Reserved presidency a 'political minus' but right thing to do: PM Lee

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks at the PAP65 Awards and Convention at Singapore Expo, on Nov 10, 2019. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - Reserving the elected presidency for minority candidates from time to time is likely to have a political cost in the short term, but the move was a necessary safeguard for the country's long-term good, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Mr Lee told People's Action Party (PAP) activists on Sunday (Nov 10) that he decided this fundamental change had to be made, even though he knew not all Singaporeans agreed with it.

"Overall, from a short term perspective, this issue is probably a political minus for the government, for the PAP. But this is part of governing," he said at the PAP convention held at the Singapore Expo.

"I am convinced that we did the right thing. We must never, ever be afraid to do what is right for Singapore," he stressed.

The PAP secretary-general was referring to public unhappiness over the Constitutional amendments passed in November 2016, to reserve the elected presidency for candidates of a particular racial group if there had not been a president from the group for the five most recent presidential terms.

Critics said the decision went against Singapore's meritocratic values, and hundreds protested in Hong Lim Park days after the first election, reserved for Malays, saw Madam Halimah Yacob sworn in as President on Sept 14, 2017.

Mr Lee cited the issue as an example of how Singapore is proactively strengthening the institutions that support its multiracial and multi-religious society.

It is harder for a non-Chinese candidate to be elected president through a national vote, Mr Lee noted.

"How would the minorities feel if year after year, the President of Singapore were almost always Chinese? In the long term, such a scenario would foment deep unhappiness, and erode the founding values of our nation," he said.

Mr Lee said he thus took the "major step" of amending the Constitution after discussing with ministers and thinking it over carefully.

The move gives minority ethnic groups an assurance that their place in society will always be safeguarded, he said, just like how the group representation constituency system - which guarantees at least one candidate per constituency is from a minority race - ensures there will always be MPs from minority races in Parliament.

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