Why take away our chance to have a shot at a race-blind Presidential Election?

By November 9, 2016Current

TL;DR – Is there a real urgency to trigger reserved elections?

Many MPs, including PM Lee, spoke extensively about the proposed changes to Singapore’s Elected Presidency. PM’s speech, in particular, shed much light into the thinking process that went into the proposed changes. One of the key points that PM mentioned was that the next Presidential Election will be reserved for Malays.


Because PM is proposing that Dr Wee Kim Wee be considered the first elected president. Hang on… Wasn’t Mr Ong Teng Cheong the first president to be elected by a popular vote? Yes. He was. And yes. Dr Wee was chosen by Parliament.

But there was a special provision inserted into the Constitution when the elected presidency scheme was introduced in 1991. That special provision meant that Dr Wee the first president to exercise the discretionary powers.

For those of you who weren’t paying attention during History lessons in school, here’s a recap of the presidents we’ve had. Of course, our current one is President Tony Tan.

Former Singapore presidents (top row, from left) Yusof Ishak, Benjamin Sheares, Devan Nair, (bottom row, from left) Wee Kim Wee, Ong Teng Cheong and S R Nathan. -- PHOTOS: (via Straits Times / ZAWIYAH SALLEH)

Former Singapore presidents (top row, from left) Yusof Ishak, Benjamin Sheares, Devan Nair, (bottom row, from left) Wee Kim Wee, Ong Teng Cheong and S R Nathan. (via Straits Times / ZAWIYAH SALLEH)

If we considered Dr Wee to be the first elected president, then there has not been a Malay holding the office of Elected Presidency for five terms. Which means, if the proposed changes are enacted, then under the “hiatus triggered framework”, the next Presidential Election in Singapore will be reserved for Malays.

So, is it about #TanChengBlocked?

Many online reactions are not in favour of the next election being reserved for Malays. Some netizens feel that this move was targeted at preventing Dr Tan Cheng Bock from running for president. However, I believe that’s not the reason to trigger this.

At an earlier dialogue helmed by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, a member of the public had posed this question,

Q: How will the Government respond to the view that all these changes are just to ensure that some individuals will not get elected?

Min Shanmugam: “You might as well mention the name of Tan Cheng Bock… Dr Tan won’t qualify (under the new eligibility rules) because he didn’t actually run a company. He was (a) non-executive. And of course the company is not S$500m shareholders’ equity. So I think the key thing in this is to really, first leave aside the individual and look at the system. And ask yourself logically, whether… do we, as a Government, do what is right, based on the system, or do we worry (that) some people are going to say this is to knock out people we don’t like? You know, more than 1,000 people will qualify from the private sector. Do you think we know who they are and we can make sure that they are all going to be OK? It’s not possible.”

So no, I don’t think it’s really about #TanChengBlocked.

But even those who do not mention Dr Tan Cheng Bock by name feel that this is PAP’s way to ensure that a candidate of their choosing becomes President. There are snide comments suggesting that the Malays have become pawns in PAP’s political game.

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Even some Malays I talked to aren’t happy about the next election being reserved for their race. They think that this feels like tokenism. They don’t think that they would actually be able to respect a Malay who becomes President only because the election was reserved for their race.

It’s perhaps interesting to note here that most Chinese I talked to are not unhappy with this point. They don’t see it as tokenism as even if the contest is reserved for Singaporean Malays, they still have to meet the qualifying criteria. There is no ‘discount’ so to speak, so many feel that the principle of meritocracy has not been compromised.

Let’s talk about that survey

So I think it’s timely to revisit those CNA-IPS survey findings on race relations released sometime in August. There’re three parts to it and the third part is the most relevant to our topic on hand. That nationwide survey reached out to 2,000 citizens and permanent residents for their views on relations between the country’s four major races. It was commissioned by Channel NewsAsia (CNA) in partnership with the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), and was one of the largest of its kind.

If given a choice, most Singaporeans prefer someone of the same race as the nation’s Prime Minister or President. In fact, (only) 59% of the Chinese respondents indicated they can accept a Singaporean Malay as a President.

via CNA

via CNA

Did the findings surprise you? I, for one, was quite surprised. And no, not in a good way.

The survey results seem to indicate that while we have progressed much over the years as a nation, we are still not race-blind. And it appears that the majority race – the Chinese – are the ones who favour a same-race President, whilst the Malays and Indians are more receptive to a President of a different race from them. The survey findings also show that the older generation Chinese are more resistant to a non-Chinese President, whilst the younger ones are more receptive.

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(Read the full CNA-IPS survey report here.)

Too Hasty maybe?

It is not hard to understand why the government of the day wants to implement the changes. PM’s speech has been clearer than clear, and with the survey findings, I can even accept that the changes are necessary and good for us.

But is there a real hurry to do it at the coming Presidential Election (PE) next year? Why not the next-next PE?

The move to reserve the next election for Malays make me feel that the government has too little faith in us. Can’t they have one election that is open to all races, convince a credible Malay candidate to run, and then let the people decide. If at that point the Malay candidate really doesn’t win, then the government would have proven its case that such a “hiatus triggered framework” is indeed necessary.

Sure, the survey has suggested that we aren’t race blind. But we all know that surveys may not reflect actual behaviour. I mean… just look at the US Presidential Elections. Polls before the actual election predicted Hillary Clinton having a high chance of winning. Look what happened there.

via nextsingaporestory.sg

via nextsingaporestory.sg

So while the surveys may suggest a particular behaviour, I would have preferred if the government had a little bit more faith in us. Let us decide. What’s the worst that could happen? If the government was right, and a Malay candidate wasn’t able to win against a Chinese candidate, they would have proven their case. Six years later, we get to choose another President. Any harm done? I can’t see any.

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And if the government was wrong, then we would have shown that we are more race blind than the government give us credit for. Yes. The government may “lose face”. But at least we would know that we are actually closer to the ideals of “regardless of race, language or religion” than we thought we were. I think that would bring us closer together as a nation.

By triggering this rightaway, they have deprived us of an opportunity to test ourselves. What if we CAN really do the right meritocratic thing and pick the best man or woman? What if the Malay candidate emerge the winner without having to rely on the hiatus-triggered framework?

On balance…

I am not convinced that there was a real urgency to trigger the reserved election next year. I hope that PM, or at least someone in the government, would provide a better explanation why there is such an urgency than simply throwing a legal technicality. We’re quite certain that most Singaporeans would not object to Mr Ong Teng Cheong as our first Elected President.

But now, we will never know for sure how far we have come in terms of being a truly multiracial and multicultural society.

For all its good intentions, the execution is premature. Pity.



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Jake Koh

Author Jake Koh

Recovering sushi addict, I'm a man of mystery and power, whose power is exceeded only by his mystery.

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Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Kevin Ng says:

    Now that it’s post hoc, let us do another survey since the government of the day seems to rely so much on surveys, let’s do one now as to whether the people would truly want the next president or in fact future presidents to be race based. Why hasn’t anyone done one yet?

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