2016: A year of disruption

Race and its place in the presidency

President Tony Tan Keng Yam (in batik shirt) and his wife Mary at an Istana open house in celebration of Deepavali on Oct 29. There were significant changes made to the elected presidency this year, as Singapore reflected on the roles and responsibil
President Tony Tan Keng Yam (in batik shirt) and his wife Mary at an Istana open house in celebration of Deepavali on Oct 29. There were significant changes made to the elected presidency this year, as Singapore reflected on the roles and responsibilities of the president. ST FILE PHOTO

The next presidential election is due in eight months, but the past year saw significant changes to the highest office of the land, as Singaporeans took part in a public debate and reflected on what the post means to a multiracial nation.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong initiated the process in January when he raised the need to review Singapore's political system during the debate on the President's Address, and convened a Constitutional Commission to review the elected presidency a month later.

The nine-member commission, chaired by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, called for feedback from the public to aid its work.

More than 100 individuals and groups sent in submissions, and 19 expanded on their views during four public hearings held by the commission in April and May.

Most of the exchange centred on two key aspects - how to ensure that the president, as guardian of the reserves, has a baseline financial competency; and how to ensure that members of minority communities are elected president from time to time, as a reflection of Singapore's multiracial identity.

The commission's report was released to the public in September.

It made a range of proposals, but two key changes underscored the focus of the public hearings.

One, a candidate from the private sector must have helmed a company with at least $500 million in shareholder equity to qualify, up from the current $100 million in paid-up capital.

Two, an election should be reserved for members of a particular racial group if there has not been a president from the group for the five most recent presidential terms.

"The commission agrees emphatically that a race-blind society is the only legitimate aspiration for Singapore," the report said.

"But there is a pressing need to ensure that no ethnic group is shut out of the presidency, even as progress is made towards that ideal, lest the office of president loses its vitality as a symbol of the nation's unity," it added.

Singapore has not had a Malay president since its first president, Mr Yusof Ishak, died in office in 1970.

The president had been appointed and was a largely ceremonial position until 1991, when the elected presidency was introduced to safeguard the reserves and approve key public service appointments.

Raising the eligibility criteria was a reminder that the president needed certain qualifications to act as the second key to the reserves.

But the president's role as a unifying figure is equally important.

Critics charged that reserved elections were an affront to Singapore's cherished principle of meritocracy. A segment of the public also seemed apprehensive about them.

At public forums after the report was released, participants were mostly supportive of raising the eligibility criteria, but were split on the issue of reserved elections.

Dialogues with minority groups were no different. At an event for the Malay community, a grassroots leader said the president's race did not matter as much as his capacity to care for Singaporeans.

This prompted another participant to argue that Singapore's racial harmony was not by happenstance, but a result of carefully calibrated policy measures.

The Government took pains to stress that even in reserved elections, the eligibility criteria would not be lowered.

But it also took public wariness of such a stipulation as a sign that Singaporeans widely believe in a meritocratic approach to policies here.

Even so, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said - in a statement in September accepting the commission's main recommendations - that the Government has always ensured that "even as we practise meritocracy, all races in Singapore feel that they have a place and equal opportunities".

Last month, 39 MPs spoke over three days of debate in Parliament before amendments to the Constitution were passed.

And as there have been five terms without a Malay head of state since the elected presidency was introduced, next year's election will be reserved for Malay candidates.

This means that in September, Singapore will have its first Malay president in more than 46 years.

Chong Zi Liang

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2016, with the headline Race and its place in the presidency. Subscribe