Elected Presidency changes: Big step backwards for Malay community

I worry about the unintended consequences of changes to the elected presidency, especially the move to reserve elections for minority candidates.

I was brought up in an era where we Malays were told we had to fend for ourselves in school and in our careers, as Singaporeans of other races did. After initial trepidation, due in part to seeing how Malays in other countries in the region depended on race-based policies to help them advance, Malay Singaporeans grew out of their historical reliance on such crutches. And that has over time become a source of pride and motivation for the community.

In my frequent travels to neighbouring countries and in the speeches I deliver there, I speak proudly of the significant progress the community has made as we proved we could stand on our own feet. That was thanks in no small part to the brave decision by our earlier leaders to take away our proverbial crutches and make us compete on a level playing field. Like everything else, healthy competition drives the community to a higher level.

Now, I worry that all that is being undone. The announcement that next year's presidential election will be reserved for Malay candidates strikes me as a major step backwards. Like it or not, it risks being read as a vote of no confidence in the community. It seems to suggest that we are still unable to compete on the same level with the rest of the population and that we remain a troubled community that requires - selectively - a big handicap. It makes me wonder what happened to our belief in boosting self-reliance and self-respect through doing away with affirmative action and race-based state aid in education and career progression.

During the last three decades of minimal race-based policy assistance, Malays have worked hard to prove our self-worth with significant achievements in the education and professional arenas. Today, more private sector and business leaders are drawn from the community than ever before.

There has been gradual but meaningful progress in all other statistics too, including education. The sense I get from my daily interactions with members of the community is that we are patient in waiting for further public sector achievements. I did not sense any clamour for the next president to be from the Malay community.

America waited more than 230 years for a member of a minority race to be elected president. That did not make people from minority races there feel any less American. When the day finally arrived in November 2008 and Mr Barack Obama was elected America's first black president, the outcome was greeted with great celebration not just within the country but in countries across the free democratic world, including those in Asia and Africa.

Here in Singapore, the last time a president of a minority race was in the Istana was five years ago. The last time we had a Malay president was 46 years ago. I believe most Malays are willing to wait patiently for our next Malay president to be voted into office based on his own merit and in a contest against other capable Singaporeans of different races or creeds, however long it takes.

I personally think that even without changes to the elected presidency, it will not take quite so long. After all, minority MPs have regularly won elections in single-seat constituencies while others have led teams in group representation constituencies - a scheme originally created to assist minority candidates to be elected into Parliament - instead of being pedestrian members of the GRCs.

I would argue that more than a Malay president, what Singapore needs is policy consistency - we cannot afford policy twists and turns, especially on a selective basis, no matter how well intended.

Still, if the chance to have a member of their community as president is offered on a platter, not many Malays will reject such a gift. That is human nature. But what would be even more satisfying is a hard-fought campaign leading to the election of a Malay president who deserves the position based on the famously Singaporean values of grit and merit.

That is worth waiting for. The changes to the Constitution relating to the elected presidency may have inadvertently denied me and other members of Singapore's minority communities the pleasure of seeing that happen.

  • The writer is an economist and the head of market strategy at Macquarie Bank. These are his personal views.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2016, with the headline 'Big step backwards for Malay community'. Subscribe