Workers’ Party (WP) politician Yee Jenn Jong raised critical questions after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong defended the reserved presidential election, at the People’s Action Party (PAP) convention last Sunday (Nov 10).
Mr Yee asked whether PM Lee’s reasoning that minorities would feel disenfranchised and the founding values of the nation would erode if a non-Chinese almost never becomes President would apply to the Office of the Prime Minister.
All three of Singapore’s Prime Minister since independence have been Chinese, and the person identified as the most likely to succeed PM Lee and become Singapore’s fourth Prime Minister – Heng Swee Keat – is also Chinese.
Pointing out that PM Lee’s statement on the importance of racial equality for the President contradicts the Government’s repeated claims that Singaporeans are not ready for a non-Chinese PM, Mr Yee asked:
“Singapore never ever had a non-Chinese Prime Minister. We have had minority races as presidents four times before Madam Halimah, including the late President Nathan being elected president for two terms.
“Should we be concerned about how minorities would feel that year and after since independence Singapore has always had a Chinese PM? Are we ready for a non-Chinese PM? Why not? I am ready.
“By constantly saying that Singapore is not ready for a non-chinese PM, in the long term, would we foment deep unhappiness and erode the founding values of our nation?
“Of course, the PM is selected by the party that forms the majority in a GE and it is their choice of who they wish to lead the party and the country. But do we need to be constantly told that we are not ready for one?”
RESERVED PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
Addressing his party’s members and activists last Sunday, PM Lee said the PAP “must never, ever be afraid to do what is right for Singapore” and cited the 2017 reserved presidential election as an example of a “right thing” the PAP Government did, despite some backlash.
Mr Lee’s government amended the constitution to reserve presidential elections for a particular racial group if no one from that group has been president for five continuous terms prior to the 2017 presidential election. The 2017 election was subsequently reserved for Malay candidates since the Government said no one from the racial group had been president in the last five terms.
The PAP government’s decisions to amend the constitution and reserve the election for Malay candidates were perceived as a contentious move since Tan Cheng Bock had announced his intention to contest the 2017 election months before that. Dr Tan lost the 2011 presidential election by less than 0.35 per cent of votes to establishment pick, Tony Tan.
Speaker of Parliament and PAP MP Halimah Yacob subsequently vacated her parliamentary position to contest the 2017 presidential election. She subsequently won the election by walkover when two other presidential hopefuls were disqualified by the Elections Department.
Madam Halimah’s seat at Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC has been vacant since she left the ward and the Government did not call for a by-election.
On Sunday, PM Lee told PAP cadres that the reserved election issue was a “political minus for the government, for the PAP” in the short term but added that he is “convinced that we did the right thing.”
Asserting that the fault lines of race, language and religion “have not really disappeared” and that the decision was made for the “long-term good,” he said:
“We have to continue managing racial and religious issues closely and sensitively. When something causes offence, like people making reckless remarks or offensive posts, we have to take action. At the same time, we must proactively strengthen our structures and institutions that support our multiracial and multi-religious society.”
PM Lee called the President a “unifying symbol” of multiracial Singapore and asked: “How would the minorities feel if the president of Singapore were almost always Chinese? In the long term, such a scenario will foment deep unhappiness, and erode the founding values of our nation.”
Taking issue with this last statement, WP member Yee Jenn Jong asked why the PAP thinks Madam Halimah would have lost an open election based on her race since a minority candidate that has contested past presidential election has never lost in the history of independent Singapore.
Pointing out that it would have been the vote of Singaporeans if Madam Halimah did not win an open election and that Singaporeans should be trusted with their ability to discern, Mr Yee wrote on Facebook:
“Have we ever put a minority candidate for presidency and the candidate lost? No! Then why does PAP think that Madam Halimah Yacob would have lost in an open election? And even if hypothetically she did, it would have been the vote of Singaporeans? Are we not trusted with our ability to discern?
