Parliament: Changes to elected presidency

Changes to elected presidency: Changes help build inclusive society, says Masagos

They add to S'pore's multiracial compact built on policies as well as communities' efforts, he says

Mr Masagos said the Malay community has expressed support for the changes at town hall dialogues.
Mr Masagos said the Malay community has expressed support for the changes at town hall dialogues.
Students performing a dance to mark Racial Harmony Day in 2010. The Government has taken an honest, pre-emptive, open and active approach to fostering multiculturalism, noted DPM Teo. ST FILE PHOTO

Constitutional changes to ensure all races are represented in the elected presidency are a continuation of policies Singapore has introduced over the years to build an inclusive, multiracial society, Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli told the House.

He said yesterday Singapore's multiracial compact has been built on three pillars: policies aimed at inclusiveness; proactive efforts by minority communities to integrate; and a majority that embraces its minorities.

"These pillars need to be continually tended to, strengthened or modified while keeping an eye on achieving the objectives of a workable and peaceful multiracial and multi-religious society," he added.

Speaking a day after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said next year's presidential election would be reserved for Malay candidates, he said inclusive policies have "built a sense of equity within the community and political system".

These policies include:

•Article 152(1) of the Constitution, which states: "It shall be the responsibility of the Government constantly to care for the interests of the racial and religious minorities in Singapore."

•The Presidential Council for Minority Rights to examine all legislation and ensure minorities are not disadvantaged.

•The Group Representation Constituency scheme to ensure MPs from minority communities.

•The Ethnic Integration Policy to ensure a balanced racial mix in HDB estates, and has promoted integration and harmony: "It's how many of us grew up: smelling and learning to love each other's ethnic cooking; going to school together; visiting each other's homes during festivals; familiarising ourselves with significant occasions at our void decks."

The changes to the elected presidency, Mr Masagos said, are another move in the same vein to build an inclusive, multiracial society.

He noted that ideally, since the elected presidency was enacted, each ethnic group should have been represented and elected.

But this has, unfortunately, not come to pass, he said, citing survey results and examples from elsewhere to show voters are not ready to set aside race in elections. If no adjustments are made, the elected president is likely to come from the majority race for a long time.

He said the Malay community has expressed support for the provision at town hall dialogues.

"Every time presidential candidates are announced, I would be accosted by them with remarks of disappointment because a Malay candidate is not contesting," he said.

And though such comments die down eventually, that is not always the case when racial sentiments are brought to the fore, he noted.

"Seemingly small things can and do snowball too, especially when they cut into primordial instincts about race and religion over time." he said. This is why it is a good time to address the "seemingly small" issue of minority representation in the presidency lest "it accumulates over time and snowballs with other issues into an avalanche".

Policies alone are not enough.

Both minority and majority communities have crucial roles to play to forge trust too, he added. While minorities seek to find ways to integrate - sometimes making sacrifices - the majority has a role to play in helping them feel they belong.

He cited how some minorities abroad turn to violence, quoting a US official who noted Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militants "came from everywhere because they belong to nowhere". Singapore is not immune to such developments given the long shadow of terrorism.

"We need this sense of belonging and an inclusive society to be pervasive even while the Muslim communities fortify their strength within to repel this threat," he said.

"It is this sense of belonging that motivates Muslim leaders in Singapore to stand ready to come forward to defuse conflicts, and not exploit them nor goad the community to extremism or terrorism."

This sense of belonging has seen the community respond strongly to reject extremism, he added.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2016, with the headline Changes to elected presidency: Changes help build inclusive society, says Masagos. Subscribe