R. Nathan, who was elected unopposed in 1999 and 2005, and held office for two six-year terms.4 Tony Tan Keng Yam, who won the fourth presidential election held on 27 August 2011, was sworn in as Singapore’s seventh president on 1 September the following month.5

History of presidency in Singapore
The Office of the President of Singapore was preceded by the Office of Yang di-Pertuan Negara. The latter was created on 3 June 1959 when the constitution confirming Singapore as a self-governing state under British rule was brought into force.
6 Then Governor of Singapore, Sir William Goode, was appointed the first Yang di-Pertuan Negara, a position he held for six months.7

Yusof became Singapore’s first Malayan-born Yang di-Pertuan Negara on 3 December 1959.
8 As head of state, he was the British Queen’s representative. When Singapore became a constituent state of the Federation of Malaysia on 16 September 1963, Yusof was reappointed Yang di-Pertuan Negara of Singapore by then Malaysia‘s head of state, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, on 4 December 1963 for another four-year term. He was then a representative of Malaysia’s head of state.9 When Singapore became an independent nation on 9 August 1965, the title of its head of state was changed from Yang di-Pertuan Negara to that of President.10 Yusof was subsequently sworn in as the first president of the Republic of Singapore, henceforth representing the citizens of Singapore.11 

From 1965 to 1991, the president was appointed by the Singapore Parliament for a term of four years and had a largely ceremonial role.
12 On 30 November 1991, the amendment to the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore on elected presidency came into effect. Under the amended constitution, the president is to be elected by the citizens of Singapore.13 In addition, the elected president has discretionary powers relating to the safeguarding of national reserves, as well as the appointment of key personnel in the public sector and certain government-owned companies.14 The amended constitution also provides for a Council of Presidential Advisers to advise the president on the exercise of his powers on matters relating to national reserves and key appointments.15 Each elected president will hold office for a six-year term and there is no term limit to the presidency. The creation of an elected presidency in Singapore in 1991 represented a major constitutional and political change in the country’s history at the time.16


Presidents appointed by Parliament
Yusof bin Ishak

Yusof Ishak was the founder of well-known Malay newspaper,
Utusan Melayu, and former chairman of the Singapore Public Service Commission. He was sworn in as Singapore’s first president on 9 August 1965 during his second term as Yang di-Pertuan Negara.17 Yusof was re-elected for a second four-year term on 4 December 1967.18 

Yusof died of heart failure on 23 November 1970 at the age of 60 during his second term as president.
19


Benjamin Henry Sheares
Benjamin Henry Sheares succeeded Yusof as president. The 63-year-old renowned obstetrician and gynaecologist was elected as president by parliament on 30 December 1970.
20 He took office on 2 January 1971 and was re-elected for a second and third four-year term on 6 November 1974 and 29 December 1978 respectively.21 

Sheares died on 12 May 1981 during his third term as president after having been in a coma for five days.
22


C. V. Devan Nair
Fifty-eight-year-old C. V. Devan Nair was elected by parliament as Singapore's third president on 23 October 1981. He took office the following day. Prior to becoming president, Nair was the first secretary-general of the Singapore National Trades Union Congress, an organisation that he had helped establish in 1961. He was also member of parliament for the Anson constituency from 1979 to 1981.23 

Nair became the first president to resign from office when he tendered his resignation in March 1985, about seven months before the end of his term as president on 23 October.
24 His resignation was announced in parliament on 28 March, during which a statement was made to explain that he had developed symptoms of extreme weakness and exhaustion associated with mental confusion and bizarre behaviour when he was in Sarawak earlier that month. Upon his return to Singapore, Nair was examined by a panel of six doctors who concluded that he was suffering from alcoholism. In view of his own medical condition, Nair decided to tender his resignation as president of Singapore.25


Wee Kim Wee
Wee Kim Wee, former journalist and diplomat, was elected by parliament as Singapore’s fourth president on 30 August 1985.
26 He took office on 2 September 1985 at the age of 69 and was president for two four-year terms.27 

