Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Elected Presidency: PM Lee on Race and Politics

PM Lee Hsien Loong hints at provision for minority elected president
It may kick in only if there is no president from minority races for a long time, he says
By Zakir Hussain, Political Editor, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2016

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has given the clearest hint of proposed changes to the law to guarantee that ethnic minorities are elected president from time to time.

This special provision may need to be used, he said, only if there has not been a president of a particular race for a long time - say four, five or six terms.

Then the next election could be reserved for a member of that community if a qualified candidate presents himself or herself.

"You want a mechanism where, if you've had a long gap, then the next election - if you have a qualified minority candidate - is held only amongst a minority group," Mr Lee said in an interview on race and politics with MediaCorp broadcast last night. "And so you will be able to get a Malay or an Indian president."

But if, for some reason, no qualified minority candidate presented himself or herself, then an open election would be held and "whoever wins, wins", he said.

Mr Lee was answering a question on how proposals by a Constitutional Commission to ensure minorities can be elected president, set to be published this week, would work.

There has not been a Malay president since Mr Yusof Ishak held the post from 1965 to 1970, and observers think next year's election could be reserved for a Malay candidate.

At the National Day Rally two weeks ago, Mr Lee spoke on the need for presidents from all races so minorities feel assured of their place in society. But he took ill and had to cut short his remarks.

In the interview aired yesterday, he said minority candidates will find it hard to be elected under the current system, and the proposed changes are not tokenism, but the right step for Singapore's future.

"It is a very necessary symbolism of what we are as a multiracial society - what Singapore means, stands for and what we aspire to be."

Mr Lee noted that some of the ideas raised before the nine-member panel included rotating the presidency between the different communities, and having a team of candidates from different races.

But he felt the "least intrusive and most light-touch" way was to reserve the election for the under-represented group, but with the provision applying only when needed.

After the panel's report is out, the Government will respond with a White Paper outlining its proposals, before moving amendments to the Constitution. Changes should be in place before next year's presidential election, Mr Lee added.

The changes will also raise the qualifying criteria for candidates from the private sector above the current benchmarks to keep pace with an economy that has grown seven times since the elected presidency was introduced in 1991.

Mr Lee said he had seen how the system worked over 25 years. Former president S R Nathan was elected unopposed twice, but it was hard to say how an election would have been when he first stood.

He also did not think a minority candidate would have a fair chance in a tense election like that in 2011.

Acknowledging that there might be some reservations about the changes, he said he had a responsibility to make them as he was familiar with the system, and should not leave the issue to his successor.

"This is something which needs to be done... I will persuade you that it is something that we should do and which is good for Singapore.

"If we don't do this, we will have trouble for Singapore, not today, not tomorrow but (in) 10, 15, 20 years' time. We ought to do it now before the problems come," he said.


We are not in a situation where the minorities are demanding something and the majority is pushing back and saying, 'We don't want it'. I think it is something that we need to do. I'm pushing this not because I feel pressure from the minorities or because we need to make a political gesture but because I think it's a right thing to do.

- PM LEE, on making changes to the elected presidency.

Race still counts in politics and at the ballot box
That is why it is necessary to ensure a president from minority races is elected from time to time
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2016

Singapore has come a long way in building a nation where every citizen has equal standing and rights, but race still matters when it comes to politics and how people cast their vote, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.

This is why it is necessary to amend the Constitution to ensure a president from Singapore's minority races is elected from time to time, he said in an interview with Mediacorp's Debra Soon that was broadcast last night.

"We have come a long way. It's not a Chinese or Malay or an Indian nation. Everybody has his place, everybody is equal... People believe in this ideal and believe that we have made progress towards this ideal," he said. "But at the same time, it doesn't mean that we have become colour blind because we are different races, different languages, different religions, and those factors are still important to us and will be for a very long time to come."

Mr Lee spoke on the issue of race and the elected presidency during his National Day Rally last month, but he took ill and did not complete his prepared remarks on the topic.

In the TV interview shown yesterday, he took the opportunity to explain his thinking on the subject, ahead of the release of a Constitutional Commission's report on proposed changes to the elected presidency, including ensuring a minority candidate is elected from time to time.

Mr Lee cited a recent survey done by Channel NewsAsia and the Institute of Policy Studies that showed people were more willing to accept members of their own race marrying into their family. A significant number of respondents also indicated greater acceptance for someone of their own race to be president.

This shows that race still counts in elections, Mr Lee said, adding that it means a Malay or Indian candidate for president will inevitably face difficulties that someone from the majority race might not.

"Not everybody will rule him out but some will find the hurdle higher and so he starts off at a disadvantage - and in a close election, that will make a big difference," he said. And though all voters say they will vote for the best candidate, "that definition differs depending on which voter you ask, and race is one of the factors which go into that".

