One useful aspect of the review of the elected presidency by a Constitutional Commission is the attention it has brought to the issue of race and politics. History and attitudinal surveys suggest race matters to voters. It is healthier, therefore, to acknowledge that race-neutral politics remains an aspiration and is not yet a reality, rather than deem the subject too sensitive for open debate.
It is precisely the recognition of the race factor that shaped Singapore's unique electoral system, which mandates the presence of minority candidates for group representation constituencies. This politics of inclusion has played a part in forcing parties to adopt a multiracial approach if they wish to compete in a larger ward. In a single-member constituency, like Bukit Batok which has a racial profile similar to that of the nation, there might be less of a compulsion to appeal to all communities. At the by-election there in May, it was Mr Murali Pillai's untiring grassroots work and the ruling party's credentials that contributed to his victory (61 per cent of votes) over the Singapore Democratic Party's controversial leader, Dr Chee Soon Juan. But one could not be confident of obtaining a race-blind result every time.
That thought should weigh on Singaporeans' minds when considering how to shield the elected presidency from racial politics. Given the great importance of the roles attached to the highest office in the land, this issue should not be left to chance. It is only natural for a multiracial society to have presidents of all races over time as that would strengthen the unifying role of the head of state - especially during exceptional times when society is put to the test. Just how to replicate the mix that Singapore has seen in the past is a question that ought to be debated thoroughly.
Rigid rotation by race would appear contrived. More preferable are ways of ensuring there are minority presidents from time to time, but without lowering the eligibility bar. The commission felt that would be neither tokenism nor racial discrimination. But if all minority candidates are deemed ineligible in an election reserved for them, that could create deep resentment. Others fret over the possibility of Chinese voting only for Chinese candidates if minority candidates are guaranteed to hold office periodically. Worse is the risk of a weak turnout during a special election (for a minority president) if Chinese voters are detached and leave it to the minority community to make their choice. That would weaken the moral authority of the minority president who is supposed to represent the whole nation. Singapore was fortunate to have presidents of all races in the past who have been respected by all. For the future, it must fashion a system that is similarly inclusive, which allows leaders from its ethnic communities to emerge, and for all to see that they have a fair chance of serving at the highest level in the land.