SINGAPORE - While it is timely for Singapore to have a Malay president, the Malay candidate must meet the same exacting standards demanded of candidates from other communities, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim told the House.
"We do not want, and we cannot accept, tokenism," said Dr Yaacob in a speech on Monday (Nov 7) on the first day of the debate over proposed changes to the elected presidency.
In his 18-minute speech in English and Malay, Dr Yaacob sought to explain the psyche and concerns of the Malay community and the historical burden it carries, where it is perceived as having lagged behind the other communities.
Describing the issue as an "emotive one", Dr Yaacob pointed out that Singapore has never had a Malay president for 46 years.
The last Malay president was Singapore's first president Mr Yusof Ishak, who died in office on November 23, 1970.
"An entire generation of Malays have grown up without ever having a Malay president," said Dr Yaacob. "Among the older Malays, having lived under a Malay president, it is understandable that they yearn for one after a very long time."
Younger Malays who grew up under meritocracy may be a little reluctant to see the change to ensure a Malay president from time to time, yet in closed door discussions many put up their hands when asked if they want to see a Malay President, Dr Yaacob noted, adding: "But very few would say this publicly."
"Some would argue that the race of the candidate should not matter. That the most important thing is whether that person can do the job, and do it well," he said.
"But to have a qualified Malay to do the job speaks to a long-held desire among the community to see one of us serving in the highest office in the land. It is about our place in this nation that we call home."
"The truth is that we do not have many Malays in key positions of power and leadership," noted Dr Yaacob. "Having one being a president is not just nice, but timely."
But he added: "But this cannot, and must not, be the reason why we should have a Malay President."
Dr Yaacob said that the debate on the elected presidency has put minority communities in the spotlight again. "We have been in the spotlight for 50 years," he said of the Malay community.
He described how the community was seen as underachieving in Singapore after independence. "We lagged behind in eduction, higher divorce rates, higher crime rates and more recently, Islam has been associated with the terrorism threat."
The move to ensure that there will be a Malay president can be seen as "the government going out of its way to help a community that has lagged behind", said Dr Yaacob. "I was worried that a Malay candidate may not be able to command the respect of all Singaporeans."
This is why for a candidate to be respected by all Singaporeans, he must be held to the same high standards of character and values, regardless of race, he said.