SINGAPORE - The next presidential election, due in 2017, will be reserved for candidates from the Malay community.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, announcing this in Parliament on Tuesday (Nov 8), said: "That means if a qualified Malay candidate steps up to run, Singapore will have a Malay president again... this would be our first after more than 46 years, since our first president Encik Yusof Ishak."
Having reserved elections is one of the proposed changes to the elected presidency being debated in Parliament this week. It is meant to ensure that minority presidents are elected from time to time.
Under the constitutional change proposed, an election will be reserved for a particular racial group if no one from that group has been president for five continuous terms. Candidates running in these reserved elections will have to meet the same criteria as those running in open elections.
There have been questions on when the first reserved election would be, as it was previously unclear which past president the Government would begin counting the period of five continuous terms from.
Mr Lee said the Constitutional Amendment Bill stated that the Government should legislate on this point, adding that it has received advice from the Attorney-General.
He said the Government will start counting the five continuous terms from the term of President Wee Kim Wee, who was the first president to be vested with the powers of the elected president. Mr Wee was in office when the elected presidency came into effect in 1991.
Since then, there have been five presidential terms with the elected presidents in office: Mr Wee, Mr Ong Teng Cheong, Mr S R Nathan who was in the office for two terms, and the current term of President Tony Tan Keng Yam.
Mr Lee also said the racial group of each of the elected presidents will have to be defined for the purposes of the Act, with Mr Wee, Mr Ong and Dr Tan considered Chinese, and Mr Nathan considered Indian.
In effect, this means there has been no Malay president for five continuous terms. Hence the provision to reserve an election for candidates from the Malay community will be triggered for the next presidential election, due next year.
Whether to ensure people from different races can and do indeed become president is the most difficult question in the current debate on the elected presidency, "because it goes right to the core of our fundamental belief in a multiracial society", said Mr Lee.
"Every citizen, Chinese, Malay, Indian, or some other race, should know that someone of his community can become president, and in fact from time to time, does become president."
Race is a very live consideration, with real world implications, he said, noting that Singapore's ethnic groups are always subject to different external pulls and influences.
And racial harmony in Singapore can be affected by developments in other countries, he added, citing as examples the rise of China, the issue of race and religion for Singapore's closest neighbours, as well as the threat of a terror attack here.
Surveys also show at least a significant minority of Singaporeans consider race as a factor when they vote, which means minority candidates are at a disadvantage in an election.
This is also the case in countries like the United States, he added.
The current United States election is about globalisation, jobs, insecurity, but race is also front and centre, Mr Lee said, citing how Republican Donald Trump's supporters are overwhelmingly white, lower and middle-income voters who feel threatened by demographic changes happening in America.
Black voters are again overwhelmingly voting for Democrat Hillary Clinton, but with somewhat less enthusiasm than they voted for Mr Barack Obama.
While practical arrangements must be made to strengthen Singapore's multiracial system, Mr Lee said, Singapore's ideal is to be race-blind.
And as Singapore gets closer to the ideal, and minority candidates are regularly elected as president in open elections, these reserved elections will be needed less and less, he added.
Quoting the pledge he said: "We 'pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion', and we must continue striving towards this goal."