Singapore's next president set to be Malay: Mix of cheer and concern in Malay community

Some applaud move to set aside next presidential election for community but others fear it may be seen as tokenism

The President's chair, flanked by the State flag and the Presidential flag at the Istana. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Members of the Malay community reacted to news that Singapore's next president could come from among their ranks with a mix of cheer and concern.

While some yesterday applauded the move to set aside the 2017 presidential election for the Malay community, others still wrestled with worries that this special arrangement would fly in the face of meritocracy and be seen as tokenism.

Association of Muslim Professionals vice-chairman Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim, 35, pointed out that young Malays like him have yet to see a member of their community take up the mantle of president.

Mr Yusof Ishak, who died in office close to five decades ago, was Singapore's first and only Malay president so far. Community leaders and observers say possible candidates for the post next year include Speaker Halimah Yacob and former minister Abdullah Tarmugi.

Said Mr Zhulkarnain, a law firm partner: "To me, having a varied representation across all races and possibly gender, in the highest office in the land, is important to all Singaporeans, in particular the young. This new system... guarantees that a Singaporean child growing - going to school, national service, and then on to working life - would probably see presidents from different races.

"That is a strong visual for racial diversity in his formative years."

And, Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Norshahril Saat, 33, said it would be worrying if a president does not emerge from a particular community for longer periods of time. "It will further entrench certain stereotypes about the community's capability," he said.

But concerns about a reserved election undermining meritocracy or being seen as tokenism remain.

On Monday, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim reiterated that Malay candidates must meet the same standards demanded of those from other communities, insisting: "We do not want, and we cannot accept, tokenism."

Still, some like analyst Liyana Mohamad, 26, said the very concept of an election set aside for Malay candidates gives the community an unfair shot at the office of president.

"No matter how much it is stressed that what is important is quality, you are still clearing the field of other qualified candidates for the benefit of one community. I cannot bring myself to accept that," she said.

"If the president is to be a unifying symbol, it is going to be hard when there are people across all communities - Malay and non-Malay - divided over the move."

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin, 57, wished Malay candidates can contest openly, alongside those from other communities, even as he acknowledged accommodations may have to be made.

He said: "Ideally, voters would be colour-blind, and race would not matter, but we are not at that stage yet. But, I don't think this system should be entrenched forever. As society grows and changes, we should be able to think about doing away with the reserved election. I am certain I will see that day happening.

"And until the Malays can stand on their own two feet, without any assistance, without any special arrangements, we have not arrived."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2016, with the headline Singapore's next president set to be Malay: Mix of cheer and concern in Malay community. Subscribe