She may have graced this year’s National Day parade as president for the first time, but her presence cast a shadow on the entire celebrations. Before we point the finger at her personally, however, it is important to remember that it was higher powers who are responsible for causing the unfortunate divide between the president and the people.
In the bigger scheme of things, Singapore’s 53rd birthday yesterday was unremarkable, although the parade itself was widely seen as one of the best ever. Nonetheless, the significant thing, for this writer at least, was Mdm Halimah Yacob’s attendance as head of state.
She was anointed the first Reserved President and the first woman president in September, under controversial circumstances. Her ascension to the highest office in the land has since been mired in divisive debate and even ridicule.
It is important for us to remember the circumstances which led to her contentious installation as the nation’s 7th president, and why many do not see her as a legitimate president.
In February 2016, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) Government appointed a Constitutional Commission “to study and make recommendations on specific aspects of the Elected Presidency.”
6 months later, on 17 August 2016, the Commission submitted its recommendations to the Government.
On 7 September, the Government accepted – in principle – the recommendations.
A week later, on 15 September, the Government accepted the Commission’s proposal for “multiracial representation in the Elected Presidency.”
In November, changes to the Elected President Act were introduced in Parliament.
Fast-forward to February 2017, Parliament debated the changes to allow for a Reserved Election.
In April – the Reserved Election was approved by the PAP-majority Parliament.
4 months later, on 28 August, the Prime Minister issued the writ of election, declaring that an election be held to elect the first Reserved President.
Nomination Day was 13 September with Polling Day the 23rd of the same month.
In the event, however, there was no contest as all other candidates who applied to run were disqualified, leaving Mdm Halimah as the sole “winner”.
She was declared President-elect on Nomination Day itself.
From the time Parliament approved the Reserved President scheme to the time Mdm Halimah was declared President-elect – 6 months.
It seemed to many that the entire process was perfectly timed to coincide with the expiry of tenure of the previous president, Tony Tan, a former PAP minister.
The introduction and approval of the Reserved Election was a rushed-job to install a PAP-approved, or PAP-affiliated, president, under the guise of instituting “multiracial representation” in the Elected Presidency.
Mdm Halimah had been a PAP member, MP, Minister of State and Speaker until she resigned from all positions on 7 August 2017 – a mere 5 weeks before Nomination Day when she was declared President.
Some have, rightly, asked if such close proximity to a political party of such a person is desirable for someone who is supposed to be a check on the government of the day.
This is especially so when the government is in fact the very party of which she was an active and senior member just several weeks earlier.
Others have questioned if Mdm Halimah herself has the expertise in financial matters to be such a check.
There remain many questions about how she was installed in the Istana.
And it is important that Singaporeans do not forget this, or stop questioning the entire process and the reasons given by the authorities.
National Day is a day where Singaporeans come together, leaving their differences aside, to join arms and stand as one.
The president is supposed to be the symbol of such unity, and indeed past presidents have been so, especially our earlier ceremonial presidents such as Yusof Ishak, Benjamin Sheares and Wee Kim Wee.
Our Elected and now Reserved presidents, however, have become controversial rather than uniting, figures because of their previous political connections to the PAP, except perhaps the much-loved first Elected President, Ong Teng Cheong.
The late SR Nathan, the second Elected President to have served a full term as one, was a civil servant, including with the Internal Security Department, all his life and went through 2 presidential elections – both uncontested.
In his 12 years in the Istana, he was reported to have been paid a total of around $35m in salary.
The previous Elected President, Tony Tan, was a former PAP deputy prime minister, whose election was also under controversial circumstances. Dr Tan’s candidacy was openly supported by the PAP-affiliated union. He had also sought ethnic support among the “Tan” clans.
And now, another PAP-connected member is our first Reserved President.
To install her as president, the authorities even had to bend the rules and discount history – they argued that President Ong was in fact not the first president, and that the honour belonged to President Wee.
It was only by such irrational and blatant disregard for history that the Reserved President scheme could come into effect last year.
President Ong had always been regarded by everyone, really, including government ministers and departments, as the nation’s first Elected President. (See here.)
Even the late Lee Kuan Yew saw him as such.
Our history was conveniently discounted and edited to disqualify Dr Tan Cheng Bock from contesting. Dr Tan had run against Dr Tony Tan in 2011, losing by a hair’s breadth.
It is obvious to some that this is the reason why the PAP Government rammed through so quickly the introduction of a Reserved Election which would naturally disqualify all Chinese candidates such as Dr Tan Cheng Bock.
Dr Tan is 78 this year, and would probably have no more chance to run for the presidency.
At the end of the day, we do not disrespect Mdm Halimah herself, for she has spent her life doing good for the less fortunate.
However, we cannot and should not accept how the process and system was engineered for political reasons to install her in the Istana.
1. The Reserved President is a scheme engineered to keep out non-PAP approved candidates like Tan Cheng Bock.
2. The law to change the Constitution to allow for a Reserved President was hurried through Parliament in mere months.
3. The now incumbent had a walkover because all others who applied to run were disqualified without any reasons given.
Not a single voter got the chance to vote for her -or against her.
We should always remind ourselves of this – until the process is changed, the Reserved Election abolished, and a proper, deserving, and respected President takes office once again.
In the meantime, the incumbent is still #NotMyPresident.