“A number of minority candidates from both the ruling and opposition parties have won in General and By-elections against Chinese candidates such as JBJ, Michael Palmer and Murali Pillai. With Madam Halimah’s credentials, she would have been a very strong candidate in an open contest.”
Asserting that Singaporeans are not unhappy with Madam Halimah as a person but are frustrated with the process that deprived them of their opportunity to elect a president in an open contest, Mr Yee continued:
“The crux of Singaporeans’ unhappiness is not with Madam Halimah as a person but with the whole process that deprived Singaporeans of a once-in-6-years opportunity to be able to exercise their democratic rights to elect a president.
“The constitution was changed and rushed out in time to force the last PE into a contest reserved for Malays only and with a much disputed view that the EP term actually started with the late President Wee and not with the late President Ong as Singaporeans knew it to be.
“Furthermore, the bar was raised for those from the private sector such that two very successful and willing Malay candidates with rags-to-riches stories who could have qualified under the old rules were also not able to stand for election.”
PM Lee, his father Lee Kuan Yew and his presumptive successor Heng Swee Keat have all publicly said that they don’t feel Singapore is ready for a non-Chinese PM.
In the 1980s, founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said he had considered then-Minister for National Development, S Dhanabalan, to be the Prime Minister of Singapore, but decided that the country was not ready for an Indian head of government.
Lee Hsien Loong echoed his father’s views in 2008, shortly after Barack Obama got elected as the first black president of the United States of America. He said:
“Will it happen soon? I don’t think so, because you have to win votes. And these sentiments—who votes for whom, and what makes him identify with that person—these are sentiments which will not disappear completely for a long time, even if people do not talk about it, even if people wish they did not feel it.”
In March this year, Heng Swee Keat said that Singapore might not be ready for a non-Chinese PM as he spoke to students at a Nanyang Technological University (NTU) forum. When asked whether it is Singapore or the PAP that is not ready for a non-Chinese PM, Mr Heng asserted that the older generation is not prepared to accept a minority PM.
Noting that many students might be happy to have a non-Chinese PM, Heng said that his “own experience in walking the ground, in working with different people from all walks of life, is that the views — if you go by age and by life experience — would be very different.”
He added: “I do think that at the right time when enough people think that we may have a minority leader, a minority who becomes the leader of the country, that is something that we can all hope for.”
Mr Heng asserted that he witnessed Singapore’s reluctance to accept a non-Chinese PM as he observed the elections: “I can tell you that it is not easy because it triggers all the feelings about race, which are not obvious. But for an election, it becomes an issue.”
Referring to the reserved presidential election, Mr Heng defended the government’s position saying it is “not contradictory.” He reasoned: “It is precisely because we need to place this emphasis institutionally that we recognise that we have not arrived. It is important for us to ensure that we have that safeguard.”
Days after Mr Heng said that he does not believe Singaporeans are ready for a non-Chinese PM, a whopping 92 per cent of 19,900 individuals responding to a viral Facebook poll voted for Tharman Shanmugaratnam to succeed PM Lee and become the nation’s next head of Government, instead of Mr Heng.
The sentiments Singaporeans expressed in the latest poll match the result of The Independent’s own poll over two years ago when we asked our readers who should be the next PM. Out of 2,316 responses, most (1882 votes) voted for Tharman to lead Singapore into the future.
A Blackbox survey commissioned by Yahoo Singapore confirmed the results of our poll. In that survey, 69 per cent of 897 respondents said they would support Tharman as a candidate to become prime minister.
Singaporeans told Mr Tharman that he is still the clear “people’s choice” for PM when he later congratulated Mr Heng on his appointment as Deputy Prime Minister – an appointment which marked Mr Heng as the Government’s choice to become the next PM.
Asserting that they are ready for a non-Chinese PM, some hoped for a “miracle” that Mr Tharman would assume the top post while others opined that they do not like Mr Heng as much as they like Mr Tharman.