Most Singaporeans across all races will accept a prime minister or president of another race, but a significant number show a strong preference for these leaders to be of their own race, a new survey on race issues has found.
More than half of the Chinese surveyed said a Malay prime minister is acceptable, and six in 10 are fine with an Indian prime minister.
The results are largely the same for the elected president: 59 per cent of Chinese find a Malay president acceptable, and 68 per cent of them said the same for an Indian president.
But all three racial groups are similarly less accepting of a president or prime minister of another race in relation to one of their own race.
Those who are more open to a president or prime minister of another race tend to be younger, more educated and interact more with people of other races, according to the Channel NewsAsia-Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) survey based on a poll of 2,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents.
For instance, 64 per cent of Chinese under the age of 30 would accept a Malay president, compared with 48 per cent of Chinese older than 60.
We would rather that Singaporeans are colour-blind, but they are not. If all candidates are more or less equal, a Malay candidate would be at a disadvantage when standing against a Chinese.
NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE SOCIOLOGIST TAN ERN SER
We should not be overly pessimistic that Singaporeans vote only along racial lines. This is just one survey. At the end of the day, people vote (for) the best person for the job.
DR NORSHAHRIL SAAT of the Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute.
Observers said the findings on political leaders are significant in the light of the review of the elected presidency. It looked at, among other areas, how to ensure a minority candidate can be elected president.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong received the report this week from the constitutional commission appointed to look into the elected president issue, and will discuss the subject in his National Day Rally on Sunday.
IPS senior research fellow Mathew Mathews, who led the new study on race, told The Straits Times: "We know there are racial preferences which might unfairly disadvantage qualified minority persons from being elected."
He said that if voters have not had the opportunity over a long period to learn about the candidate, then racial preferences might set in.
"This will be a problem for minorities who stand in a presidential election," he said, adding that it was important to ensure minority races do not go unrepresented in the highest office of the land for too long.
While most Singaporeans prefer a president or prime minister of their own race, they also look at the quality of a candidate when voting, experts and MPs said yesterday.
Still, candidates from minority races have it harder than those from the majority race, which explains why the elected presidency looks set to be tweaked to ensure a minority candidate is not shut out altogether from getting elected, they added.
"We would rather that Singaporeans are colour-blind, but they are not. If all candidates are more or less equal, a Malay candidate would be at a disadvantage when standing against a Chinese," said National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser.
MP Zaqy Mohamad added: "It will always be an uphill battle for a minority candidate. Based on these statistics, he already has half of the people against him at the start. But it is not impossible to win."
Mr Zaqy said he experienced some of these challenges at the start of his political career in 2006, when voters were getting to know him.
"If you are Malay, the older Chinese community will ask a lot of questions: Who are you, are your beliefs the same as ours and what are your views on issues?
"They want to see who your spouse and your kids are," he said, adding that the initial wariness is no longer an issue for him.
All the experts and MPs, however, were quick to point out that race is not the only thing that matters at the ballot box. "While people have preferences, it does not mean they will necessarily vote along racial lines," said Dr Mathews.
A candidate who is competent and able to communicate with people from different backgrounds can transcend his racial background.
Dr Tan said: "Social connections still matter, but that does not mean we would vote in a moron."
Agreeing, Dr Norshahril Saat of the Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute said: "We should not be overly pessimistic that Singaporeans vote only along racial lines. This is just one survey. At the end of the day, people vote (for) the best person for the job."
For instance, the Bukit Batok by-election in May this year was won by the People's Action Party's Mr Murali Pillai, who faced Singapore Democratic Party leader Chee Soon Juan.
The finding that Singaporeans believe in meritocracy, but at the same time have race-based voting preferences, is a seeming contradiction.
In explaining it, Dr Mathews said Singaporeans have bought into meritocracy even though biases persist.
"Hopefully, we are aware of our biases and perhaps that will help us think clearly when we make decisions about candidates," he added.
Dr Mathews also said he was surprised that only about 60 per cent of Chinese younger than 30 - compared with about 50 per cent of Chinese older than 60 - are willing to accept a Malay president.
He had expected a higher level of acceptance among the young.
He said: "Although our younger cohorts are more progressive and multicultural, they still maintain some of the biases which may be commonplace."
Dr Norshahril, however, thought 60 per cent was a decent figure. He said: "It means more than half of our Chinese youth are open to voting for a minority president."
The challenge is to change the attitudes of the remaining 40 per cent or so and others of similar mindsets, he added.
Dr Norshahril believes it can be done through focus group discussions with them and by understanding why they think the way they do.