By Kesavan Thanagopal
On the 13th of September 2017, Mdm Halimah Yacob was declared president-elect of Singapore. She will be the 8th president of the city-state, and the 4th (or 5th, depending on which version of historical events you choose to adhere to) person to occupy the Office since the inception of the elected presidency system in 1991. She does earn some historical “firsts” – she will be the first president, considered to be ethnically Malay, to hold the Office in 47 years, and the first female ever to do so.
Yacob’s rise to the highest office in the state would be considered by many to be a textbook fairy tale “rags-to-riches” story: she comes from very humble beginnings – being the youngest daughter of an Indian watchman – and despite her 16-year political career (ranging from being a Member of Parliament (MP) representing Jurong and Marsiling-Yew Tee to being Speaker of Parliament), she still continues to reside in public housing, claiming that “[m]ore than 80 per cent of our population live in HDB flats and if it is good enough for them, it is good enough for me”. What could have been an extraordinary, “anything-is-possible” narrative is, however, overshadowed by the many controversies surrounding the Constitutional amendments that ultimately led to her ascension to the highest office in the land without a single vote ever being cast in her favour for the presidency. As former presidential candidate, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, propounded in his congratulatory statement, Yacob will assume “the most controversial presidency in the history of Singapore”. She, after all, also commands yet another “first” – she happens to be the first president to ever be declared to have won the Office of President through affirmative action.
A recent amendment to the Constitution decreed that the 2017 Presidential Election be reserved solely for candidates who belonged to the minority Malay ethnic community, or rather – and more specifically – candidates would have to be assessed by a five-member community panel to certify that they were indeed “ethnically Malay enough” to even qualify for the Certificate of Eligibility (CoE) that is required to run for the Office of the President. According to the official narrative of the Government – controlled overwhelmingly by members of the People’s Action Party (PAP) – the changes made to the Constitution is meant to ensure a multiracial representation in the highest office. This is important since the president, as the Minister for Home Affairs and Law Mr K. Shanmugam puts it, serves as a “unifying symbol of the country”; one might cast doubts on such a symbolic role “if the president, term after term, comes from a single race”. According to a Straits Times article published on the 9th of September 2017, Shanmugam further noted, during an address at an Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) forum, that “many would come around [to agreeing with the idea of reserved elections] after being given the full facts”. One has to wonder what these “full facts” are, and when it would be an appropriate time for political leaders to edify the average Singaporean on this matter, given that the election cycle is effectively over with only one candidate being deemed qualified to run for office.
This wasn’t the first instance that a member of the PAP had defended the Constitutional amendment. During his annual National Day Rally speech in 2017, Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong posited that the amendments will strengthen racial harmony and national pride, attesting that it “will enable us to work even closer together to face whatever challenges that may come our way, so we can thrive and progress as one people, one Singapore”.
Then-candidate Yacob, too, agreed with the sentiments of her former party members in an interview with the Straits Times – published on the 11th of August 2017 – citing that the move “shows we don’t only talk about multiracialism, but we talk about it in the context of meritocracy or opportunities for everyone, and we actually practise it”, further contending that the move demonstrates that Singaporeans can “accept anyone of any colour, any creed, any religion, at any position in our society, so long as they feel that the person can contribute”. It is unclear whether she had recognised the irony of her own statement at that point, especially given that one of the driving forces behind the Constitutional amendment was a (highly contentious) Channel News Asia-Institute of Policy Studies (CNA-IPS) survey on race relations in Singapore which had concluded in its analysis that people of different races were not as accepting of a political leader – be it the Prime Minister or President – of a race different from their own to lead them. Regardless, she further affirms that there is, in fact, no trade-off between the founding ideals of multiracialism and meritocracy; the move merely provides “fair access for all races to be represented” while ensuring that the criteria for qualifications are not weakened during reserved elections – a talking-point often reiterated when the issue of meritocracy is raised. “All candidates have to qualify… If we weaken eligibility criteria for those taking part in a reserved election, yes, then we are compromising meritocracy for representation. We are not – the same criteria apply to everybody” Yacob professed in that interview.