Wee became the first president vested with the powers of an elected president when the legislation on elected presidency came into effect on 30 November 1991.
28 

Wee retired from office when his second term ended on 1 September 1993.
29 He was the last president appointed by parliament as the legislation on elected presidency came into effect during his second term in office.30 Wee did not run for the first presidential election as he was getting on in years and also did not want to subject himself to the vote.31


Elected presidents
Ong Teng Cheong
When Singapore held its first presidential election in 1993, four applications were received by the Presidential Elections Committee – the committee responsible for assessing the prospective presidential candidates.
32 Of the four prospective candidates, the committee certified that two were of good integrity, character and reputation, and had the ability and experience in financial management necessary for the Office of the President. Certificates were issued by the committee to these two eligible candidates – Ong Teng Cheong, who had resigned from the post of Deputy Prime Minister to stand for the presidential election and former Accountant-General Chua Kim Yeow.33

Polling was held on 28 August 1993 and 57-year-old Ong, who received 58.7 percent of the valid votes, won the election.
34 He was sworn in as the first president elected by the people of Singapore on 1 September 1993.35 

Ong, who was the fifth president of Singapore, held office for six years. When his term as president ended on 31 August 1999, Ong decided not to run for a second term and retired from office.
36

S. R. Nathan

During the second presidential election held in 1999, S. R. Nathan was elected unopposed as there were no other eligible candidates. The 75-year-old former ambassador to the United States was sworn in as Singapore’s sixth president on 1 September 1999.
37 

On 17 August 2005, Nathan was again elected unopposed and he continued as president for a second six-year term, making him the longest-serving president in Singapore’s history.
38

Nathan was 87 years old by the end of his second term in office and he decided not to run for a third term in view of his age.
39


Tony Tan Keng Yam
Singapore’s fourth presidential election held in 2011 saw a total of four eligible candidates at the close of nominations. They were former deputy prime minister Tony Tan; former member of parliament Tan Cheng Bock; former chief executive officer of NTUC Income Tan Kin Lian; and Tan Jee Say, an investment manager and a former civil servant.
40

Polling for this presidential election – considered the most hard-fought in Singapore’s history – took place on 27 August 2011.
41 Tan garnered 35.2 percent of the votes, followed by Tan Cheng Bock’s 34.8 percent, Tan Jee Say’s 25 percent and Tan Kin Lian’s 4.9 percent.42 

Seventy-one-year-old Tan was sworn in as the seventh president of the Republic of Singapore on 1 September 2011.
43


Singapore’s presidents
9 August 1965–23 November 1970: Yusof bin Ishak44 
2 January 1971–12 May 1981: Benjamin Henry Sheares
45 
24 October 1981–28 March 1985: Devan Nair
46 
2 September 1985–1 September 1993: Wee Kim Wee
47 
1 September 1993–31 August 1999: Ong Teng Cheong
48
1 September 1999–31 August 2011: S. R. Nathan49 
1 September 2011–: Tony Tan Keng Yam
50




