Of the changes to the elected presidency passed by Parliament last week, the one to reserve an election for a particular racial group is the most contentious.
With that change to the Constitution, a presidential election will be reserved for a particular racial group if no one from that group has been president for five terms in a row. That means 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.
Other changes include stricter qualifying criteria for presidential candidates and more powers for an expanded Council of Presidential Advisers.
The changes have several implications. First, Singapore will, after a 46-year wait, see a Malay president in the next election provided there are qualified candidates. The Republic's first president Yusof Ishak was Malay and held the post from 1965, when Singapore became independent, to 1970, when he died in office. Before that, he was Yang di-Pertuan Negara (Head of State) from 1959, the year Singapore achieved self-rule from the British.
With the Prime Minister's announcement that the next presidential election, due next year, will be reserved for Malays, President Tony Tan Keng Yam will not be able to run for a second term. He has since confirmed that he will not be standing again. There will also be no repeat of the fierce contest between four candidates - all of them Chinese men - seen in 2011. That turned out to be a close fight between Dr Tony Tan and Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who obtained 35.2 per cent and 34.85 per cent of votes respectively. The changes to the Constitution passed last week effectively deny Dr Tan Cheng Bock the chance to take part in the next election and that has raised questions about the timing of the amendment.
Another big concern is what these changes will mean for Singapore's founding principles of meritocracy and equality. These principles tell us that leaders should be assessed based on their capabilities, and not race, family or social status. Would not the changes passed last week be a blow to Singapore's meritocracy and instead entrench race-based politics? That is the basis of some people's opposition.
But even within the Malay/ Muslim community, there is a diversity of views. Some consider the Government's plan as tokenism, akin to letting Malays win a runners-up medal since no one from the community is capable of competing in an open and fair election against other ethnic groups. On the other hand, there are Malays who embrace the amendments with open arms. They have long regarded the late Mr Yusof as a symbol of pride and cannot wait to see another president emerge from the community. Whatever the shortcomings, the amendments passed ensure that the sanctity and prestige of the elected presidency are not compromised, through the provision of several safeguards. The first is a higher bar for candidates such that only capable individuals need apply. There are no exceptions and minorities have to meet the same strict qualifying criteria.
The second safeguard is that since the next election is reserved for Malays, Malay candidates who want to win must drum up support among all Singaporeans, regardless of their race or religion. He or she cannot campaign solely on a platform of Malay interests but must instead seek to represent Singapore's multicultural and secular values.
Mr Yusof exemplified these values. In the 1940s and 1950s, he was managing editor of Utusan Melayu - a popular Malay language newspaper which advocated for the upliftment of the Malays. Yet, he championed the interests of all races throughout his presidency, earning praise from all racial groups.
As a nation, we must hold fast to a vision of a Singapore that is race-blind. Recent polls, however, show that we have not quite achieved that yet. At the same time, there is a risk that if there is no president from a particular racial group for a long time, the issue could be politicised should some claim that discrimination is at play. Therefore, there is a need to intervene to ensure multiracial representation in the years before our ideal of a race-blind nation is realised.
Some countries introduce affirmative action to level the playing field for all races. While Singapore has made huge strides in fair treatment of minorities, we have to be upfront and admit that the system has never been a perfect meritocracy. Instead, it has always been an "abridged" one. Nonetheless, it is this abridged meritocracy that has ensured minority representation in our parliamentary democracy, which also stabilises race relations in the country. Thus, applying it to the elected presidency scheme is not unprecedented and has its merits.
Questions about how a race-based election will affect our meritocracy will persist. However, on a broader trajectory, reserving the next presidential election for Malays is in my view a necessary form of tokenism to develop trust among the races.
After a break of more than four decades, it is timely to elect a Malay president and give him or her a chance to represent all Singaporeans, just as Mr Yusof did during his tenure in the 1960s.
But even as we do so, we must not lose sight of our principles that guide us to elect our leaders based on their capabilities.
The writer is a fellow at the Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute. He is the author of Yusof Ishak: Singapore's First President.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2016, with the headline 'Necessary tokenism to boost long-term multiracialism'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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