Just how the process of changing the Constitution to ensure that at least once every 5 presidential cycles (approximately every 30 years), we are guaranteed to get a president of a different ethnic background could essentially result in the strengthening of racial relations in Singapore is something that does not appear to be immediately apparent. After all, the Constitution before this particular amendment was made did not bar any person of any particular ethnic community from running for the presidency; there simply was no provisions made within the Constitution to guarantee such an outcome.
This paper thus aims to challenge the widely circulated narrative that this amendment is necessary and is indeed for the greater good of the country in the long term, by addressing how, contrary to what has been propagated within the public discourse of this issue, this Constitutional amendment could potentially be problematic for Singapore in the not-so distant future.
The Amendment Undermines the Legitimacy of the Elected President
A reserved election, by its very definition, positively discriminates in order to favour members of a disadvantaged group. As mentioned above, a key reason why such an amendment was proposed in the first place was to make certain that in the event of a hotly contested election, an ethnic minority would not be significantly disadvantaged because of his/her ethnicity. The results of the CNA-IPS survey, after all, appears to corroborate the notion that ethnic minorities are indeed handicapped precisely because of their minority status – that the Chinese majority would, according to the survey, be more likely to vote in favour of a candidate of their own race: essentially, one can conclude that race does indeed play a role in any political race (no pun intended, of course).
While this August 2016 survey is often cited, a Blackbox poll commissioned by Yahoo Singapore the very next month that seemingly challenges this conclusion often goes unmentioned. In that poll, 69% of all 897 respondents said that they would support Deputy Prime Minister Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam to succeed as the next Prime Minister of the city-state, despite Tharman being ethnically Indian, and, more relevantly, being the only Indian candidate named in that poll (the other seven possible candidates all belonged to the Chinese community, with Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean coming in at a distant second place with 34% of the respondents claiming to support his candidacy for the hypothetical job).
One could indeed question the methodology, and the size and scope of participants that this poll reached out to in order to get such a result, but a possible explanation for this disparity in results (the CNA-IPS survey also indicated how race plays a factor in people’s ethnic preference for their Prime Minister) would simply be that Tharman has a greater name recognition, and more well-liked than the other candidates on that list. Tharman was not reduced to merely a representative of his ethnicity, but rather, was seen as his own man, with his own record for people to judge him on. This, unfortunately, was what was fundamentally missing in the analysis of the CNA-IPS survey – people were asked to make decisions on their preference of political leaders in a vacuum, devoid of any other information with the exception of their ethnicity, and it should come as no surprise that in such a vacuum, one tends to side with the “familiar”. One, therefore, has to wonder if there was a case of confirmation bias – the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories – when reading into the results of this CNA-IPS survey.
It would be politically naïve to think that no one votes along racial lines, but to reserve an entire election for any one ethnic community, just so as to ensure that no one can vote along racial lines, does appear to be drastic, and intrinsically undemocratic since it propounds the notion that the electorate is unable to see beyond the colour of the skin of a candidate to make the “right” decision, and so, an external body needs to intervene in order to steer the election – and the nation – in the right direction.
As the Head of State for the Republic of Singapore, the president needs to represent the core values of democracy and meritocracy – that upon which our country was built on. During a reserved election, candidates do not run against every qualified person who had thrown their hat in the race. The idea that the best person should get the job is tainted by the simple fact that it isn’t necessarily the best person, but rather, the best person from that particular community who would eventually get the job. The concept of meritocracy isn’t merely about “not reducing the criteria to make it easier for someone to get the job”; it is about ensuring that the system does not discriminate against anyone based on an intrinsic quality that they are unable to control, or one that questions their core identity. Race, is not, and should never be considered a qualification for running for any office, much less the highest office of the presidency, and yet, two candidates in the race were not even considered to have their applications reviewed for the CoE on the basis of their race alone – whether or not they could have qualified is a totally different issue, but the fact that they were rejected merely because of their ethnicity should come as concerning.
