Elected Presidency: All tied up with a multi-racial bow

Nov 09, 2016 01.00PM |

by Bertha Henson

EVERYBODY’S all excited now. We think we can predict who will be president (of Singapore, not the United States), even before nominations are called and even before a Bill to allow for changes to criteria for candidacy goes through Parliament.

Madam Halimah Yacob is the name on everyone’s lips, now that the G has said that the next election due by August next year will be reserved for a member of the Malay community. It testifies to her pulling power that so many people are rooting for her.

Or maybe we just don’t know of other Malays who can step up to the plate. Maybe those in the community will have names, but not non-Malays. So why not Halimah? Even the Chinese majority knows who she is.

Her candidacy would kill several birds with one stone. Besides being a member of the right community, she’s a woman – so women’s groups can shut up and sit down. Maybe the liberal types don’t like the idea that she wears a tudung but hey, no foreigner will mistake her for being Chinese if she is in Malay/Muslim garb. Plus she has the gravitas to pull it off.

So all is settled then. Those of us who’ve not been enamoured of the push to get ethnic representation in the top office should just stay calm and carry on breathing. Unless of course, Madam Halimah says: “No, thank you. I don’t want to be president.”

I congratulate the G for making all the pieces fall together so nicely. Conspiracy theorists have got it wrong. The proposed changes aren’t to keep someone out; it’s to put someone in.

Conspiracy theorists have got it wrong.The changes aren’t to keep someone out; it’s to put someone in.

I’ve written quite a bit on this aspect of changes to the presidency, which the Prime Minister has said is the key reform among a whole slate of other proposals.

I don’t believe that the idea of having multi-racial representation has been festering within the G all these years as we’ve been told. If it has been and if it is as important as it is now made out to be, then it is remiss of the G not to raise it sooner.

I didn’t like how the Constitutional Commission was told to find a way to ensure multi-racial representation in the office – instead of examining the need for such a “safety valve”.

Maybe the last 2011 presidential election shook up the G, with its candidate, current president Dr Tony Tan, winning by a whisker. If so, it was more about how the campaign went, with candidates positioning themselves as a separate centre of power, rather than how it was four Tans who put their hat in the ring. No Ali. No Muthu.

Nobody disagrees that the ideal should be a race-blind electorate who pick candidates based on merit. But no one can say that race will definitely not play a part in a vote because who can speak for the sentiments of others?

Attempts to use past electoral victories of minorities have been dismissed as “not analogous” or the “wrong comparison”. Or, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday (Nov 8) of Bukit Batok MP S Murali, he had to work extremely hard to win the by-election.

Of course, there are surveys produced at precisely the right time to back up the point that the Chinese are racist. (Oops, not that they are racist but if every quality about competing candidates remain equal, they would pick someone of the same skin hue.)

That means all minorities would be blacked out (no pun intended) of the job. Then there’s this new argument – minorities themselves want a representative as president.

It’s something they say behind closed-doors though, according to Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim. So we simply have to believe that enough of them think so that it might cause an explosion in race relations further down the road.

The G’s argument that meritocracy is still paramount as the candidate would have to meet criteria says only this: The candidate fits the Bill. In other words, whether there are better candidates around from the other communities is not something people need to concern themselves with.

After keeping people guessing on when hiatus trigger will be pulled – should it date from the term of late president Wee Kim Wee, who was technically the first custodial president? Or from the first elected president Ong Teng Cheong?

Dating it from the time of Dr Wee means that the next election must be reserved for a minority because five terms have lapsed and the Malays haven’t had a representative in more than 46 years. But if Mr Ong’s term was picked, it means we still have one more presidential election for all communities to have a shot at the job, albeit on changed criteria.

Law Minister K Shanmugam has said the G would ask for advice from the Attorney-General (AG) on this technicality. Presumably, the AG has done so, as well as settle this little problem about whether the proposal goes against the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, of which Singapore is a signatory.

And isn’t it fortuitous that President Tan isn’t going for a second term in office although he has a right to?

What might have missed people’s notice is that if the Constitutional Commission’s recommendations on criteria were accepted, Madam Halimah wouldn’t have make the cut.

If the commission’s recommendations on criteria were accepted, Madam Halimah would not make the cut.

It had suggested that the candidate, whether from the public or private sector, should have at least six years in the top job to “capture at least some elements of the applicant’s performance” with 15 years of the elections being called.

She has been Speaker of Parliament since 2013. The G wants to keep to current three years of experience but an even longer look back period of 20 years. This means she’s just about made it.

I reckon that Madam Halimah has a shot at the top job even if it’s going to be an open election. The pity is that now, we’ll never know.

Under a reserved election though, she’s a great choice. It’s not likely that she will suffer the ignominy of being told that she only became president because she’s Malay, so great is her credibility among the people, even the vociferous online crowd.

To those in favour of stable politics, she’s a member of the Establishment who, as a People Action’s Party MP as well, is aligned with the vision and mission of the G. Of course, this is no guarantee that she won’t prove to be as “troublesome” as the late Mr Ong, who went public with his disagreements with the G.

If Madam Halimah is president and wins a second term, this means 12 years of stability within the top political leadership, something the new PM will find comforting.

If Madam Halimah is president and decides to fight for and win a second term, this means 12 years of stability within the top political leadership. That’s something the new Prime Minister, who will be stepping into Mr Lee’s shoes after the next general election due in Jan 2021, will find comforting.

It isn’t clear if the provisions for multi-ethnic representation in the office belongs to those which the G says would be entrenched in the Constitution. Presumably, it is. If and when the G gets around to doing this, it will be pretty hard to remove the clause as it would require a referendum. (Odd isn’t it? You can add it in without a referendum – but you need a referendum to take it out.)

But what if Madam Halimah isn’t around or doesn’t want to be president and the Malay community is pressed to give up a name?

Does the G think that the sleepy Singapore electorate won’t wake up to the realisation that they are not being given a fair range of choices? Truth to tell, a lot of people are bored with the debate on the presidency because they see it as a “done” deal.

Most aren’t interested in the ramifications and implications of the changes. But it will hit them in the face when the vote is in their hands. That is the point at which the non-Malays will wonder what happened – and the whole argument for having reserved elections will have to be reprised.

What used to be a more-or-less colour blind electorate will have the blinders removed. PM Lee said he doesn’t want to “kick the can further down the road”.

I fear he is.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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