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Singapore may not have a minority President because our principle of ‘equal opportunities for all’ has defects in it

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The following is a Facebook post by prominent playwright Alfian Sa’at.


Some critiques of a system that would mandate the election of a minority-race President mention that the process will ‘undermine the principle of meritocracy’.The assumption is that in a truly meritocratic system, everyone, regardless of race, will have a fair shot at running for President under the present scheme.

One of the criteria laid out for the Elected President include: 3 years in service as a Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker, Attorney-General, Chairman of the PSC, Auditor-General, Accountant-General or Permanent Secretary.

It might be illuminating to examine the path one takes to become a minister in Singapore before one occupies the seat of the Elected President. And scrutinising the educational and career backgrounds of our current ministers might provide a picture of a ‘typical’ route towards ministerial office.

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Out of 19 ministers, (we exclude Khaw Boon Wan, whose secondary education was in Penang), 6, or around 30%, studied in SAP schools (Catholic High, Chinese High, Maris Stella High, Nanyang Girls’ High). In a truly meritocratic system, all students in Singapore, regardless of race, should have access to all the schools in Singapore. But SAP schools impose an additional criterion for ‘merit’, which is ‘Chinese as a Mother Tongue Language’, effectively barring minority students from this potential path to a political career. One can also point out that some other schools attended by the ministers (Anglo-Chinese School, Saint Joseph’s and Saint Andrew’s) have a mission school history that might deter non-Christian/Catholic parents from sending their children there because of concerns about proselytisation (whether this is warranted or not).

And out of 19 ministers, 5, or 25%, come from a military background (2 Brigadier-Generals, one Chief of Defence Force, one Chief of Army, one Chief of Navy). Anecdotal accounts, ranging from politicians’ statements about the ‘divided loyalty’ of Malays vis-a-vis our predominantly Muslim neighbours, the concentration of Malay enlistees in the Police NS and Civil Defence, the exemption of some ex-madrasah students from NS, the alibi of non-halal kitchens to explain why Malays are not recruited into the navy, all suggest that the career advancement of Malays in the military is limited.

The observations above might also shed some light as to why there are so few women ministers (and why the path towards us having a female Elected President can be as restrictive as that for minorities.) The military path to a political career is less probable for women because they do not serve NS, and also because much fewer women than men sign up for a military career. Additionally, out of our 19 ministers, 16 of them, or a whopping 84%, come from all-boys’ schools (with most from RI, ACS and Catholic High). The ones who did not are: Lawrence Wong (Tanjong Katong Secondary), Masagos Zulkifli (Bukit Panjang Government High) and Grace Fu (Nanyang Girls’ High).

It has to be acknowledged that some of these all-boys’ schools have quite a profound influence on the students’ eventual career path–and these might range from a constant exhortation that they will become eventual leaders of society, to portraits of illustrious (political) alumni that the students encounter every day as they walk past the school’s corridors. The RI school motto is translated as ‘Hope of a Better Age’, whereas the RGS one is ‘Daughters of a Better Age’. Close reading will be able to tease out how RI students are to be active agents of shaping that ‘better age’, whereas the girls are expected to be products of that ‘better age’.

The way the discussion on the Elected Presidency is framed right now is that we are not likely to have a minority-race (or even woman) President because Singaporeans are unlikely to vote for someone outside of their own race. The election of JBJ, Murali and Michael Palmer (facing Chinese candidates in Chinese-majority wards) into Parliament prove that this is not always the case.

The reason why we are not likely to have a minority-race President is because our principle of equal opportunities for all has defects in it. But token symbols do not fix the structure; they only draw our attention away from it. As we watch a minority-race candidate pole-vault into the Istana, we’ll hopefully forget to examine the broken ladder of our meritocratic system, with rungs that will snap if you’re not the right gender or race.

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