Reserved presidential election affirms Singapore's core values: Halimah Yacob

Madam Halimah firmly refutes the view that the reserved election entails a trade-off between multiracialism and meritocracy. She says it gives fair access for all races to be represented at one time or other, in the highest office of the land, while
Madam Halimah firmly refutes the view that the reserved election entails a trade-off between multiracialism and meritocracy. She says it gives fair access for all races to be represented at one time or other, in the highest office of the land, while requiring that each candidate meet the same stipulated criteria. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

It is meritocracy and multiracialism in action, says presidential hopeful

That Singapore will soon have a Malay president after 47 years is, for presidential candidate Halimah Yacob, an affirmation of two core values Singaporeans hold dear: multiracialism and meritocracy.

"It shows we don't only talk about multiracialism, but we talk about it in the context of meritocracy or opportunities for everyone, and we actually practise it," she told The Straits Times in an interview yesterday.

Elaborating, she said it demonstrates Singaporeans can "accept anyone of any colour, any creed, any religion, at any position in our society, so long as they feel that the person can contribute".

Her resignation from her posts as Speaker of Parliament, MP and member of the People's Action Party on Monday to contest the upcoming election has seen views opposed to changes to the presidency resurface, with some questioning the commitment to meritocracy.

Madam Halimah firmly refutes the view that the election, which will be reserved for Malay candidates, entails a trade-off between multiracialism and meritocracy.

It, in fact, ensures both founding ideals are preserved - giving fair access for all races to be represented at one time or other, in the highest office of the land, while requiring that each and every candidate meets the same stipulated criteria.

 
 
 
 
 

"All candidates have to qualify," she said, noting the Constitutional Commission reviewing the elected presidency last year had made clear its stand on this issue.

"If we weaken eligibility criteria for those taking part in a reserved election, yes, then we are compromising meritocracy for representation. We are not - the same criteria apply to everybody," she stressed.

The commission had proposed reserving an election for candidates from a race if it had not been represented in the presidency for five terms. It also updated eligibility criteria for private sector candidates, who must have led a company with at least $500 million in shareholder equity. The changes were passed by Parliament last November.

Madam Halimah, 62, has been described by observers as the front runner. They note she is the only aspirant who automatically qualifies to stand, having held the post of Parliament Speaker since 2013.

Two other candidates who have indicated their interest to run, Bourbon Offshore Asia Pacific chairman Farid Khan, 62, and Second Chance Properties chief executive Salleh Marican, 67, do not automatically meet the financial threshold.

They have to convince the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) they have the experience and ability to effectively carry out the functions of the office if elected.

Asked about the prospect of a contested election in the interview at NTUC Centre, Madam Halimah said she will leave it to the PEC to decide, adding: "We always go into a contest preparing for a contest."

As for talk of a reserved election being akin to affirmative action, she said the comparison is wrong because affirmative action means "you don't qualify, but you go in".

While some have questioned the seemingly higher bar for private sector candidates, she said the approach that automatically qualifies public sector candidates "has been in place since 1991".

"It is an open, transparent system," she added.

Asked if her track record of 40 years in public service - 33 of them in the labour movement - would be a key plank of her campaign, Madam Halimah laughed and said more details will be revealed soon.

"Yes, having been in public service for a significant period, that has exposed me to the policymaking process, that has stood me in good stead, to understand how the Government functions.

"So that has been extremely useful, relevant, to what I am seeking to do," she added.

 

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2017, with the headline 'Reserved election affirms S'pore's core values: Halimah'. Print Edition | Subscribe