A reserved election also calls into question whether a president elected under this system is “less president” than one who had won the election in a fair and open race – he/she does indeed hold a legitimate claim that he/she won against a bigger, more diverse pool of potential candidates that included all ethnic communities. The matter is further exacerbated in a walkover, where no other candidate other than one receives the CoE that would essentially make them eligible to run for Office – as it was the case in this 2017 race. The common approach employed in addressing the issue of a walkover is to cite the popularity of the late Mr S R Nathan, who had won both his terms as president in uncontested elections. On the surface, such an explanation might seem valid; after all, if Nathan’s legitimacy as president was unquestioned in spite of the walkovers, then why should Yacob’s presidency be any different?
Unfortunately, a significant difference between the two “election victories” is based on the fact that Nathan was uncontested in an “open election” – an election in which anyone who had met the criteria as laid out in the Constitution could have applied to run. Though some had submitted their applications for the CoE to run against Nathan, none of them were successful in their bid for the CoE, and this was not due to them not belonging to a certain ethnic community. Yacob, on the other hand, effectively won an election that was reserved for candidates of a particular community. Even though the aforementioned former presidential candidate Tan had expressed his wishes to run for the presidency earlier on in the year, coming short of a mere 0.35% of the popular vote in the last election cycle, he would have been deemed ineligible to run on ethnic considerations alone. Of course, one can argue that the proposed amendments would have disqualified Tan from running regardless, as clearly pointed out by Law Minister Shanmugam (even before the Constitutional amendment had even passed), but the fact that his application would not even have been considered on the sole basis of his race is undeniable, and indeed troubling when put in context – that there could have been a presidential race if it had been open to all races, but there isn’t one because it was reserved just for a certain ethnic minority.
One would also hear remnants of the argument that was used in support of the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system – that it was necessary to implement such a system, in part, to ensure minority representation in parliament. However, one needs to recognise that the role of the president is radically different from that of parliament – it is paramount that minority voices are represented in the legislative body that is actively involved in the law-making process so that the laws proposed and implemented do not inadvertently affect ethnic minorities. The president, on the other hand, exercises limited powers at his own discretion, is mostly ceremonial, and is in no way involved in the active process of policy-making. The president’s job is (and should be) unaffected by the race of the person holding that office. In that sense, the race of the president becomes irrelevant; he/she simply represents all Singaporeans, and not just the ones who identify as being from the same ethnic community as him/her.
In a typical Shanmugam-esque fashion, the question is then posed back as the following: how then could one guarantee that every ethnic community is represented in the presidency ever so often? As pointed out above, the ethnicity of the president appears to be irrelevant to the discussion, and the question appears to be fundamentally flawed – why should the system guarantee such a situation? The system just needs to ensure that no one is discriminated by the system – that is, after all, the elemental principle behind meritocracy. It seems to be a harsh thing to say, but unfortunately, that is the price to pay so as to allow a healthy democracy to nurture. The citizenry ultimately gets to decide (by a popular vote) who they want as their representative in the highest office. One could definitely work towards mitigating race-based voting, perhaps through a longer campaigning period, through which the electorate would be exposed to the candidates for a longer duration and therefore might be able to see beyond the colour of the candidates’ skins. To restrict one’s voting abilities in order to force people to vote in a certain way (in this case, for a person from a certain ethnic minority community), unfortunately, strikes as being a politically lethargic move – the system should strive to establish equality of opportunity rather than attempting to enforce an equality of results as the Constitutional amendment comes across as seeking to accomplish.
The Amendment Undermines the Principle of Racial Harmony
Many from the Malay community had expressed their concerns about how the Constitutional amendments to institutionalise a presidential election reserved exclusively for members of their community might affect the perception of their community by other Singaporeans, pointing out that a reserved election appears to propagate the notion that members of the Malay community would, otherwise, be unable to win in a presidential election wholly based on their own merits.
The argument also highlighted the unsettling feeling the community would face if not many potential candidates from their community chose to throw their hats into the race. It adds an unnecessary pressure on the community which now feels responsible to field several qualified candidates for the highest office of the land in order to provide the citizenry with real choices; after all, the propitious message behind the Constitutional amendment is that there are indeed many qualified candidates from all ethnic backgrounds, and that they should all have a chance to be voted in. A lack of candidates fielded by the community might potentially suggest that the community either does not have enough highly qualified people to give the rest of Singaporeans a choice of their president during a reserved election, or that such qualified candidates are simply unwilling to represent their community in serving their nation – neither of which paints the community in any positive light.
