Excuse me, are you Chinese, Malay, Indian or none of the above?

Feb 07, 2017 01.00PM |
 

by Bertha Henson

WHAT if someone who doesn’t look Malay and speaks bad Malay, but Malay is clearly stated on his or her identity card and both parents are Malay, wants to stand in a presidential election reserved for Malays? What if he or she doesn’t belong to the Sunni majority? What if he or she is married to a non-Malay who doesn’t practise Islam?

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Chan Chun Sing, talks about taking an “inclusive approach” in the presidential election. By that, he means that the Community Committee screening candidates will probably be more indulgent towards those who declare their affiliations to a community.

“By adopting an inclusive approach, we are allowing more people to be identified with a certain community. Our approach is quite different from the approach suggested by some other members who want to be even more clearly defined as to who forms what community,” he said.

By that, he means that the Community Committee screening candidates will probably be more indulgent towards those who declare their affiliations to a community.

Nicely said but the G cannot suppress more visceral, even primitive, feelings from surfacing just on its say-so. You can just imagine what voters will say, especially now that there will be a photograph of the candidate on ballot slips: “But he doesn’t look like a Malay!” Or what television viewers well-versed in the language will say about his vocal skills when he goes on television to make his pitch.

That’s the problem when race is a factor during elections. Mr Chan said that the Group Representation Constituency format which includes a minority member hasn’t faced such problems. But the GRC is a slate of candidates presented to a constituency. There might be rumblings if the non-Chinese candidate in a GRC doesn’t look the part, but it’s a whole different ball game when someone is put before the whole electorate as belonging to a certain race. The Malays might say: “Okay, he’s Malay”. The Chinese and Indians will wonder: “What sort of Malay is this?”

As Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh said: “Should there be residual doubts about how the Community Committee makes its decisions, the presidency could be anything but a unifying office not just for Singaporeans in general, but the respective minority race in particular.” He had asked about religion and language being part of the mix in determining ethnic identity.

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There’s the flip side too. What about a Chinese candidate who doesn’t speak Mandarin and looks more like a Malay than a Chinese? The G can argue that the candidate is standing in an “open” election so it doesn’t matter, but that somewhat overturns the principle that “all communities” must be represented, no? After all, there is a Chinese sub-committee for screening as well.

There’s the other opt-out option: the candidate who is standing in an “open election” can declare that he DOESN’T belong to any race according to changes to the Presidential Elections Act approved yesterday. That makes everything even weirder. So a candidate can deny the CIMO category on his pink IC, yet presume to speak for all races, none of which he belongs to?

According to ST, MP Vikram Nair asked if the “other minority communities” would be a catch-all for those who do not fit into the Chinese, Indian and Malay ethnicities? Mr Chan replied that Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean had made clear in Parliament last November that this referred to groups with some degree of history, permanence and established presence in Singapore, such as the Eurasian community. A check with Hansard showed that Mr Teo also said that a person who does not fall within one of the three racial groupings may still contest in open elections. So that means an American-born Caucasian who became a Singapore citizen can still stand for election, although what this does to the five-term hiatus trigger for a reserved election is not said. It doesn’t matter?

I have always maintained that highlighting race as a quality for eligibility is a dangerous thing. Merit and credentials for the job should be good enough. The G might think that it is catering to communities’ wishes and that we should acknowledge that race is never too far from the surface.  What it has done, however, is simply to entrench the differences among Singaporeans rather than lay stress on commonalities.

Merit and credentials for the job should be good enough.

This is, I supposed, part of the activist approach to managing race relations that Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam talked about at a forum last week. “It is anything but laissez-faire. And I think one of the reasons you’re seeing the reactions you’re seeing in the West today is because of a laissez-faire approach to ethnic relations.” He pointed as examples of activism the HDB integration policy to prevent ethnic enclaves from forming, and the wearing of school uniforms. He didn’t mention the presidency in his speech but it can safely be presumed that it is another such action.

The thing is, those examples can also be viewed as not giving in to racial sentiments and to make sure that Singapore looks like one country regardless of race. The presidency brings race right smack into an individual’s face, multiplied by the number of voters.

In a column published in ST today, an ST journalist said that it would be “a pity” if questions like those Mr Singh raised surfaced again “among a vocal few”, “[for] it would detract from the presidency as a unifying symbol, and the fact that a president, regardless of which community he is from, is, above all, a president for all Singaporeans.”

It is, of course, too late to do anything about the presidency. Come September, we will have a Malay president. The majority Chinese population, most of whom are probably not following the issue will wake up one day and suddenly realise that a Malay has walked into the top post without opposition, or that he has a choice between two Malays.

The same questions will be asked all over again. And they might not be as polite as questions asked in Parliament.

 

Read our past reports on the elected presidency here:

  1. Constitutional changes: More NCMPs, smaller GRCs and changes to elected presidency
  2. Elected Presidency: Sacred cow or sacrificial lamb?
  3. Proposed changes to the EP: All you need to know
  4. EP changes: Can we not have reserve elections next year?
  5. EP changes: Is shareholder equity the best way to judge a potential President?
  6. EP changes: When to stop clipping the President’s wings
  7. White Paper on EP changes: Council of (powerful and private) Presidential Advisers
  8. White Paper on EP changes: Not cast in stone
  9. White Paper on EP changes: A bigger presidential pool
  10. White Paper on EP changes: The short version
  11. Elected President: Debate on changes starts today and we hope it won’t end soon…
  12. Next Presidential Election for Malay candidates
  13. Elected Presidency: All tied up with a multi-racial bow
  14. Senate, not elected presidency, the way to go: Workers’ Party
  15. Elected Presidency: Who cares?
  16. September date with a Malay president

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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