YOUth Should Know: The duties of Singapore’s President

Beyond just guarding our Reserves, they also represent Singapore abroad and play an active role in the community.

Fitri Mahad

Probably the only person that likes to hear the koels go ‘uwu’.

Published: 9 June 2023, 5:07 PM

Before you cast your vote in a Presidential Election, one question may come to mind: What exactly does Singapore’s President do?

Most understand the President’s role as the custodian of the country’s Reserves and an ambassador to other countries. While those statements hold true, the Head of State has many more responsibilities – including various executive powers – to the nation.

Here are three things you should know about the duties of Singapore’s Head of State:

The President is afforded a host of powers they can exercise

A common misconception is that the role of a President is largely ceremonial, though that might hold some truth for the first four presidents who were appointed by the Parliament.

In November 1991, the constitution was amended to introduce the presidential elections, and to afford the elected president with some executive powers, on top of their ceremonial duties, to be used in different circumstances.


Ong Teng Cheong was Singapore’s first democratically elected President. He was sworn in on Sep 1, 1993. PHOTO CREDIT: NATIONAL LIBRARY BOARD


They can be divided into discretionary and non-discretionary powers.

The discretionary powers afforded to the President include vetoing transactions or budgets should they draw on past reserves, the appointment or removal of key office holders such as Supreme Court Judges and the Chief of Defence, as well as detention orders, investigations and restraining orders over security matters.

The first time the discretionary powers were exercised by a Singapore President was in October 2008, when Mr S R Nathan gave his approval for a S$150 billion guarantee on all bank deposits in Singapore to be backed by Past Reserves during the global financial crisis.

Mdm Halimah Yacob, Singapore’s eighth and current President, exercised her discretionary powers thrice between 2020 and 2022 to allow the Government to draw from the Past Reserves to help Singapore’s fight against COVID-19.

When it comes to Reserves and vetoing key appointments, the President would have to consult the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) before making any decisions. In the President’s absence, the CPA’s Chairman exercises the functions of the Office of the President.


Mr Eddie Teo (right, hand raised) is the current Chairman of the Council of Presidential Advisers. PHOTO CREDIT: ISTANA.GOV.SG


As for non-discretionary powers, the President must act with the advice of a minister or the Cabinet. The President can appoint a minister on the Prime Minister’s advice, while the Cabinet advises the President on pardoning convicted persons. 

The President also has a host of duties

Apart from the responsibilities and powers, the President also has his or her ceremonial obligations.

This is why you see them at occasions like the annual National Day Parade, opening of Parliament sessions, swearing-in of key appointment holders and granting awards to recipients.

For example, when Mdm Halimah opened the second session of Singapore’s 14th Parliament, her speech covered how the Cabinet should rethink the country’s approach to education and work.

The speech is also known as the President’s Address, which outlines the proposed direction, policies and programmes of the Government. Dr Tony Tan’s Address in January 2016  – Singapore’s seventh President – talked about keeping Singapore safe and renewing its economy.


Former President Tony Tan Keng Yam was sworn in on Sep 1, 2011 as Singapore’s seventh president. PHOTO CREDIT: FACEBOOK/DR TONY TAN


In the interest of foreign relations, the President also hosts dignitaries and conducts state visits overseas. Closer to home, foreign ambassadors and high commissioners have to present their credentials to the President before assuming office in Singapore.

Conversely, the President presents letters of credence to Singapore’s counterparts before they assume their office overseas.

An active contributor to the community and a supporter of social causes

The President also has to play an active role in the community through their support of various social causes.

A prominent example would be The President’s Challenge. Initially started by the late S R Nathan in 2000, the campaign was created as a fundraiser for the less fortunate. His successors, Dr Tony Tan and incumbent Mdm Halimah, further contributed to this campaign in their Presidential roles.


The late S R Nathan died peacefully on Aug 22, 2016 at 92 years old. PHOTO CREDIT: FACEBOOK/DR TONY TAN


Dr Tan contributed to the community through two initiatives: the President’s Challenge Volunteer Drive and the President’s Challenge Social Enterprise Award. These initiatives encouraged people to go beyond monetary donations and rely on skills and talent to help the less fortunate.

Mdm Halimah launched the Empowering for Life Fund which supports vulnerable groups through skills upgrading, capacity-building and employment opportunities.

Opening up the Istana to the public on special occasions is also another way the President supports social causes. All proceeds from merchandise booths go to charities supported by the President’s Challenge, including the disabled and the elderly communities.


Initiatives such as Picnic@Istana and Garden Tours@Istana allow for more Singaporeans to have access to the Istana Grounds. PHOTO CREDIT: FACEBOOK/HALIMAH YACOB


The President also confers awards, including the President’s Award for Inspiring Achievement and the President’s Volunteerism and Philanthropy Award.

A champion of volunteerism among youth, Mdm Halimah believes that youths can step up and contribute to nation building efforts.

Campaigns, such as the #GiveAsOne campaign launched by Mdm Halimah ahead of the National Day Parade 2023, provides a range of volunteering opportunities including food preparation and distribution, as well as befriending seniors.

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