The Straits Times says

A people's president for a new era

It was unfortunate that former Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob's ascension to the presidency was by means of a walkover, as the other two hopefuls were found by the Presidential Elections Committee to have not met the eligibility requirements set down by law. As a seasoned political campaigner and passionate advocate for labour and social causes, she would have preferred to put her record of public service to the people in an open contest, so that it could be weighed against the credentials of other eligible candidates whatever their race. However, legislated changes to the elected presidency and fate have denied her such a path to the Istana.

Be that as it may, Singaporeans would exult in Madam Halimah's assumption of high office as there is wide acceptance that she has all the qualities people seek. What's more, this is the first time the nation will have a woman head of state, and one who is emerging from the HDB heartland. The last point was underscored when she had earlier expressed a wish to continue living in her public flat, although she understood why security considerations would make that impractical.

In an ideal world, Madam Halimah would have been popularly elected on her own merits with little or no consideration paid to the community she comes from. However, the Government has asserted that, in a real world, race might play a decisive part - especially in a close race - and thus deny minorities the chance to serve as president from time to time, in accordance with the tenets of multiracialism laid down by the nation's founders. Still, the mechanism of a reserved election for minority candidates remains contentious as it represents an exclusion of other races and an exception to the principle of meritocracy. Race, when institutionalised, might evoke divisive sentiments, as was seen when questions arose earlier about the "Malayness" of candidates.

Naturally, Singaporeans would have preferred a chance to vote for the president, given the important role of unifying Singaporeans from all walks of life and of serving as a custodian of the nation's reserves and a guardian of the integrity of key public appointments. But people would also agree that it would be imprudent to lower eligibility benchmarks just so an election can take place. Given the rules in place, these must be upheld and not be subject to political considerations.

What matters now is that Madam Halimah is given full support as the nation heads towards a new phase of development. She has represented all Singaporeans when serving the public before and she has risen above the fray in her role as Speaker of Parliament. Given her disposition and preoccupation with the public interest, Madam Halimah will indubitably further the enduring virtues of the presidency and carry out her duties in her own unassuming style.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2017, with the headline 'A people's president for a new era'. Print Edition | Subscribe