Elected President: No ‘tokenism’ for Malays, please

Nov 08, 2016 09.34AM |
 

by Wan Ting Koh

THANKS for thinking of us, but we don’t want “tokenism”.

While it’s not just “nice” to have a Malay president, it’s also “timely”, said Minister for Communications and Information and Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim, but minority or not, the candidate “must meet the same, exacting requirements, and therefore be seen to be good for all Singaporeans”.

He spoke on the proposed changes to the Constitution to ensure minority representation in the Elected Presidency (EP) system. Yesterday was the first day of the debate on the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill, with Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean speaking on key changes to the EP, which included a revised framework to entrench the EP itself.

Dr Yaacob said he had concerns when the idea of the minority safeguards first came up.

“I was worried that this move, to ensure that there will be a Malay president, will be seen as the Government going out of its way to help a community that has lagged behind. I was worried that a Malay candidate may not be able to command the respect of all Singaporeans,” he said.

However, he said, “tribal tendency remains a factor” in Singapore, despite efforts to forge a common identity. This means that people still gravitated towards people of their own race. Dr Yaacob cited recent surveys and statistics which have shown that “people still tend to drift towards their own kind”. To him, the changes would be a kind of “circuit breaker”, ensuring, in the long-term, “representation from the various communities as EPs, reflecting the racial breakdown of our society”.

Still, regardless of the elected president’s race, “we must never compromise on standards… we want a president to command the respect of all Singaporeans”, said Dr Yaacob.

The other MPs who spoke – MacPherson Single Member Constituency (SMC) MP Tin Pei Ling, Jurong Group Representation Constituency (GRC) MP Tan Wu Meng, and Bukit Batok (SMC) MP Murali Pillai – said the system needed to reflect, strengthen and safeguard Singapore’s multi-culturalism.

In moving the second reading of the Bill, Mr Teo listed three considerations that will factor in the issue of entrenchment, which the G is proposing to be under two tiers.

The first consideration was on which provision to entrench, and the Elected Presidency (EP) remained a critical one, said Mr Teo. The key reason boils down to the EP being a check on the G. Since there was still a possibility of a rogue G removing the EP to get rid of its check, entrenching the EP serves to protect it from being easily removed, said Mr Teo. In contrast, it would be much harder to remove Parliament or the judiciary as these are well-established institutions.

The second consideration Mr Teo touched on, was the referendum requirement. Currently, all entrenched provisions are protected by a national referendum requirement. However, Mr Teo pointed out that referendums “have inherent limitations”.

“They generally lead to binary outcomes, even though the issues that underlie the vote may be complex,” he said. When it comes to voting, the electorate may be spurred by emotions or misinformation, such as in the case of the Brexit referendum, where a significant percentage of people regretted their vote to “leave”.

Mr Teo proposed that the referendum be applied to provisions that are fundamental to the existence of EP. Other provisions relating to the operational aspects of the EP and its custodial powers need not be put to a referendum, he added. The referendum threshold will also be revised to a simple majority, rather than a two-third majority.

The third consideration was whether the Council of Presidential Advisors were to be given legal weight within the entrenchment framework. Mr Teo said that it should, so that it could act as a “counterbalance”, like it usually does for other areas relating to Presidential vetoes.

However, these changes will not be brought into force immediately. The G will first observe “how the wide-ranging amendments in this Bill operate in practice”, he said.

 

You can read our reports on the EP changes here.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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