Other countries that ensure a head of state from a minority

US President Barack Obama at a news conference at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, August 4.
US President Barack Obama at a news conference at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, August 4. PHOTO: REUTERS

Singapore would not be the only country to step in to make sure that a minority gets to be its head of state from time to time.

Other multiracial countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Switzerland have their own ways of doing so, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

"In choosing the head of state, they often consciously arrange for minorities to be appointed or elected, so that minorities feel assured of their place," said Mr Lee.

He cited these examples in a portion of last night's National Day Rally speech which he did not deliver as he suddenly took ill.

The prepared text was released by the Prime Minister's Office.

For instance, Canada, an English-speaking country where one in five people is French, alternates between a governor-general who speaks English and one who speaks French. Similarly, New Zealand, a country with Asian immigrants and an indigenous Maori population, regularly appoints a non-Caucasian governor-general.

Switzerland has three main ethnic groups: the Germans, French and Italians. If the Swiss held elections for president, the Swiss Germans, who make up two-thirds of the population, would tend to win.

Instead, it has a federal council with seven members that includes minority representatives, and the presidency rotates annually among the council members.

Mr Lee said no one in these countries questions the fitness of the head of state "just because there is an arrangement or special effort to find one belonging to the minority group". What they do recognise is that race is still a factor in elections and, all other things being equal, a minority candidate is at a disadvantage, he said.

Race "mattered hugely" even in the United States, which aspires towards being a melting pot of immigrants who become one American people. In such a society, it should make no difference if an African American or a Caucasian becomes president, said Mr Lee.

Yet when Mr Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, it was a huge deal for African Americans, he noted.

The breakdown of votes was revealing: Mr Obama got 43 per cent of the white vote and 67 per cent of the Latino vote. But an overwhelming 95 per cent of African Americans voted for him.

A point to note for Singaporeans, perhaps, where people prefer a president from their own race, said Mr Lee.

Charissa Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2016, with the headline 'Other countries that ensure a head of state from a minority'. Print Edition | Subscribe