National Day Rally

Why Singapore needs a minority president from time to time

In the last 50 years, the Government has promoted religious and racial harmony through education, housing and many other policies, but we are not yet completely race-blind.

After Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed away, I visited Tanjong Pagar.

Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah, who helped Mr Lee look after his residents, accompanied me. She had served there for many years and speaks Cantonese fluently. But one of the residents told me: "PM, please send us a bilingual minister."

These sentiments are present not just at Tanjong Pagar. There are voters of every race in every constituency who feel this way.

Actually, similar sentiments are present in every multiracial society. It's human nature.

We feel more comfortable interacting and working with people who share the same culture, language and ethnicity as we do. We accept each other more readily.

Ms Indranee with Mr Lee Kuan Yew on the election campaign trail in 2006. She helped him look after his residents in
Tanjong Pagar, serving there for many years and speaking Cantonese fluently. But one of the residents later told PM
Lee Hsien Loong: “PM, please send us a bilingual minister.” ST FILE PHOTO

Therefore, during elections, voters often wonder - or they would have thought of it - if candidates are able to communicate with them in their mother tongue.

"Can I speak directly to him and engage him comfortably? Does he understand me, where I am coming from - my culture and faith?"

So, in Singapore, language and race do play a role in elections.

All things being equal, a minority candidate contesting in a Chinese-majority constituency is at a disadvantage, and in Singapore, every constituency is majority Chinese. This is why we have group representation constituencies (GRCs), to ensure that there will always be minority MPs in Parliament. Let's be honest with ourselves and deal with this squarely.

For a non-Chinese to become an MP, it is not easy. For a non-Chinese to be elected president is even harder. Hence, I proposed changes to the elected president scheme in January, to make sure that, from time to time, we will have a non-Chinese president.

Since the announcement, I have heard some feedback. People have said: "Since Singapore is multiracial, and we say 'regardless of race, language or religion', why is there a need to make provisions for minorities? Why not let the elections run their natural course?"

Some may feel that since we are a majority-Chinese country, when a Chinese president is elected, it is all right. I understand these feelings, but we need to face up to the reality of our multiracial context. Under the current system of contested national elections for president, we may not have a non-Chinese president for a long time. If so, this will weaken the sense of national identity among minorities, and affect our unity.

This is serious for it concerns our social cohesion, our multiracial society and our future.

It is important that we have a Malay, Indian or other races as president from time to time.

The president as head of state is the unifying symbol for all Singaporeans, and must be able to unite all Singaporeans. Our former president, Mr (S R) Nathan, is a shining example of this.

Mr Nathan is Indian but, as president, he looked after the interests of all Singaporeans. He proactively reached out to all races and got to know them well. I hope the Chinese community will support the constitutional changes we may propose so that if we have a good minority presidential candidate, he can become the president, and represent all Singaporeans.

•Excerpt from English translation of speech in Mandarin.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2016, with the headline 'Why Singapore needs a minority president from time to time'. Print Edition | Subscribe