Mr Lee said it was important for a minority candidate to be president from time to time, as the head of state represents all Singaporeans. "Then people see that yes, this is my country. Someone like me can become the head of state, can represent the country."

The survey also showed younger voters are less race conscious.

But Mr Lee noted: "The distinction is still there, it hasn't disappeared and I don't think it'll disappear for a long time."

Even in the United States, where the ideal is a melting pot, President Barack Obama was the first African-American elected to the post after 230 years of independence.

Mr Lee pointed out that fewer than half of white Americans voted for Mr Obama in the 2008 election, but 95 per cent of African-Americans cast their ballots for him. "It shows that a black man can now win but it shows that race is still a big factor in American elections, which is not so surprising," Mr Lee said.

The figures put into perspective Singapore's position, that race is a factor "we have to accept and... take into account and decide what we're going to do about, to make sure our system will work properly".

Asked if provisions to guarantee a minority president might be seen as tokenism, Mr Lee replied: "I don't think it's tokenism. I think it's a very necessary symbolism of what we are as a multiracial society, what Singapore means, stands for and what we aspire to be."

As such, the mechanism that determines the head of state has to bear this in mind and "produce an outcome which is multiracial and which will reflect the colour of our society, the shape of our society".

Mr Lee acknowledged concerns that making such provisions in Singapore's case could be seen as giving a minority candidate an easier path to the presidency, and said such sentiments reflected the success of meritocracy.

"People want to succeed on their own merits and nobody wants to come in on a free ride and be seen that standards have been lowered for a particular race," he said.

"So whatever mechanism we do, we have to make sure that the same qualifying criteria apply, same standards, and there cannot be any relaxation or any doubt that the person who's elected is of that quality. And there are minorities who are of that quality," he said.

Mr Lee noted that when the president was appointed by Parliament, Singapore had "eminently qualified" presidents in Mr Yusof Ishak, Dr Benjamin Sheares, Mr Devan Nair and Mr Wee Kim Wee. "We want a mechanism which can produce this kind of an outcome, this kind of diversity as an assured outcome, which presently we don't have."

Mr Lee was also confident the Chinese community would accept such a measure as "majority Chinese accept that we cannot be a Chinese- Chinese society and that was so right from the beginning".

"Chinese Singaporeans of that generation... understood that they had to give space to the minorities, that they had to go the extra step to make the minorities feel comfortable living in Singapore... having opportunities like everybody else and not being disadvantaged, that is why we are able to get here today and have a multiracial society.

"If they look at the elected president changes in that spirit, (as) part of being a harmonious, happy, multiracial society, then I think that people will understand and will accept and will support," he said.

Mr Lee also said although there is no political pressure to make these changes now, they had to be done for the nation's long-term good.

"We are not in a situation where the minorities are demanding something and the majority is pushing back and saying, 'We don't want it,' " he said. "I think it is something that we need to do."

Three countries with unique provisions
The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2016

Multiracial societies around the world have some arrangement or other to ensure that minorities are represented at the highest levels, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a TV interview.

"There are ways of doing it. We have a unique system but we can find a way to do it," he added.

He cited three countries that have unique adjustments: Canada, New Zealand and Switzerland.

In Canada, both English and French are official languages and French speakers make up some 22 per cent of the population.

But when it comes to choosing the governor-general - who is the representative of the head of state, Queen Elizabeth II - they alternate between English and French speakers.

"It's an over-representation for the French speakers but it's something which they find necessary as an accommodation for the minority," Mr Lee noted. Canada's governor-general from 1999 to 2005, Hong Kong-born journalist Adrienne Clarkson, was succeeded by Haitian-born and French broadcaster Michaelle Jean, who in turn was succeeded by academic David Johnston in 2010.

In New Zealand, which has an indigenous Maori minority and has become more diverse with significant immigration from Asia, the previous governor-general - Sir Anand Satyanand who held the post from 2006 to 2011 - was an ethnic Indian. "He was a lawyer, his mother had come from Fiji, and he was born in New Zealand," Mr Lee noted.

The current Governor-General, Sir Jerry Mateparae, is "a very distinguished Maori", having been a chief of defence force. "They choose a good man but they also make an effort to choose a person who's from a minority group," Mr Lee added.

As for Switzerland, the head of state is not one person but a federal council comprising seven people who represent different languages and regions of Switzerland.

Mr Lee noted that there are currently four German speakers and three French speakers on the council, and the post of president - currently held by Mr Johann Schneider-Ammann - is rotated annually from among that group. Otherwise, the Swiss-Germans, who make up two-thirds of the population, would be at an advantage over the Swiss-French or Swiss-Italians.

