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Cheng Bock and Shanmugam crossed swords once before in another debate on affirmative action

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Candidate for the 2011 Presidential candidate, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, took issue with the comments made by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam at a dialogue on the pending constitutional amendments. According to Dr Tan, the Minister said, “sorry, Dr Tan Cheng Bock you are disqualified to stand in PE 2017.”

Dr Tan took issue with Mr Shanmugam for singularly identifying him, although his name was not mentioned by the audience, and for further opining that Dr Tan cannot qualify under the new rule change.

“Has he decided that the White Paper is law ahead of parliament debate? Is there some truth after all that the changes in the rules was to make sure l would not be eligible?”, Dr Tan asked.

“It would be a sad day for Singaporeans if a Constitutional change was made because of an individual,” he added.

Reserved elections are among proposed constitutional changes accepted by the Government this week. Mr Shanmugam had earlier said that whether next year’s presidential election is one reserved for candidates from the Malay community will depend on addressing several legal issues. Adding: “Certainly, by the time the Bill is tabled in Parliament in October, we’ll be in a position to say where the clock starts.”

Replying to Senior Minister of State (Defence and Foreign Affairs) and South East District Mayor Maliki Osman who asked at the dialogue if the proposed changes would lead to an erosion in meritocracy, Mr Shanmugam said ‘No’. He said that in the event of a reserved race, the candidates must still meet the eligibility criteria.

Mr Maliki is not alone in his reservations. Members of public had feedback to Members of Parliament that they are uncomfortable with a reserve election, whether affirmative action should be given to minority candidates. Law don and former NCMP Eugene Tan has also expressed that he is “uncomfortable with it (reserve election) as it is a form of affirmative action.”

This is not the first time Mr Shanmugam has championed affirmative action. In a parliamentary debate in 2003, Mr Shanmugam – who was a backbencher then – sparked controversy by proposing an affirmative action program for Muslim minorities. He said that such action was necessary so that those feeling disaffected would not be susceptible to recruitment by terrorist groups.

AFP reported Mr Shanmugam’s views as such:

“He (Shanmugam) said that “in our competitive society, by and large, our Muslim Singaporeans have done less well” and that has resulted in “some defensiveness” among the Muslims.
Many non-Muslim Singaporeans, for their part, see the Muslims as “less competitive and less able.”
“Our Muslim Singaporeans of course picked up those feelings. And our Muslim Singapore society collectively felt that it was not adequately respected by sections of Singaporean society,” Shanmugam said.
Shanmugam said that “the official policy is meritocracy and it is heresy to suggest anything else. But I will be mildly heretical.”
“There must be opportunities, without affecting the core principle of meritocracy, for there to be some form of action which will see Malays in important positions in greater numbers than they are now,” he said.
The MP said “successful role models offer hope” and “this will give a considerable psychological boost to the rest of the Malay society.”
“Terrorism in all its forms must be denounced. We have, I think, a serious window of opportunity to move decisively to build stronger linkages among all Singaporeans. By seizing the opportunity, we will cut terrorists from their potential base,” Shanmugam said.”

Dr Tan Cheng Bock who was a Member of Parliament (MP) then, objected vehemently to Mr Shanmugam’s idea of affirmative action.

Dr Tan said: “(other MPs have) rejected Mr Shanmugam’s call for some form of affirmative action for Malays. They do not want symbolic icons of success. They want to be at the top on their own merit. They have come this far on their own; so there is no need for special treatment. They do not want to devalue the Malay community’s position in society. So, let us be on our guard – affirmative action is potentially divisive and has other undesirable consequences.”

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