Furthermore, the amendment appears to evince the notion that one’s ethnic identity should be placed before their citizenship – as it stands, ethnicity is seen as a necessary criterion that has to be clarified and met in order to run for office. A Singapore citizen born of parents who belong to different ethnic communities would have to “choose” which community he/she wants to embrace if he/she intends to run for office, a process that does not seem to be in line with the inclusive multiracial community that Singapore strives to build. As Minister Shanmugam had noted earlier in a dialogue session after the Government had released its White Paper,
“In the GRC system today, it already takes into account the possibility of mixed marriages. There is a two-step test. First, what do you consider yourself as? So let’s take a Malay-Chinese, or a child of Malay-Chinese parents. Does he or she consider himself or herself primarily Malay or Chinese? That’s the first criteria. If he considers himself Chinese, then he cannot qualify as Malay. So culturally, what is he, how does he consider himself? Then there is also a committee that looks to see whether – you say you are Malay, but are you accepted by the community as Malay? So that’s the two-step criteria, because people can try and game the system.”.
This appears striking – and indeed, a step back from their position of how to specify the racial identities of children of mixed ethnicities – since it was only recently in 2010 that the Ministry of Home Affairs had announced that mixed-race children would be able to choose to identify themselves using both their parents’ ethnicities. Questions such as “do I recognise myself as a member of this ethnic community?”, “am I ethnically Chinese/ Malay/ Indian enough?” seem to be brought to the centre-stage while the question of “what makes me Singaporean?” remains in the background. It introduces a public discourse on race relations in Singapore, although not in a seemingly productive manner as it focuses on the thing that makes Singaporeans fundamentally different – their ethnicities – rather than appealing to the common bond and vision “as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation”. The amendment, thereby, unwittingly creates a needless “us-versus-them” dichotomy which may be deleterious to the continued effort of improving race relations in the country.
A concern that hardly gets addressed in the discussions surrounding the amendment is the apparent disparity as to which ethnic communities would get a reserved election called in its favour. The Constitution clarifies that a reserved election could be called for the Chinese community if no president from that community is represented in five presidential terms. Similarly, the 2017 election cycle showed that a presidential election could be called in which only candidates of the Malay community would be eligible to run. If there has not been a president from the Indian community in five cycles, however, a “reserved” election would be called in which not just members of the Indian community, but those members who fall under the “Others” bracket – in the Singaporean Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others (CMIO) classification system – would also be allowed to compete. That is to say that, if an ethnically Indian is represented in the presidency, then someone from the “Others” classification would not have a reserved election called in their favour even if no representative from that group has been president in five election cycles, and vice-versa. There is, thus, a genuine possibility that Singapore would never elect an Indian president or a Eurasian president if there has always been a president from one of these two ethnically diverse groups within every five election cycles. The question then becomes: why are the two smallest minority groups treated differently from the other two ethnic communities in Singapore?
To attribute this disparity to the smaller percentage of people from those ethnic communities does not seem to fly, especially given how the main reason for the introduction of the amendment was to ensure that no minority group is unrepresented in the presidency. In fact, an argument following the very logic of the hiatus-triggered model could be made, that precisely because these two ethnic minority communities are so small, there needs to be better provision to guarantee their representation within the presidency.
If the argument is, instead, that the two minority communities make up such a small proportion of the population that they may not have enough qualified candidates to field in an election which might result in the election being decided by a walkover, denying the citizenry of any real choice and the president from receiving any direct mandate from them, then the 2017 election serves as a counterpoint to this argument. Besides, the amendment that passed made it explicitly clear that in the event that no suitable candidate from an ethnic community qualifies for the race in a reserved election called in favour of that community, the election would be made open to all Singaporeans who could qualify without any race restrictions, with the next election being reserved, once again, for that particular ethnic community. Once again, the amendment appears to bring up gratuitous discussions emphasising race and racial politics, which inadvertently impedes the progress of racial integration within the country.
No Singaporean wants a Chinese/ Malay/ Indian/ “Other” president to represent their ethnic community in the presidency once every couple of presidential terms; they merely want a Singaporean president to represent Singapore and Singaporeans all the time.
