Proposal on minority president strikes 'appropriate balance'

President Tony Tan Keng Yam interacting with children at a 2014 exhibition. Every Singaporean has to be able to identify with the president, said the Government.
President Tony Tan Keng Yam interacting with children at a 2014 exhibition. Every Singaporean has to be able to identify with the president, said the Government.ST FILE PHOTO

The Constitutional Commission's proposal to guarantee a minority president from time to time strikes an "appropriate balance" between working towards the ideal of multiracialism and ensuring minorities are represented in the meantime, the Government said yesterday.

The "hiatus-triggered" framework - in which an election is reserved for a particular race if no one from that group has been president for five continuous terms - also gels with Singapore's meritocratic ideals.

This is because the qualifying criteria for presidential candidates remain the same. "This should negate any perceptions of him being a 'token' president," the Government said in its White Paper response to the panel's report.

The Government also said that, in accepting the recommendations, it agreed with the commission's reasons for ensuring multiracial representation in the presidency.

The panel had said that the "ultimate destination" was one where no safeguards are needed to ensure the representation of different ethnic groups.

Singapore has not "arrived" at such a destination yet, it said.

Agreeing, the Government said multiracialism is "fundamental to Singapore's cohesion and survival".


It featured prominently in the first Parliament session in 1965 and formed the terms of reference for the first Constitutional Commission a year later, said the White Paper.

The ideal is also entrenched in other social policies, such as education, housing and politics.

For example, the group representation constituencies scheme was introduced in 1988 to ensure minorities are suitably represented in Parliament. "This has encouraged all political parties to engage in multiracial rather than sectarian politics," said the Government.

Noting that countries such as Switzerland and Canada also ensure multiracial representation for their head of state posts, the Government said the nation would "lose an important element of multiracialism" if particular minority groups are never represented in the office.

"Every Singaporean has to be able to identify with the president, and to know that a member of his community can and will become president from time to time."

The Government also cautioned against taking Singapore's multiracial and meritocratic society for granted, as the world is "seeing a trend of explicitly race-based politics which works up and exploits populist sentiments".

It added: "Decencies and sensibilities built up over the years can easily come undone in an age where populism and appeals to racial impulses are increasingly common."

The White Paper cited Britain's Brexit referendum in June, when debates on immigration policies were widely intertwined with racial arguments.

But at the same time, Singapore has yet to become a "post-racial" society, it said, pointing to a recent study that shows that a significant number have a strong preference for presidents or prime ministers to be of their own race.


But the proposed mechanism is race-neutral as it guarantees the representation of all racial groups, the Government said.

It was "most unlikely" that the Chinese community would experience a five-term hiatus.

But the move to make sure there is minority representation is "significant at a symbolic level, as it underscores the importance of ensuring that all races are represented in the presidency", said the White Paper.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2016, with the headline 'Proposal on minority president strikes 'appropriate balance''. Print Edition | Subscribe