SINGAPORE: President Halimah Yacob, whose six-year term ends this year, has stressed that introducing the controversial reserved election in 2017 was important to Singapore’s history and a necessary step to safeguard multiculturalism.
The People’s Action Party (PAP) Government made changes to the Singapore constitution in 2016, the year before it called the reserved election.
One amendment required that an election be reserved for a racial group if it is not represented for five terms or 30 years. If there are no eligible candidates from that group, the election would be opened to candidates of all races, and the “reserved election” would be deferred to the next Presidential election.
The eligibility criteria for prospective candidates were also amended that year. Previously, candidates from the private sector should be a senior executive managing a company with at least S$100 million in paid-up capital. That criteria was changed to require private sector candidates to show at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity.
Less than two months after the amendments were made, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the 2017 Presidential Election would be reserved for candidates from the Malay community.
Interestingly, the reserved election was called not counting down from Singapore’s first elected President, Ong Teng Cheong, but his predecessor Wee Kim Wee. PM Lee said, “We have taken the Attorney-General’s advice. We will start counting from the first President who exercised the powers of the Elected President, in other words, Dr Wee Kim Wee. That means we are now in the fifth term of the Elected Presidency.”
The changes led to allegations that the Government was using the Presidential office’s imperative of preserving racial peace to block Tan Cheng Bock’s candidacy, who lost the 2011 presidential election by a thin margin of 0.35 per cent to establishment pick Tony Tan Keng Yam. The Government has denied this charge.
Critics argued that the reserved election is unnecessary since Singaporeans largely do not vote along racial lines, despite the authorities’ perception that they do. Despite this, Parliament passed an amendment to the Singapore Constitution on 9 November 2016, effectively reserving the 2017 presidential election for members of the Malay community.
Applications for the reserved election opened on 1 June 2017. Madam Halimah Yacob, then a PAP MP and Speaker of Parliament, resigned from politics to contest the election.
Despite interest from two hopefuls from the private sector, Madam Halimah was declared to be the only eligible presidential candidate in September 2017 and became President of Singapore, uncontested.
Some critics were not surprised. A whopping eight months before Madam Halimah expressed her intention to contest the presidential race, Cabinet Minister Chan Chun Sing addressed her as Madam President instead of Madam Speaker in Parliament.
Madam Halimah has declined to contest the looming election, and her former colleague, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugam, retired from politics earlier this month to throw his hat into the ring.
Looking back on her term, she told the Straits Times that she expected controversy when she considered contesting the first reserved election. She said, “Public office is never a walk in the park, is it? You have to expect to be scrutinised, to be criticised, to be questioned…So I expected that, and it happened… but you just stay focused.”
She, however, still holds that the reserved election was key to safeguarding multiculturalism.