Move 'is neither tokenism nor racial discrimination'

Eurasian Association trustee Timothy de Souza, honorary treasurer Martin Marini, president Benett Theseira and vice-president Alexius Pereira at the second Constitutional Commission hearing on the elected presidency on April 22 2016.
Eurasian Association trustee Timothy de Souza, honorary treasurer Martin Marini, president Benett Theseira and vice-president Alexius Pereira at the second Constitutional Commission hearing on the elected presidency on April 22 2016. PHOTO: ST FILE

There is a pressing need to introduce a safeguard to ensure Singapore's minority races are not shut out of the highest office in the land, said the report of the panel reviewing the elected presidency.

Even experts who did not like the idea of a safeguard agreed that Singaporeans are not yet able to look past race, it added.

"Singapore cannot yet be considered a post-racial society: This is a reality that must be faced, even if it is one that is not to be endorsed," said the report released yesterday.

The point was the panel's response to a sentiment expressed by five of the 19 individuals and groups that gave feedback at public hearings held in April and May this year to get people's views for the review.

The concerned individuals and groups gave various reasons for opposing a safeguard. These included worries that doing so may undermine meritocracy, or constitute racial discrimination. But the panel pointed out that race matters to Singaporeans at the ballot box and, for this reason, argued for the need to ensure minority representation.

The Commission firmly believes that the eligibility criteria should not be compromised.The qualifying criteria are there to ensure only candidates who are likely to have the requisite attributes may run. So long as these criteria remain sufficiently stringent, they will continue to serve their critical function of allowing only persons with the necessary experience and expertise for the job to qualify for President.

Its preferred way of achieving it is to reserve a presidential election for candidates of a particular race, should Singapore fail to elect a president of that race for 30 years.

The recommendation was one of the biggest changes to the elected presidency, and also the most contentious at the public hearings.

The panel took pains to address the concerns raised at the hearings, saying that as Singapore journeys towards being race-blind, the minorities must in the interim be guaranteed the chance to be president from time to time. It also said the practice of reserving elections for a particular race is neither tokenism nor racial discrimination.

Some law dons and political scientists were concerned that a president chosen in an election reserved for his or her race may be viewed as a token president who lacks legitimacy. The commission acknowledges the concern is legitimate.

But perceptions of tokenism may persist to varying degrees, regardless of how the election is structured, it said. Ultimately, it boils down to the president conducting himself with dignity and gravitas, and earning the respect of Singaporeans, the report added.

The report also said reserving elections for particular races does not fall foul of an international treaty that bans racial discrimination, which Singapore has signed.

It pointed out that the treaty, known as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, permits measures taken to advance the position of certain races.

 

The practice of reserving elections for particular races encourages members of minority races to run for president, the report added.

The commission also rebutted three broad arguments against having a safeguard at all.

The first argument is that minority candidates have done well in general elections, showing minorities do not need a special provision for presidential polls. Second, reserving elections for minorities may undermine meritocracy.

Third, introducing a provision to ensure minority representation for the presidential office may lead to calls for similar provisions for other offices, such as that of the prime minister or chief justice.

The commission, in its response, said parliamentary elections are different from presidential ones. Voters choose MPs partly because of the plans of the candidates' political parties, but assess presidential hopefuls purely on their individual merits.

Also, the meritocracy argument loses much of its force if the eligibility criteria is not lowered for minority candidates, the report said.

"The commission firmly believes that the eligibility criteria should not be compromised."

The office of the president is also unique and not comparable to that of the prime minister, chief justice or Speaker of Parliament, it said. None of these is a personification of the state, or a symbol of national unity, in the way the president is.

Therefore, a safeguard is justified for the elected presidency but not for any other office, the report said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2016, with the headline 'Move 'is neither tokenism nor racial discrimination''. Print Edition | Subscribe