The Amendment Undermines a Healthy Political Climate and Political Succession
In the weeks leading up to Nomination Day, several PAP members, including Emeritus Senior Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong, acknowledged publicly that the party was aware that the Constitutional amendments were “quite unpopular with a large proportion of the population because it goes against the principle of meritocracy” – perhaps an unfortunate misreading of Goh’s statement as quoted by a CNA article published on the 8th of September 2017, since it would seem like a politically better move if Goh had, instead, said “because it appears to go against the principle of meritocracy” as opposed to what was actually quoted.
PAP members, however, all remained united in asserting that it was a move that had to be made in the interest of the future of the nation; that the benefits of the amendment would be reaped in the distant future, and that it was the responsibility of the Government to ensure that such a proposal is made sooner rather than later. Party whip and Minister in Prime Minister’s Office, Mr Chan Chun Sing, further commented that contrary to all the “conspiracy theories out there”, the amendment was indeed made in the interest of Singaporeans, and that the party was willing to pay the political price in the short term for such an unpopular decision – it is, after all, the marks of a political leader to do the right thing against all odds when a politician would, rather, spend more time worrying about the immediate political costs of an amendment viewed unfavourably by the electorate.
As previously mentioned, since the proposal of a reserved election was introduced about a year ago, the ruling party has been unable to convince detractors that this move was indeed for the betterment of the country in the long run, and how the proposed amendment would set in motion the desired outcome that had been “foreseen” by the political leaders of the party. Indeed, while all 77 members of the ruling party present in Parliament on the 9th of November 2016 voted in favour of the Bill, all 6 MPs from the opposition Worker’s Party (WP) voted against it. Chan even acknowledged in an interview with Channel News Asia on the 8th of September 2017 that “it will be a “hard journey” to convince people about the need for changes to the Elected Presidency and the Government will pay a political price but it is prepared to”.
Such a statement by the party whip should come as troubling since it highlights the fact that despite having about 10 months to not only convince fellow MPs from the Opposition, but also the general public, the party has failed in its messaging to the average Singaporean to get behind the Constitutional amendment. The “full facts” that Minister Shanmugam alluded to in his statement has yet to be elucidated to the citizenry. The PAP may indeed pay a political cost in the upcoming general election by winning by a smaller margin than the previous general election held in 2015 – after all, the political environment in the city-state has made it very unlikely that an opposition party could take control of parliament anytime in the near future, thereby making the “political price”, as mentioned by Chan, nothing more than a “political speed-breaker”.
However, this episode highlights a crucial problem for the ruling PAP that might be more detrimental to its success going forward – the party appears to be inept in effectively communicating its policies and rationale to detractors and the general electorate, opting for, rather, a “we-know-what’s-best” and “they-will-eventually-understand” position when pushing through legislation. The lack of disagreements within the party on such divisive proposals – though highlighting the party whip’s competency in ensuring that members fall in line and vote accordingly – further reinforces the idea that members of the ruling party might unintentionally subscribe to (and suffer from) groupthink, and that is never a good sign for a nurturing democratic republic.
With the lack of a large pool of competent opposition who could pose a real threat to the PAP retaining control over parliament, and the fact that MPs from the ruling party appear to vote along party lines without having real dialogues with their constituents to gather their views and presenting (and representing) them in parliament, citizens are placed in a position where they feel like they have lost their say in political matters that concerns the nation, and that they are effectively unable to do anything about it. As expressed by former presidential candidate Tan,
“People now feel muzzled and angry. Because when you take away our right to vote, you take away our political voice. You tell us that our choice does not matter.”.
It would be terrible if Singaporeans lost confidence in the ruling party, which has been in control of the Government since independence, because they feel that the party no longer actively seeks to represent the citizen’s wants and needs. It would, however, be devastating if Singaporeans lost confidence in the system of democracy because they feel that, no matter what the outcome, their wants and needs would hardly be acknowledged or represented in parliament.
Kesavan Thanagopal is a(n ethnically Indian) Singaporean, currently pursuing his DPhil in Mathematics at the University of Oxford. When not worrying about local and international politics, he worries about philosophy, mathematics, religion, and cats.
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