The proposed changes to the elected presidency are meant to ensure that the highest office in the land reflects Singapore's multiracialism, and are not just aimed at helping any particular minority community, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said yesterday.
Discussing the issue with Malay/Muslim union leaders yesterday, Dr Yaacob said it was important to ensure that the presidency is held by people from all the major races from time to time, as the president is a symbol of the nation.
"This shows that we continue to preserve the multiracial nature of Singapore, and I think Singaporeans accept the idea," he added.
At the dialogue organised by self-help group Mendaki and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) last night, union leaders discussed the significance of having a Malay president from time to time and the provision to reserve an election for members of a particular racial group if there has not been a president from the group for five terms, or 30 years.
They also asked questions about the key recommendations, such as the tightening of eligibility criteria for candidates.
Dr Yaacob, speaking to reporters after the session, said the participants understood the need for raising the bar, even though they were concerned about whether there were enough people in the Malay community who would qualify under the proposed criterion that private-sector candidates must have helmed a company with at least $500 million in shareholder equity.
This is up from the current $100 million in paid-up capital.
He said there were "other pathways" to qualify and candidates from the community do not necessarily have to come from the private sector. He added: "This problem will be solved over time. Eventually, we will see more Malays who are successful as we can see... that Malays are doing better."
On the minority provision, he said the older generation was more supportive, while some younger Malays felt there was no need for it. But he hoped discussion on the issue would help inform them about the thinking behind the changes.
Union leader Abdul Samad Abdul Wahab, 44, who was at the dialogue, said the new criteria for private-sector candidates have led to fears among the community that some Malays who would otherwise qualify could be squeezed out.
But he acknowledged the need for the president to have the right experience and expertise to decide on issues concerning the country's reserves.
Mr Samad, who works in a power company, added that some in the community view the minority provision as a means to ensure a president of a particular race "is there just for the sake of being there".
He attributed this to a lack of understanding of the review of the elected presidency. "The information on the White Paper should be made very clear not just to minority races but also the majority, to understand why we need a minority president from time to time," he said.
Singapore has not had a Malay president since its first head of state Yusof Ishak died in office in 1970.
The changes to the presidency were proposed by a Constitutional Commission after a review, and were largely accepted by the Government in a White Paper last Thursday.
Those at the session chaired by NTUC assistant secretary-general Zainal Sapari also discussed the move to make the Asatizah Recognition Scheme mandatory.
Dr Yaacob said they were broadly supportive of the move to register all religious teachers as they believed it would help prevent the spread of divisive teachings that are at odds with Singapore's multiracial society.