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.
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:


"This discussion on minority representation in the elected presidency has created an openness to talk about what used to be perceived as a sensitive topic like race. It made us a bit uncomfortable to think about the current state of affairs, but it has pushed us to think about issues a little bit more... We should ride this wave and must be open to engage in these discussions."

MS RAHAYU MAHZAM (JURONG GRC), on keeping the discussion on race going.

"Over time, these changes could be seen as a call to action within Singapore and within the ethnic communities to groom individuals from the minority races (for) influential positions. This should ensure that, over the years, we build up a wide talent pool of (minorities) reaping the experiences needed to meet the future pre-requisites of a multiracial elected presidency."

MR SAKTIANDI SUPAAT (BISHAN-TOA PAYOH GRC), on how the changes can encourage minority communities to groom talent.

"The proposal for an elected presidency has given us a platform to reflect on our journey together, as a society and as a Malay/Muslim community... The Government has shown concern for the feelings of our minorities. This is crucial in a plural society."

DR FATIMAH LATEEF (MARINE PARADE GRC), on the implications of the amendments.

"Let us prove to our fellow countrymen that the Malays are capable, and have candidates that are as qualified as the other communities... Do not hesitate. Put yourself forward if you are capable. Turn yourself into someone who will be the pride of our community. Prove that our community has progressed and is able to come up with an excellent candidate."

NOMINATED MP AZMOON AHMAD, calling for eligible Malay candidates to step up for presidential elections.

•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.


Singapore has made significant progress in building a multiracial society. We are in a better situation than most countries and managed to avoid the toxic racial debates and tensions that we see elsewhere, precisely because the Government has always taken an honest, pre-emptive, open and active approach to fostering multiculturalism. We did not leave this to chance.

Contrast this with the approach that France has taken. In principle, the French espouse a colour-blind approach to race relations.

But in effect, it has masked the stark differences in socioeconomic opportunities and outcomes between the races, which have led to racial tension and strife.

Senior French officials, scholars and those doing community work acknowledge that there are deep fissures in their society (and) are trying to grapple with it.

But they run up against their long-held belief that the issue of race would go away if one simply does not acknowledge race and racial differences. But the issue has not gone away. Racial differences have become worse over time.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER TEO CHEE HEAN, on how Singapore's active racial integration policies have helped build multiracialism.

"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.


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