Any changes to the elected presidency to ensure minorities are elected to the office from time to time must help, and not impede, Singapore's progress towards its long-term goal of being race-blind, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in Parliament yesterday.
Direct elections for presidents must also continue, but must balance meritocratic ideals with the need for multiracialism, he added.
In this regard, he said, the Government found that the most ideal way to ensure minority representation is to reserve presidential elections for a particular racial group if it has not been represented in the presidency in the most recent five terms.
The model balances the different goals, involves "minimal intervention", and is triggered only if presidents of different races are not elected periodically in open elections, said Mr Teo.
He added that setting the threshold at five terms strikes a good balance: Too long a hiatus could result in a system that does not meaningfully ensure the president's office is accessible to the various communities, while too short a period could come close to designating successive elections for different races, which is inappropriate for a directly elected office.
While public attention on the elected president is often focused on the "technocratic aspects of (his) custodial function", he said, the office's symbolic roleis of vital importance.
"It is necessary to continue emphasising this role, particularly because once we have direct elections, it is difficult to ensure that the presidents will continue to collectively represent the different racial groups," he added.
Pointing to the four presidents appointed prior to the elected presidency coming into effect in 1991, Mr Teo said they collectively represented all the different racial groups and were meant to remind Singaporeans of the country's multiracialism.
He added: "There is a real concern that members of minority groups may not be elected to the presidency for long periods. This will undermine the president's vital role as the symbol of our multiracial nation."
Some critics argue that the minority safeguard detracts from meritocracy. To this, Mr Teo said meritocracy will not be compromised if the eligibility criteria apply to candidates of all ethnic groups.