October 2016

Having a minority as president to increase diversity in Singapore was highlighted in September. Do you think minority representation is something we should pursue for the post of presidency?

1st Place - Joshua Goh

The Constitutional Commission (“the Commssion”) that reviewed certain aspects of the Elected Presidency (“EP”) gave the recommendation to include a minority representation provision (“the Provision”) that would reserve a Presidential election for members of a certain minority if that minority group did not have its member as President for 30 years.


The Provision attracted much attention online, with many commentators questioning its need, bringing up examples of how the long service of Mr SR Nathan showed how Singaporeans had come to accept a minority President and were now race-blind. Others questioned whether the Provision would undermine meritocracy or be tokenism at best. Most online commentaries seemed to ignore that the Commission’s Report considered all these issues and yet decided on the Provision. The Commission did not want to assume that Singapore had become “race-blind” but did not want to force it upon her either. Therefore, the Provision is an unobtrusive way to guarantee minority representation and it has a “natural sunset” if there are elections that ensure Presidents from different ethnicities. I would argue that this feature of the Provision is its saving grace, the potential that the Provision will not be used in the future represents an opportunity for Singaporeans to prove that we can truly be race blind when it comes to choosing our President.


The Commission focused on the unique role of the EP as a representative of Singapore who serves constitutional and ceremonial functions, but also includes additional custodial function over Singapore’s reserves. The need for a popular mandate for such a function was a key reason why the EP was changed to an elected institution. This made it impossible to continue the practice of rotating the Presidency among the various races. Thus the Provision is meant to ensure that if Singaporeans do vote along racial lines, there would be reserved elections for minorities and as a last-resort it has some value.

Most Singaporeans never had the chance to prove they would vote for a member of another race since the GRC Scheme has ensured that a racially-diverse team is presented to voters. However the recent victory of Murali Pillai over Chee Soon Juan in the Bukit Batok by-election might indicate that voters are willing to look beyond race. Then again we need to distinguish such results as these elections are not just personality-based but also include party policies and affiliations. This is not the same for the EP, they do not run on a party ticket and thus a lot of their appeal to voters comes from their personality and personal ideas. Thus it is still unclear whether Singapore is a race-blind when it comes to the EP.


Recent surveys have been positive about Singaporean’s acceptance of a minority EP. A 2016 ChannelNewsAsia survey found that most respondents preferred a President from their own race but would accept those of other races. There is a risk of a “social desirability bias” as pointed out by the Commission, especially given the culture of political correctness that surrounds racial harmony.


Perhaps the best solution to respond to the Provision is to let the people decide, the Provision is a light-touch approach that might never be used. The Provision is not an admonishment that Singaporeans are not race-blind, it is a challenge for us to prove it. The value of minority representation lies in its ability to reflect the diversity of the people especially in light of what I would argue is the real limiting factor, the more stringent criteria for the President. This limits the pool of EP candidates to senior public servants or private sector individuals with considerable financial management experience. Perhaps this is the real area where we lose diversity, Mr Benjamin Sheares was a doctor, Mr Wee Kim Wee and Mr Yusof bin Ishak were both career journalists. This added a diversity to our Heads of State that made the President more than a politician, which was lost when the office became elected. Our Presidents since the EP was created have been all public servants for most of their careers. 


The increase of the eligibility criteria is necessary for the EP’s custodial role but we nonetheless lose the ability to draw Singaporeans from diverse backgrounds to run for the EP. Perhaps the value of the Provision is to maintain the hope that in recognising the added responsibilities of the EP, Singaporeans will look to the qualities of the candidates and not their race. However what must be done is to encourage more people from all areas of Singapore society to run for the EP and give Singaporeans a choice, not in terms of candidates, but to decide what they really want in their President, only then can we actually say whether minority representation actually matters for the EP.

2nd Place - Ng Chee Siang

Personally, I think that having a minority representation does not matter much in Singapore because in terms of legislative power, the president’s authority in that domain is fairly restricted. The President of Singapore has power over several issues such as managing of our past reserves, designate key appointment holders, oversights over Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, and decisions of Executive under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. The President of Singapore actually has limited scope of areas where he can exercise his power alone. In most cases, his powers are exercised either under the advice of the Cabinet of Singapore, a Minister of the Cabinet, or after consulting the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA).


