The Straits Times says

Focus on president's ability to serve all

It is worth pondering the intrusion of race in recent discussions of the next presidential election, which will be reserved for those from the Malay community. That requirement flows from the changes made to the Constitution last year - to ensure all communities are represented in the office from time to time. The rotation principle is supported by Singaporeans generally, but race qualifications discomfit those who would prefer race to not feature at all in any framework. After all, in playing a unifying role, the president must be race-blind and uphold all communities. Yet, the path to the Istana would be marked by race-consciousness if the ethnicity of possible candidates is called into question, as is happening now.

Entrepreneurs Salleh Marican and Farid Khan and Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob are in different ways role models for the Malay community to which they adhere. However, two of them have a parent whose race is not Malay, and the third is of Pakistani descent. Should that matter, especially when they all see themselves as Malays and are accepted as such?

Those adopting a primeval perspective hold the notion of a "pure race" which, as anthropologist Robert Wald Sussman has pointed out, is "not a biological reality… but a cultural one". Genetic interchange as a result of population shifts (due to major climate change and other factors) has been going on for aeons. Hence contemporary communities, within which people are bound by a common language, religion or set of customs, tend to exhibit varying ranges of diversity.

From a cultural perspective, "identity is constructed socially", which can make the definition of "Malayness" somewhat porous, as noted by Mr Norshahril Saat, the author of a book on Mr Yusof Ishak, the nation's first president. That attribute is a positive one in multicultural societies which must necessarily be inclusive. Assuringly, the community's core is stable enough to lend it confidence in accepting those who embrace Malay culture and are prepared to give back to the group.

The elected presidency being a sui generis institution, as lawyers would put it, deserves to be shielded from petty concerns about race. Some argue that it is the framing of laws related to reserved presidential elections that accentuates race. The legal provisions, in fact, acknowledge the interests of the main communities and their self-determination of cultural identity.

A majority of Singaporeans would accept a minority race candidate as the president, according to an Institute of Policy Studies survey conducted last year. However, there is also no denying an overwhelming proportion within each community would prefer someone of their own race. All the more, the public gaze should be steered towards emblems of social cohesion, and not boundaries of race, when discussing the presidency.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2017, with the headline 'Focus on president's ability to serve all'. Print Edition | Subscribe