By Zakir Hussain
Singapore may have a non-Chinese prime minister one day but that is unlikely to happen any time soon, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday, four days after Americans elected their first black president.
Mr Lee said race is still a factor that determines voters' preferences here, although he noted that attitudes have shifted.
He was replying to a question from Association of Muslim Professionals board member Yang Razali Kassim at a dialogue with 350 Malay grassroots and community leaders at the Grassroots Club.
Mr Yang Razali asked if, in the light of Mr Barack Obama's win, Singapore was ready for a prime minister of a minority race, and specifically from the Malay-Muslim community.
Mr Lee said in reply: 'It's possible. It depends on how people vote, on who has the confidence of the population.'
'Will it happen soon? I don't think so, because you have to win votes. And these sentiments - who votes for whom, and what makes him identify with that person - these are sentiments which will not disappear completely for a long time, even if people do not talk about it, even if people wish they did not feel it.'
However, he also acknowledged that attitudes towards race have shifted in the last two to three decades.
'Attitudes have shifted because English provides more of a common ground, because the new generation is better educated and they can see that there are successful people of all races,' he said.
'But to reach a position where everybody is totally race-blind and religion-blind, I think that's very difficult. You will not find it in any country in the world.'
Grassroots volunteer Muhammad Nabil Noor Mohamed, 20, said Mr Lee's assessment is realistic. Yet Mr Nabil also believes that people of his generation can see beyond race and religion 'to assess a leader on his ability and his merit'.
Last year, a survey of 1,824 Singaporeans' views on inter-racial ties by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies found that 94 per cent of Chinese polled said they would not mind an Indian as prime minister, and 91 per cent said they would not mind a Malay in the top post.
Mr Lee prefaced his remarks on Singapore by noting that Mr Obama's election victory marked a 'historic change' for America.
But the win did not mean race was no longer an issue there, he said. He pointed out that after 20 years of Bush and Clinton presidencies, Americans wanted a change.
'People were tired, they wanted something different, and Mr Obama represented something different,' he said.
'He was an effective candidate, charismatic candidate and able to mobilise young people and enthuse them, inspire them.'
Mr Obama won 52 per cent of the popular vote against opponent John McCain's 46 per cent, but a closer look at how ethnic groups voted showed that race remained a factor, Mr Lee said.
Just 43 per cent of whites voted for Mr Obama, compared to 60 to 65 per cent of Latinos and Asians and 95 per cent of blacks.
'To say that's socio-economic, nothing to do with race, I don't think so.
'The factor is still there, but there are other factors which are important and in this case they all added up, enough for Mr Obama to score a good majority and become president,' he said.
Mr Lee also took questions on the economy, foreign workers and representation of Malay interests during the 90-minute dialogue.
It was organised by Mesra, a People's Association council that coordinates Malay grassroots activities, as part of its 20th anniversary celebrations.
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