Parliament: Presidency changes continue policies to build inclusive society, says Masagos

The changes to the elected presidency scheme is a continuation of policy enhancements to build an inclusive, multi-racial society in Singapore, said Mr Masagos Zulkifli. PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN

SINGAPORE - The introduction of reserved presidential elections to ensure all races are represented in the presidency, is a continuation of policy enhancements Singapore has made over the years to build an inclusive, multi-racial society, Minister for Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli said on Wednesday (Nov 9).

He told the House that these policies have become cornerstones of multiracialism, and added that the proposed amendments to the constitution will pave the way for greater inclusiveness.

In today's Singapore, the richness of diversity is something valued, respected and celebrated, he Mr Masagos.

"We have benefited from the peace and prosperity from our racial and religious harmony and made our diversity work for us. Our interpretation of multiracialism has, thus far, forged strong bonds among Singaporeans, and also engendered trust between the people and the Government."

He highlighted three pillars on which Singapore has built its multiracial and multi-religious social compact: policies aimed at inclusion; proactive efforts by the minorities 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 said.

The policies geared at building an inclusive society makes up the first of these pillars, and have "built a sense of equity within the community and political system", he added.

Among these policies are:

-Article 152(1) in the Consititution, which states that "It shall be the responsibility of the Government constantly to care for the interests of the racial and religious minoirites in Singapore".

This, Mr Masagos noted, was worded into the Constitution to assuaged the minoirites - particularly the Malays, who after Singapore's expulsion from Malaysia in 1965, found themselves a minority community overnight. He added that it was built on founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's vow to build a multi-racial nation in Singapore where "everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion".

-In 1970, the Presidential Council for Minority Rights was established to examine all legislation and ensure they would not put any racial or religious communities at a disadvantage.

-Since 1988, Singapore's multi-racialism has been safeguarded in its Parliamentary system, through the Group Representation Constituency (GRC), which ensured that at least one of the members of Parliament came from a minority community.

-The Ethnic Integration Policy, introduced in 1989, to ensure a balanced racial mix in the housing system. This, Mr Masagos said, has promoted racial integration and harmony in Housing Board flats.

"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; and familiarising ourselves with the significant occasions at our void decks - be it weddings or birthday celebrations, funerals - allowing each to celebrate or grieve."

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

He also said that while the principle of meritocracy is key, the elected president must also be a person of integrity, as both are necessary elements for a president who plays a custodial role.

Just as important is the president's symbolic role, as a head of a multiracial state, he added.

Right policies key, but not silver bullet

Ideally, since the elected presidency's enactment in 1990, each ethnic group should have been represented and elected - but this has, unfortunately, not come to pass, said Mr Masagos adding that surveys, too, prove that voters are not ready to set aside race when it comes to picking a president.

"I do not believe this is from a sense of deep prejudice or bigotry more than it is a sense of comfort, affability and convenience to choose someone similar to yourself," he said.

This tendency exists everywhere today - not just in Singapore, said Mr Masagos, pointing out that in the United States, ethnic-based campaigning holds sway in their elections.

If no adjustments are made in Singapore, he added, the elected president is likely to come from the majority race for a long time to come.

The introduction of reserved elections for a particular racial group, if it is not represented after five continuous terms, will assuage the minorities in particular, said Mr Masagos.

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

"Actually, 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 adding that they were but minor "grouses" that "go away".

But this was not always the case when racial sentiments are brought to the fore, he said citing the violent protests in Jakarta just last week.

They erupted after Indonesia's incumbent Jakarta governor, Mr Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok, - who is running for election - responded to his opponents criticisms of him being a 'kafir', or infidel, by saying they had misinterpreted the Quran. He was attacked for blasphemy.

"Seemingly small things can and do snow ball too, especially when they cut into primordial instincts about race and religion over time," said Mr Masagos.

That is why it is a good time to address the "seemingly small" issue of minority representation in the elected presidency before "it accumulates over time and snowballs with other issues into an avalanche", he added.He warned that wrong policies can destroy harmony.

He cited as an example the Sri Lankan government's policy to make Sinhalese the country's sole official language. This excluded the Tamil-speaking minorities from the civil service, and limited admission to universities. Then came other policies that continued to marginise these groups, and civil war soon erupted.

"While we have come a long way from the tumultuous times when there was strife between communities, we cannot take for granted the peaceful co-existence that we have today," said Mr Masagos.

Even as the government moves to assuage the care and concern it has for minority communities by introducing new laws or modifying them, both the minorities and the dominant community have crucial roles to play to forge the trust and harmony that the government seeks to build through an inclusive society," added Mr Masagos.

Inclusivity a two-way street

But right policies cannot on their own guarantee racial or religious harmony, he said.

He said both the minority and majority communities too have crucial roles to play to forge trust, adding inclusivity is a two-way street.

Citing the proactive efforts of minority communities to integrate, Mr Masgos said this makes up the crucial second pillar for Singapore's harmony.

He said minority communities had built up common spaces even as they sought to preserve their identity and culture.

"Sometimes, integration involved everyone making sacrifices of what is important because it mattered to the others."

The last pillar, he said rests on how the majority community embraces minority communities.

"As minorities adjust to integrate, they continuously sense whether the majority is embracing the 'inclusive society'," he said.

Singapore's multiracial society is a "working model", because of the sense of belonging of minorities, he said adding that it "is crucial in ensuring that Singapore remains resilient against any force that threatens to tear our society apart".

He added that countries which play up racial and religious differences have seen unhappiness festering among their minority comminitues, creating a weak point that can be exploited.

When minority communities feel rejected, or are forced to conform to the majority, they could lose their sense of belonging, said Mr Masagos. This had resulted in "dire consequences" elsewhere, with some of the oppressed groups turning to violence and terrorism, he said.

Extremist groups such as ISIS, for instance, have drawn individuals from minority groups from farflung countries into battle, he said. An estimated 27,000 foreign fighters have joined the ranks of the group.

Quoting a US official, Mr Masagos said: "They came from everywhere because they belonged to nowhere."

Singapore is not immune to such developments given the long shadow of terrorism, he added noting that the Government had arrested a dozen mostly self-radicalised Singaporeanswho had planned to fight in the Middle East or mount attacks in Singapore.

"The threat is real, and our best measure in tackling terrorism is to strengthen the sense of belonging of the minorities, and in today's context for the Muslims and Malays in Singapore. 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. In no small measure too, it is this sense of belonging that the community has responded to reject extremism and terrorism."

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