PM Lee spells out why he pushed for reserved election

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says he knew a reserved presidential election would be unpopular and cost PAP votes, but it was the right thing to do.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says he knew a reserved presidential election would be unpopular and cost PAP votes, but it was the right thing to do.PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

He knew it'd be unpopular and cost votes, but sees it as necessary for multiracialism

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has made it plain that he knew the reserved presidential election would be unpopular - and would cost his party votes.

"But I did it because I strongly believe, and still do, that this is the right thing to do," he said, addressing the unhappiness squarely for the first time last week at a closed-door dialogue.

The reason he gave is that despite the progress made in building a multiracial and multi-religious society, Singapore has "not yet arrived at an ideal state of accepting people of a different race".

His candid remarks were made to about 500 grassroots leaders at a People's Association Kopi Talk dialogue last Saturday, and an edited transcript was released by the Prime Minister's Office yesterday.

PM Lee cited recent surveys that show "we are not completely colour-blind". This will influence people's choices, he said, and he is convinced it is harder for a minority - Malay, Indian or Eurasian - to win an open election for president than it is for a Chinese.

To lend weight to his view, he pointed to the 2011 Presidential Election when there were four candidates, all Chinese.

"Where were the Farid Khans and the Salleh Maricans? Why didn't they come?... Because they knew that in an open election - all things being equal - a non-Chinese candidate would have no chance."

He added: "It is a reality."

Businessmen Salleh Marican, 68, and Farid Khan, 61, had applied to contest the recent presidential election reserved for Malays, but they did not qualify and President Halimah Yacob, 63, won in a walkover.

Another reality is racial issues crop up even in day-to-day living.

Sometimes, minorities face discrimination when looking for a job or a house to rent. Recently, a picture on a construction hoarding of a Malay girl wearing a tudung had the word "terrorist" pencilled on it.

"These are the realities we have to manage," he said.

PM Lee said the Chinese, being the majority race, may think Singapore has "arrived" as a multiracial society. They get occasional reminders when they travel abroad and encounter racism, then "you may know what it feels like to be treated as a minority", he said.

For Singapore's young, having known only racial harmony here, it is very easy to believe race does not matter any more. "We have to know our blind spots," he said, adding that the Chinese community, especially, must make a special effort to make the minorities feel welcomed and valued.

However, having multiracial presidents in itself does not make Singapore a multiracial country. "But it is an important symbol of what Singapore stands for, and a declaration of what we aspire to be," he said.

He noted that nearly two years were spent discussing and debating having a multiracial presidency.

"But it is only now that people are seized with it, after a reserved election in which only one candidate qualified," he said.

PM Lee said he could feel there was some unhappiness. "People think we may be going backwards, towards racial politics. But actually, the reality is the opposite: We are making necessary changes to strengthen our multiracial system."

He shares President Halimah's hope for that day when Singapore will not need the reserved election to ensure minority representation.

But to get to the ideal state, "we need guide ropes and guard rails to help us get there and to prevent us from falling off along the way".

"The reserved election for the president is one such guard rail."

He also said striving for multiracialism includes having the courage and determination to take pragmatic steps to get there, step by step. "That is how we will continue to expand our common space, strengthen trust and become one people, one nation, one Singapore."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2017, with the headline 'PM Lee spells out why he pushed for reserved election'. Print Edition | Subscribe