Author
Cheryl Sim



References
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29. Zuraidah Ibrahim. (1993, September 1). Thank you, President Wee. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG;  Singapore. Parliament. Parliamentary Debates: Official Report. (1989, August 31). Election of president (Vol. 54). Singapore: Govt. Printer, col. 498. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN)
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31. He was govt’s first choice for elected president. (1993, September 1). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
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34. Henson, B. (1993, August 28). 1.75m people go to the polls today to elect President. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lim, P. H. L. (Ed.). (2009). Chronicle of Singapore: Fifty years of headline news 1959–2009. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with National Library Board, p. 250. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705 CHR-[HIS])
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37. Nathan, S. R. (2011). An unexpected journey: Path to the presidency. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, pp. 553, 617. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 NAT-[HIS])
38. Lim, P. H. L. (Ed.). (2009). Chronicle of Singapore: Fifty years of headline news 1959–2009. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with National Library Board, p. 324. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705 CHR-[HIS]); Toh, E. (2011, July 2). President Nathan to step down after 12 years in office. The Straits Times, pp. A1, A12. Retrieved from Factiva.
39. Toh, E. (2011, July 2). President Nathan to step down after 12 years in office. The Straits Times, pp. A1, A12. Retrieved from Factiva; President's Office. (2013, January 25). Mr S R Nathan. Retrieved from The Istana website: http://www.istana.gov.sg/content/istana/thepresident/formerpresidents/mr_s_r_nathan.html
40. Tsang, S., & Perera, A. (2011). Singapore at random. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, p. 12. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TSA-[HIS])
41. Tsang, S., & Perera, A. (2011). Singapore at random. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, p. 12. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TSA-[HIS])
42. Li, X. (2011, August 28). Tony Tan is president. The Sunday Times, p. 1. Retrieved from Factiva.
43. President's Office. (2013, June 10). Biography of the president. Retrieved from The Istana website: http://www.istana.gov.sg/content/istana/thepresident/biography.html
44. President's Office. (2013, January 25). Encik Yusof Ishak. Retrieved from The Istana website: http://www.istana.gov.sg/content/istana/thepresident/formerpresidents/yi.html; Lim, P. H. L. (Ed.). (2009). Chronicle of Singapore: Fifty years of headline news 1959–2009. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with National Library Board, p. 107. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705 CHR-[HIS])
45. Singapore. Parliament. Parliamentary Debates: Official Report. (1970, December 30). Election of President of Republic of Singapore (Vol. 30). Singapore: Govt. Printer, col. 379. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN); Lim, P. H. L. (Ed.). (2009). Chronicle of Singapore: Fifty years of headline news 1959–2009. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with National Library Board, p. 171. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705 CHR-[HIS])
46. Now he’s President Nair. (1981, October 25). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Singapore. Parliament. Parliamentary Debates: Official Report. (1985, March 28). Resignation of Mr C. V. Devan Nair President of the Republic of Singapore (Vol. 45). Singapore: Govt. Printer, col. 1684. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN)
47. Hoe, I. (1985, September 3). 30 seconds later, our new president. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Zuraidah Ibrahim (1993, September 1). Thank you, President Wee. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
48. Tan, S. (1993, September 2). How I will do my job: President Ong. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; President's Office. (2013, January 25). The President. Retrieved from The Istana website: http://www.istana.gov.sg/content/istana/thepresident.html
49. Nathan, S. R. (2011). An unexpected journey: Path to the presidency. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, p. 617. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 NAT-[HIS]); Lim, P. H. L. (Ed.). (2009). Chronicle of Singapore: Fifty years of headline news 1959–2009. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with National Library Board, p. 324. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705 CHR-[HIS]); President's Office. (2013, January 25). The President. Retrieved from The Istana website: http://www.istana.gov.sg/content/istana/thepresident.html
50. President's Office. (2013, June 10). Biography of the president. Retrieved from The Istana website: http://www.istana.gov.sg/content/istana/thepresident/biography.html



Further resources
National Library Board Singapore. (2014). Benjamin Sheares becomes second president of Singapore
. Retrieved from HistorySG.

National Library Board Singapore. (2014). Ong Teng Cheong is the first elected president of Singapore
. Retrieved from HistorySG.

National Library Board Singapore. (2014). S R Nathan is elected president of Singapore
. Retrieved from HistorySG.

National Library Board Singapore. (2014). Tony Tan Keng Yam is elected president of Singapore
. Retrieved from HistorySG.

National Library Board Singapore. (2013). Yusof Ishak as first president
. Retrieved from HistorySG.



The information in this article is valid as at 2 September 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Politics and Government
Presidents--Singapore
Law and government>>Political process>>Leadership
Politicians
Personalities>>Biographies>>Political Leaders

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