Ensuring minorities have a turn

The President may be a symbol of national unity, but the move to review how a person from a minority race can be periodically elected to the highest office of the land has divided political watchers.

While some note that the intent of the review is laudable, others believe that engineering to have a President of a particular race will reduce the moral authority of the role and perhaps even breed cynicism.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong suggested last week that Singapore should consider a "similar mechanism" to that of the group representation constituency (GRC) system for the Elected Presidency.

This will "ensure that minorities can be periodically elected if we have not had a particular minority as President for some time". The GRC system, which has its own critics who say it tilts the playing field in favour of the ruling party, was started in 1988 to ensure adequate minority representation in Parliament.

Each GRC team is required to field at least one minority candidate, and its genesis was over concerns that, despite strides being made in racial ties, voters in multi- racial Singapore were still prone to voting along racial lines.

Mr Lee said of the review: "In future, when Presidential Elections are more likely to be contested - even hotly contested - I believe it will become much harder for a minority President to get elected."

Political analysts and constitutional experts give their ideas on possible mechanisms that could incorporate the GRC's general principle of enshrining minority representation.


One suggestion is to confine each President to just a single term, and for each alternate term, only ethnic minority candidates who meet the qualifying bar can contest.

A variation is to establish a form of a rotational system, in which only members of one community can contest in each election. This could in effect revert to what experts call an "unspoken rule" in the days of the appointed President, as opposed to an Elected President, when the role was rotated among the four main ethnicities.

Singapore's first head of state was Mr Yusof Ishak, a Malay, who served from 1965 to 1970. He was followed by Dr Benjamin Sheares, a Eurasian, from 1971 to 1981.

The next was an Indian, Mr Devan Nair, who served from 1981 to 1985, while the last appointed head of state was Mr Wee Kim Wee, of Chinese descent, who was President from 1985 to 1993.

But these suggestions have their critics, especially as they come with the risk that a more deserving candidate of another ethnicity might miss out if it is not their "turn".

Doing so is tantamount to "electoral affirmative action, and undermines the ability of the electorate to elect the best person for the office", says SMU law don Eugene Tan, a former Nominated MP (NMP), who has done research on racial issues.

Taking such a step may also be potentially offensive to some, says National University of Singapore (NUS) constitutional law expert Kevin Tan, given the "imputation is that no minority can ever throw up the best possible candidate".

Ultimately, doing so goes against the spirit of fostering a colour-blind society, says Dr Norshahril Saat of the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, as candidates are first and foremost identified by their ethnicity.


A second possibility that has been previously mooted is the creation of an elected Vice-President role alongside the President, with each seat filled by a candidate of a different ethnicity.

Presidential candidates must then campaign in pairs, with there being at least one minority candidate in each duo. NUS political scientist Bilveer Singh suggests as an example: "It could be a very strong Malay candidate running alongside a Chinese candidate. That way, we would have racial representation all the time."

This proposal was also mooted by Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad in Parliament last Friday.

Mr Zaqy said a Vice-President from a minority race could then "build his credentials and stand in good stead for the Presidency in subsequent elections".

Singapore could also consider going the way of countries like Bosnia-Herzegovina in Europe where, as NUS constitutional law expert Thio Li-ann points out, there are three elected heads of state. They each come from one of the three main races, namely Bosniak, Serb and Croat. And in pluralistic Lebanon, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of Parliament a Shi'ite Muslim.


Regardless of how the process takes shape, it is intended as a positive safeguard to ensure minorities have a chance to hold the highest office of the land.

There has not been a Malay President - elected or otherwise - since Mr Yusof.

Singapore's first Elected President was Mr Ong Teng Cheong, a Chinese, who served from 1993 to 1999. He won against Mr Chua Kim Yeow, also Chinese. From 1999 to 2011, Singapore had an Indian President, Mr S R Nathan. But he was elected unopposed, both in 1999 and 2005.

The incumbent, Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, was elected in 2011, defeating three other Chinese candidates.

Jurong GRC MP Rahayu Mahzam, a lawyer, tells The Sunday Times: "The President represents all Singaporeans in our multiracial society, so there is a need to ensure that a deserving member from a minority community can have the opportunity to run for election."

NUS political scientist Hussin Mutalib calls it a "laudable" move that will "further consolidate the image of a multiracial country that we all wish to preserve and portray to the world".

His colleague Reuben Wong also thinks it is a forward-looking move, saying: "Over time, it might not be a good thing if the Elected President is always from a dominant group."

Indeed, Dr Norshahril says an elected Malay President can become a prominent rallying figure both for the Malay community and for Singapore - just as Mr Yusof was as the country's first President.

Providing for this will unify society amid the "different forces, ideas or ideologies that are coming to this region", he says. He adds that it will be a shot in the arm for a Malay community which is perceived by some quarters to be lagging behind the other communities.


The review, however, should not distract from the fact that all the contested presidential elections thus far have involved only Chinese candidates.

Adjunct Professor Tan of NUS says: "Simply because there will be many more Chinese candidates than candidates from the minority races, the likelihood of electing an ethnic minority as President will be that much smaller."

SMU's Associate Professor Tan adds: "The question is not that minority candidates are unelectable, but rather that not enough suitably qualified minorities have stepped forward and seriously considered running for the presidency."

Indeed, a quick check in terms of criteria throws up many eligible minority candidates.

Possible candidates from the Malay community include politicians such as Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob and Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim, and retired top accountant Po'ad Mattar, a member of the Council of Presidential Advisers.

But even if they do step forward, are the concerns of Singaporean voters casting their ballots along racial lines overblown? Former NMP and political watcher Zulkifli Baharudin observes: "On deeply emotive gut issues, people do make decisions based on the fact that they are more comfortable with someone of the same race or religion.

"It is important that the position of the highest office be accessible to people of all races. If we have to depart from the democratic norms of the day to ensure this, so be it."

But others remain sceptical.

Former Attorney-General Walter Woon says of the review: "It assumes that the Singapore electorate is not mature or sophisticated enough to elect someone solely because he is from a minority race. This is very condescending."

SMU's Assoc Prof Tan calls it a "political myth", pointing out that at last year's General Election, the PAP team which won the highest percentage of votes was the GRC team led by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

Assoc Prof Tan says requiring candidates to come from a certain group might run counter to the President as the symbol of national unity: "This instead smacks of national disunity, where the majority view the minority candidates as being unelectable. That's an indictment of our state of nation building."

And there are concerns that such a step may be seen as mere tokenism. Marine Parade GRC MP Edwin Tong says he is not sure how a minority candidate could be preferred just based on his or her race. "It has to be on merit, coupled with the fundamental point that everyone of every race who qualifies on merit must be considered."

Ms Rahayu tells The Sunday Times: "We must ensure that we elect the best, qualified candidate, so we do not diminish the legitimacy of our President in representing all Singaporeans.

"It would not be helpful if the Malay community or the wider community thinks it is symbolic."

This could be a potential issue, agrees Dr Norshahril, as regardless of how high the qualifying criteria are to become a presidential candidate, "the moment a seat is reserved, it becomes an affirmative action and might not dispel the notion that the community is lagging behind. Are we really there because we are good enough? Or simply because the seat was reserved".

Ultimately, it will be in the country's best interest if the President can appeal to all, says Prof Woon, who teaches law at NUS.

Adds Ms Rahayu: "Singaporeans need to look at the candidate, be able to see beyond his race and say, yes, he can be my President."


This article was first published on Jan 31, 2016.
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