Institutions which uphold single objectives enjoy an easier existence than those with multiple key goals. The president as a symbol of unity would be a relatively uncontroversial part of Singapore's polity. But when it falls on the president, as someone who can rise above the political fray, to also preserve the national reserves and the integrity of key civil service appointments, the picture can get complex. This is because an apolitical role has to sit alongside roles which run the risk of politicisation. A further complication arises when the choice of a president has to be based on more than just one criterion: It must abide by the principle of meritocracy underlying public life in Singapore; it must satisfy certain competency benchmarks; and ideally, it ought to also reflect the multiracial character of society.
These are reasons why perfect refinements have eluded this institution. At the core of the debate is the deep-felt need to have presidents of all races over time. Many agree that too many years have passed since the nation has had a president from the Malay community. It would gratify them that a decision has been taken to reserve the next presidential election in 2017 for Malay candidates. Multiracialism, after all, is no less a marker of Singapore's political identity than is meritocracy. Much as the group representation constituency mechanism serves to ensure the parliamentary presence of the minority races, the elected presidency should reflect the agency of the minorities in the public life of Singapore. Several ways have been suggested to do this but none has been found that is universally acceptable. The "hiatus-triggered" model is also not perfect but it is the least objectionable of the solutions considered thus far.
Given the demographic heft of the majority Chinese, the objective of having respected figures of all races in the Istana could have fallen by the electoral wayside without legislative intervention. Reserving the next election for Malay candidates will help Singaporeans to see how a mandated break in open elections can help ensure no race is left out over very long periods. But a reserved election will be fruitful only if candidates with the right qualifications step forward.
This is a crucial caveat. For the presidency to remain an office of election and not selection, the quality and number of Singaporeans prepared to serve is vitally important. A negative pall would be cast if standards were lowered or if only one candidate stands. Competition would give Singaporeans of all races a chance to vote. And there is no better way for citizens to affirm the importance of the office to them and its multiracial character than by exercising their vote. Being an institution that buffers the nation from the siren calls of populism and also one that unifies Singaporeans, it should never be taken for granted.