Debate on Bill prompts questions on ethnicity and identity

The introduction of a Community Committee for presidential elections sparked a flurry of questions on ethnicity and identity in Parliament yesterday.

This 16-member committee will be set up before each election to assess which racial group candidates belong to, and will comprise a chairman and three sub-committees for the Chinese, Malay, and Indian and other minority groups.

During the three-hour debate on amendments to the Presidential Elections Act, MPs dug deep into what defines a person's race.

Presidential hopefuls must declare which community they consider themselves a part of, and the relevant sub-committee will issue a certificate if it agrees. This follows changes to the Constitution last year to provide for elections to be reserved for a particular racial group that has not been represented in the office for a period of time.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) and Nominated MP Thomas Chua asked how this would apply to candidates of mixed race, who may identify with more than one community.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing responded that if such a citizen decides to apply for a particular community certificate, the relevant sub-committee "should adopt an inclusive attitude towards his application".

He said this was "different from the approach suggested by some other members", who wanted the lines between the different communities to be more clearly drawn.

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) had asked if an applicant's proficiency in his mother tongue should be a factor the committee considers. "Should a presidential candidate who sees himself as part of the Indian community pass muster if he or she can barely get by in Tamil or the other MOE (Ministry of Education) recognised Indian languages?" he said.

Mr Chan said it was up to the committee to assess a candidate "holistically, and not home in on one factor". He said this was not new, it having worked well in the context of the group representation constituency, which ensures minority representation in parliamentary polls.

Mr Singh also asked if the background of an aspiring president's spouse would matter, pointing to how portraits of both president and "first lady" are prominently displayed in government buildings.

What would happen, he asked, if the aspiring president's spouse had converted to Islam to marry, but does not follow the faith?

Mr Chan noted in his wrap-up of the debate that the Constitution does not enshrine the position of first lady, adding that it is a courtesy term customarily used for the wife of the president.

Mr Nair, meanwhile, sought to clarify that the "other minority communities" would not be a catch-all for those who do not fit into the Chinese, Indian and Malay ethnicities.

Mr Chan said 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.

Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC) said the discussion on minority representation in the presidency has led to an openness to talk about race, a topic that used to be seen as sensitive. "It made us a bit uncomfortable to think about the current state of affairs, but it has pushed us to think about issues a bit more," she said.

Mr Chan said: "We will continue to work hard to ensure that each Singaporean feels cherished in our society, regardless of which community they are from."

Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 07, 2017, with the headline 'Debate on Bill prompts questions on ethnicity and identity'. Print Edition | Subscribe