The change in the elected president scheme to include minority was one to ensure that no one race would assume the position of the President of Singapore for a prolong period of time, particularly in Singapore where majority of the population are Chinese. The CNA statistics report stated that people would usually vote for candidates of the same ethnicity as them, which tends to skew the election more in favour of the Chinese Presidential candidates. Thus a review was carried out and changes were made to the scheme to ensure that a minority candidate would be elected into Presidency.


However, in my view, I do not think that it is a good idea because it might undermine the authority of the President and the President role may be regarded as a mere tokenism. Instead of electing from a wide pool of candidates from every ethnicity, we are instead required to vote within a smaller pool of candidates because it was time to introduce a President of another ethnicity.

Although, in my view, this change does not seem very logical and in fact can be regarded as counter-intuitive to what a fair democracy is, the change is actually a very pragmatic idea, particularly in a multi-racial society like Singapore. The idea of having a President of different ethnicity in Singapore would serve to prove that we are not a Chinese-only country, but a truth multi-racial society that is based on meritocracy. It gives assurance to the minority population in Singapore that they do not live in a city governed by majority or solely Chinese, this plays a part in ensuring our unity as a country. It is also a form of ensuring that we do not rely overly on the mechanics of “the natural order of societies” and instead engineer out a path that is more equitable. Although not openly admitted, studies have shown that people tend to prefer to mix with people who share the same language, culture and faith, and if let undisturbed, we will see a group of same people congregate and not mix with people of other races or religions.


But one thing we need to be clear is that although the President has power in many issues, including in matters of racial and religious harmony, the powers bestow upon him or her is limited. While there are people who say having a minority elected President from time to time would ensure that no one race is neglected or isolated, it could actually be a “feel good” mechanism, which in modern day democracy, is all that matters. The President actually does not really have power over racial or religious matters. Every actions regarding religions can only be done after discussing with the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony (PCRH). So if we are going to elect a minority President with the thought that he would protect the minorities in Singapore, we are only half correct, and we might need to change our mindset a little.

3rd Place - Muhammad Idaffi Othman

I imagine how it must be like to see someone of my race – a Malay minority – walking pass and inspecting our parade contingents for the ceremonial bypass on August 9 every year. I cannot help but wonder if he will be able to find soldiers of his race, especially in the Navy, Air Force and Commando contingents. Odd, isn’t it?

I imagine how different it will be to have prestigiously framed-up images of a headscarf-clad First Lady being displayed in classrooms, behind hotel receptions and in public service offices. I cannot help but wonder how it must feel like for working Muslim ladies – nurses, policewomen and soldiers – who are systemically disallowed to don a piece of cloth so integral to their faith. Ironic, isn’t it?

Here they are contemplating a system review that will determine the race of the highest office bearer in this land, yet we are still not done reviewing systemic racial inequalities in our governance and governing policies.

For the record, I applaud rather intensely the government’s efforts to review the Elected Presidency system. This shows that the government is able to forecast a drought of minority – or specifically Malay – candidates in the future should the system remain status quo, because unfortunately Singaporeans are still expansively not color-blind (something I am proud to be diagnosed with both literally and metaphorically).

In answering this essay topic, the simple answer is yes; it is paramount to have such an affirmative action for reasons of rights, representation and symbolism. However, as you should be able to guess from my introduction pre-amble, I feel that a review of a highly elite matter like this, must not precede policy review of bigger racial systemic issues such as the hijab ban in hospitals and uniformed services, and the Muslim ban in many areas in the Air Force, Navy and some army bases in Singapore.

The matter of fact is that these are colossal issues that call for urgent policy review, juxtaposed to the review of the Elected Presidency system. The sheer number of people affected from policies such as the Hijab ban is much more and much more pressing than the issue of having a minority to hold the President’ office.

Aside from the importance of representing the minorities in the highest office in the land, I cannot help but also delve into the feasibility of this system, especially with the fact that the government has implemented the double-barrelled race system five years ago. Should someone have his or her race as Chinese-Malay or Chinese-Indian or basically anything from a mixed marriage between a Chinese and a minority race, would there not be a loophole in the system? Will that individual be allowed to run for the election meant for the minorities? If he is allowed to, would that not contradict the entire review of the Elected Presidency system?

Above all, it is poignant for this emotional color-blind undergraduate to note that race is still a determinant for election victories, that credible surveys indicate that Singaporeans - who sing with pride “regardless of race, language or religion” in the national pledge and “Marilah kita bersatu” (translated as “Let us be united”) in our national anthem – is still unwilling to vote someone with a different name structure or a different colour of the skin.