Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu, in explaining the upcoming changes to the elected presidency, said yesterday the goal is to send a strong signal that a person from a minority race can represent Singapore.
She also indicated that it will make clear the majority race wants to be represented by a minority president. "We're sending a signal to all minority races that if... the head of state is to represent the entire society, it's important from time to time to have a minority holding that important position for us," Ms Fu said at a closed-door dialogue.
About 70 young people attended the day-long session to discuss the key points of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally speech. Reporters were allowed into the session in the final hour.
PM Lee had said the Constitution would be changed to ensure ethnic minorities are elected as president from time to time.
The youth, in talking about their experiences of racism, wondered whether the majority race enjoys some advantages in society here.
If so, Ms Fu said, something should be done so that "our minority brothers and sisters" are clear that "we do want them to represent us as president".
However, if minority candidates are not at a disadvantage, Singaporeans will naturally vote for the candidate best suited for the job, regardless of race, she added.
The safeguard then will be needed only if no minority individual holds the office of head of state from time to time, she said.
Youth worker Jed Senthil said he and his friends were concerned the move might be an act of tokenism.
Said the 30-year-old: "A Malay friend said he doesn't want a Malay president for the sake of having a token one. It doesn't make him proud.
"I'm sure there are capable candidates among all races."
Replying, Ms Fu said she did not have details of the changes, but "minority or not, the same set of criteria will apply". Meritocracy will still be the core value upheld, she said.
Mr Senthil later told The Straits Times he would prefer that greater efforts be made to find and coax minority candidates to run, rather than make changes to the presidency.
The youth also discussed common values held by Singaporeans, like treasuring multiculturalism.
Mr Khairul Hilmi Mohd Khair, 27, a social service professional, said there was a need for the different races to trust each other more.
He said the "true test of our multiculturalism'' will come the day Singapore is attacked by radicalised Muslim terrorists. "That's when we see how much you'll trust your Muslim friends."
Ms Fu replied that in such an event, she hoped youth like Mr Khairul would take the lead and set the tone by calling for unity.