SINGAPORE - The changes to the Elected Presidency to ensure multiracial representation are important because of the President's role as a unifying symbol of the country, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said at a forum on Friday (Sept 8).
Without the amendments to reserve specified elections for minority races, this symbolic role may be called into question - especially if "the President, term after term, comes from a single race", he added.
Speaking at a forum organised by the Institute of Policy Studies, Mr Shanmugam acknowledged that some Singaporeans do not agree with the Government on the move to reserve presidential elections.
He, however, noticed that people tend to come round to accepting it when they are given the facts and the full argument.
Still, this is an issue on which "reasonable people can differ", adding: "The fact that we were able to talk about it, debate it, bring it out, in a way helps strengthen the overall multiracial fabric."
Mr Shanmugam's remarks come as Singapore prepares to elect its eighth president on Sept 23. Only Malay candidates can take part in it, under new laws that reserve the election for a community, if no one from that community has been president for the last five terms.
He also disclosed at the forum that initially, the plan was to reserve elections for just two groups: the Malay community, as well as the Indian and other communities.
But feedback from the Chinese ground prompted the added provision that an election be reserved for the Chinese community, if five terms pass without a Chinese president.
On the symbolic role of the President, Mr Shanmugam noted that it has resided in the presidency since Independence. The creation of an Elected Presidency in 1991, with its added roles of safeguarding past reserves and the integrity of the public service, did not "abrogate" the symbolic role.
He also cited evidence that race remains a factor when Singaporeans vote, which makes it harder for minority candidates to be elected president.
A survey he cited shows that among the Chinese, 96 per cent accept a Chinese president, but only 56 per cent accept a Malay president.
Mr Shanmugam said that while some countries chose to take a laissez-faire approach on race differences, the Singapore Government has consistently chosen an interventionist approach to promote multiracialism.
Interventions include the introduction of the Group Representation Constituency system and racial quotas in public housing.
The changes to the Elected Presidency are another step in this direction, he added.
Defending the interventionist approach, he said "the proof of the pudding is in the eating".
"You look at the state of our race relations in Singapore. I am prepared to compare that record against any other country... Compare it against the best in class. That is the real test. And I think our record speaks for itself," he said.