Parliament began debating proposed changes to the elected presidency yesterday, and a strong focus was on how best to ensure all races have a chance to be represented in the office from time to time.
The changes to the Constitution will also raise the eligibility criteria for candidates, and refine the role of the council advising the president.
Signalling the importance of the changes, President Tony Tan Keng Yam had a message for the House, which Speaker Halimah Yacob read out at the start of the debate.
The changes are based largely on the recommendations of a Constitutional Commission, whose report was released in September and which the Government broadly accepted.
Said Dr Tan: "The objectives of the review are clear - to ensure that the institution of the elected presidency stays relevant with time and our local context, and that the Singapore Constitution as a living document is aptly refreshed."
He added that the president is a symbol of the nation's unity and the office must uphold Singapore's multiracialism. It was thus not a coincidence that Singapore's first four appointed presidents - Mr Yusof Ishak, Dr Benjamin Sheares, Mr Devan Nair and Dr Wee Kim Wee - represented, in turn, the Malay, Eurasian, Indian and Chinese communities respectively, he said.
But after the elected presidency was instituted, all but one of the elected presidents have been Chinese, including himself, he noted.
"Our long-term aspiration should be for minorities to be elected into the office without the need for any intervention," said Dr Tan.
"But we also need to recognise the current realities."
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, in his 90-minute speech setting out the Government's case for the proposed changes, also noted that the presidency has lacked a way to ensure minorities are represented in the office since it was transformed from an appointed position to an elected one in 1991.
Thus the proposed change to reserve a presidential election for a specific ethnic group, if a member of that group has not been elected after five terms, was balanced, he said.
"The symbolic role of the presidency has sometimes been overlooked but remains of vital importance," said Mr Teo, adding that it is difficult to ensure all races will be represented in direct elections.
Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson), one of three backbenchers to speak yesterday, said while three in four Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese, it is important that the president reflect Singapore's multiracialism.
"Non-Chinese Singaporeans are not a 'by the way'; we are all an integral part of Singapore," she said.
Even so, the criteria to qualify to run will not be lowered for any race, said Mr Teo, addressing concerns that special arrangements to ensure multiracial representation in the presidency would be tokenism.
He said: "Multiracial representation can be achieved while ensuring meritocracy is not compromised."
It was a dilemma that Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim wrestled with.
In a moving speech, the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs said that segments of the Malay community, "perceived as an underachieving community", yearned for a president from one of their own.
There has not been a Malay president for 46 years. But a Malay candidate must meet the same exacting standards as all others, which the changes will ensure, he added.
The debate continues today.
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