Possible candidates from the public sector include Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob. PHOTO: NP FILE

Singaporeans will have their first Malay president in 47 years in 2017.

The upcoming presidential election, due by end-August, will be reserved for candidates from the Malay community, after changes to the Constitution were passed last year. Among the amendments was a clause that ensures members of minority groups are elected from time to time.

Next up, the Presidential Elections Act will be amended in January to legislate the date for the reserved election to kick in. The Republic's last and only Malay president, Mr Yusof Ishak, died in office in 1970. Who the future president could be, and whether there would even be a contest, are questions likely to dominate discussions in the run-up to the election.

Some names have already been thrown up as potential successors to President Tony Tan Keng Yam.

Possible candidates from the public sector - who must have spent at least three years in key public offices - include Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob and former Cabinet minister Abdullah Tarmugi, who was Speaker from 2002 to 2011.

Potential candidates from the private sector include Mr Po'ad Mattar, a former managing partner at Deloitte & Touche who sits on the Council of Presidential Advisers, and Mr Bahren Shaari, Bank of Singapore's chief executive.

Even as speculation on candidates continues, some people wonder if they would see a repeat of the four-way contest in the 2011 presidential election.

Then, President Tan faced off against three others: former People's Action Party MP Tan Cheng Bock, former senior civil servant Tan Jee Say and former chief executive of NTUC Income Tan Kin Lian. President Tan won with 745,693 votes, which was 0.35 percentage point higher than his closest competitor, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who got 738,311 votes.

Ms Nazhath Faheema, 31, a branding and marketing manager, feels that such closely-fought contests can end up being divisive.

She said: "Unless the candidates are equally good, I don't need a contest. Things can turn ugly when people take sides."

But Mr Abdul Halim Kader, president of Taman Bacaan, or the Singapore Malay Youth Library, reckons a contest would send a strong signal that the Malay community is not short on talent.

He said: "The future president isn't somebody chosen by just 15 per cent of the population, but all Singaporeans. It'll be good if they feel that they are making a choice."

To that end, he hopes the Presidential Elections Committee would consider private-sector candidates who do not automatically qualify under the new requirement of helming a company with at least $500 million in shareholders' equity.

There is a "deliberative track" for such candidates, and the committee has the flexibility to decide who qualifies.

Regardless of who eventually assumes office, the presidential election is set to be a game changer.

Ms Faheema believes a Malay head of state would inspire youth from the community to aim for higher-level positions.

But some in the Malay community fear that as long as a reserved race is invoked, Singapore is still far from being truly united.

"That some of us still see ourselves as 'Malay Singaporean' or 'Chinese Singaporean' shows some racial segregation is still present, and that we are not yet a 'Singaporean Singapore'," said Mr Suhaimi Salleh, president of the Prophet Muhammad's Birthday Memorial Scholarship Fund (LBKM).

This year will also see elections abroad. Neighbouring Malaysia is expected to hold its general election, amid the controversy created by international investigations into the government-owned 1Malaysia Development Berhad.

Hong Kong will choose its next chief executive on March 26. The person in the hot seat, typically a candidate approved by Beijing, will have to win over the semi-autonomous city's public - no easy task as evidenced by the rise of pro-independence politicians.

In Europe, France and Germany will have general elections.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, widely seen as crucial to the functioning of the European Union, is up for re-election amid renewed terrorism fears, concerns about immigration and a slowing global economy.

And while Mr Francois Fillon, a former prime minister of France, is expected to win the French presidential election, shock results in the United Kingdom's Brexit referendum and the US' presidential election signal that anti-immigrant National Front leader Marine Le Pen cannot be discounted.

Rachel Au-Yong

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 01, 2017, with the headline Elections. Subscribe