Elected presidency: Community leaders' views

Changes to elected presidency: Provision for minority president welcome but be wary of tokenism, say community leaders

PM Lee Hsien Loong on the programme The Prime Minister on Race and Politics.
PM Lee Hsien Loong on the programme The Prime Minister on Race and Politics.PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

Singapore should have a Malay or other minority president from time to time to assure minorities they have a place here, and reduce the risk of some feeling marginalised, community leaders said yesterday.

"The president represents the nation, so having a head of state from a minority race from time to time gives a clear signal that we are multiracial and all-inclusive," said Association of Muslim Professionals chairman Abdul Hamid Abdullah.

But Nominated MP Azmoon Ahmad feels the office need not be rotated rigidly among the main races.

"Whether the president is Chinese, Malay, Indian or none of these is a secondary concern. He must first and foremost speak for every Singaporean," he said.

Their comments reflect the mixed feelings of many Malays towards impending changes to the elected presidency to ensure it is representative of Singapore's multiracial society.

On the one hand, they note the country has not had a Malay president since Mr Yusof Ishak, who held the post from 1965 to 1970. It has had two Indian presidents, Mr Devan Nair from 1981 to 1985, and Mr S R Nathan from 1999 to 2011.

But on the other hand, they do not want a situation that could lead to the election of a Malay president being seen as an act of tokenism.

In a TV interview with Mediacorp broadcast on Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the changes are needed as in a close election, a Malay or Indian candidate would find it harder to get elected.

Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli said in a roundtable interview with Berita Minggu on Sunday that the changes had to be made now, when society is united, to avoid problems in future.

"If Muslims feel they are deliberately marginalised, have no stake in the country, and feel left out - these are things that could be exploited and if it gains momentum, it could be a big problem," he said.

PM Lee had, in his interview, said there could be a provision to reserve an election for candidates from a minority race if there has been no president from that race for, say, four, five or six terms.

They must also meet qualifying criteria stated in the Constitution, no different than for other candidates.

Mr Lee noted the pool of qualified minority candidates is not as big as that of Chinese candidates, but said over time, it will grow.

Said former NMP Imram Mohamed: "We have people who would qualify, like Speaker Halimah Yacob and several CEOs. It's a matter of whether they want to run."

Former MP Inderjit Singh felt the Indian community would welcome the new rules too, given the difficulty of getting elected in an open election. Mr Nathan was unopposed in both the 1999 and 2005 elections.

Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations council member Thomas Pek said it was vital to take steps to ensure a minority president occasionally: "Between equally capable Malay and Chinese candidates, most Chinese will pick the Chinese.

"We should not deny minorities such a chance as it goes against our goal of being a multiracial society."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2016, with the headline 'Provision for minority president welcome but be wary of tokenism'. Print Edition | Subscribe