Next year's presidential election will be reserved for candidates from the Malay community, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in Parliament yesterday.
The move would pave the way for Singapore to have its first Malay president in over 46 years, since the country's first president, Mr Yusof Ishak, died in office in 1970.
Following the statement, President Tony Tan Keng Yam posted on Facebook that he "will not be standing in the next presidential election" as it would be for Malays.
"I look forward to seeing a Malay president after 46 years," he added.
PM Lee, speaking on the second day of the debate on proposed changes to the elected presidency, made clear for the first time the Government's intention to trigger the proposed mechanism for reserved election in the next polls.
He also explained to the House the finer details and broad reasoning behind the decision for the timing, and said that race and religion are very deep-seated realities here.
"Even though the minority communities have not pressed for it in Singapore, we should make arrangements now to ensure the presidency will be multiracial," he said.
He gave two reasons.
One, he is very familiar with the office, having helped to conceive, implement and refine it over three decades.
"I am doing it now, because it would be irresponsible of me to kick this can down the road and leave the problem to my successors," he said.
Two, he wants to adjust the office before any problems show up, so that it can continue to function well.
PM Lee made two key arguments for his vision of the office.
It is an important stabiliser in Singapore's political system, acting as a safeguard against profligate spending and upholding the integrity of the civil service. Hence, the president must be elected.
Further, there is a fundamental need for the presidency to be multiracial, as the president is the most important unifying symbol for the nation.
"Every citizen, Chinese, Malay, Indian, or some other race, should know that someone of his community can become president, and in fact from time to time, does become president," he said.
Under the proposed constitutional changes, an election will be reserved for a particular racial group if no one from that group has been president for five terms in a row.
So, in the course of six presidential terms, there should be at least one Chinese, one Malay, plus one president from the Indian and other minority communities.
Candidates in the reserved elections will meet the same criteria as those running in open elections.
PM Lee said the Constitutional Amendment Bill stated the Government should legislate when the practice will begin, and it has received advice from the Attorney-General.
It will begin counting the five continuous terms from that of President Wee Kim Wee, the first president vested with the powers of the elected president. He was in office when the elected presidency came into effect in 1991. Since then, there have been five terms: that of Mr Wee, Mr Ong Teng Cheong, Mr S R Nathan who served two terms, and the current term of Dr Tan.
In all, 17 MPs including PM Lee debated the changes yesterday, with the Workers' Party making its first public statements since the proposals were mooted in January.
Its MPs reiterated the party's position for a president appointed by Parliament, with a ceremonial role.
They also called for a senate to be formed, made up of non-partisan, elected members. This second chamber of the legislature would be the custodian of Singapore's assets.
PM Lee said in his speech that doing away with the custodial powers and elected office would be very unwise as it would give Parliament unrestricted power to do as it pleases.
Association of Muslim Professionals vice-chairman Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim, 35, noting the new system guarantees that a Singaporean growing up would probably see elected presidents of different races, said: "That is a strong visual for racial diversity in his formative years."
The debate continues today.
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