Elected presidency must stay
Mandate needed to exercise the custodial powers over use of nation's past reserves
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2016

Singapore's president must remain elected because he has custodial powers over the use of past reserves and a mandate is needed to exercise those powers, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.

During hearings by a Constitutional Commission on the review of aspects of the presidency in April and May this year, several individuals suggested a return to the system of an appointed president to ensure minority representation.

But this puts the president in a difficult position if he has to go against the wishes of the government of the day to use the nation's reserves, Mr Lee said in a television interview broadcast last night.

In such a situation, the government may well "retort, 'Who are you to say no to me? I have a mandate, I went to election, I published a manifesto and now you're saying I can't spend this money!' "

"That will put the president in a very difficult position," he said. "If you actually have to wield those powers and say no, it will not work. So if you want to have a safeguard, you must have an election."

He noted that some do not see the need for such a safeguard and argue Parliament should decide on everything. Singapore had such a system for its first 25 years, he noted. But most governments ensure powers are divided, for example, by having an Upper House or an elected president with considerable powers.

"You have a balancing system to stabilise the political system to make sure you don't have one mishap and the whole boat flips over," he said. "We need these stabilisers in our system, which is why we created the elected president."

Mr Lee cited the example of Australia to illustrate how without such a safety net, Singapore could have run into difficulty. Australian elections became "auctions" as government and opposition competed to promise ever more benefits and welfare during the commodities boom. Now the boom is over, their Budget is in deficit and there is nothing to give away, he added.

He said: "We have been accumulating reserves over many, many years now and I believe over the last 25 years, if we had not had this elected president, we would have been pushed towards auctions."

Singapore's opposition knows that even if it were elected and wants to spend the reserves, the president can say no, he added.

"Which may well be one of the reasons why the opposition says, 'Do away with the powers and the safeguard'. But I think for Singapore's well-being, we should keep that safeguard," he said.

Asked about the 2011 presidential election with four candidates, Mr Lee said "many of the candidates did not understand or did not accept what the president's duties are, what his constitutional role is and what he's being elected to do".

"They made statements and promises to the voters which are really not the president's responsibility or duty or function," he said.

"There can only be one government and the president has certain roles and duties, which are to hold the second key on money and on people but not to go and check the government or tell the government what it is supposed to do.

"Not all the candidates understood that or maybe they did but they thought if they made these statements, it would help them to win the election," he added.

"That is one of the difficulties of having an election for president and it's a difficulty which we have to find some way to overcome."

PM Lee on elected presidency

Changes may be hard to accept, but are necessary
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2016

It will be difficult to convince Singaporeans that changes to the elected presidency are necessary, particularly for a minority candidate to be elected from time to time, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a TV interview aired yesterday.

But they must be made even if the reasons are not yet obvious, because "by the time it's obvious it's too late", he added.

Mr Lee said it is "psychologically hard" for people to accept a system that is new and "it takes time for people to understand why it's necessary and to see that it's necessary".

It is also "legally difficult" to craft the provisions, which are complicated. And they are also "politically delicate" to explain, he added.

"People must understand what the purpose is, people must not feel patronised, they must not feel that you have some ulterior motive and you've got to put across honestly why you are doing this and how this is supposed to work and why it's good for them," he said.

He cited how there were considerable doubts and resistance when the idea of group representation constituencies (GRCs) was mooted in the 1980s. Some felt they were patronising and undemocratic.

But after nearly 30 years of GRCs, they are accepted as what Mr Lee called a "very valuable stabiliser in our system". If GRCs were done away with, Mr Lee added, the impact would be seen immediately in the next election.

"If we don't have GRCs, you may well end up with minority MPs being targeted and you will have fewer minority MPs in Parliament.

"And if in the next election you have significantly fewer minority MPs in Parliament, I believe there will immediately be a reaction from the Malays and the Indians in Singapore, straightaway," he said.

Mr Lee also cautioned that without GRCs making political parties cater to all races, the parties could "start playing chauvinist lines".

While one could argue that minorities' chauvinism would not win elections as they do not have the numbers, Chinese chauvinism could, and "that can be very, very troublesome for Singapore".

Having GRCs has pushed politics here to be multiracial, Mr Lee said.

As candidates are compelled to have a minority member in the GRC team, they cannot make their own team members lose face and have to make sure they have policies that meet the needs of all races.

Mr Lee added: "It's become a stabiliser and a valuable part of our system and I think in the same way, if we do that for the presidency, in time it will be seen as an important stabiliser in our system which so far has been missing."


Somebody who can identify with all Singaporeans, whom all Singaporeans will look up to, respect and, at the same time, has the experience and the weight and the judgment to look at what the Government is putting up to them, and to say, yes, or no, depending on whether or not that's the wise thing to do. You need the experience, you need the personality. You also need that trust which people must build up in you. So when you say, 'I have made this decision after consulting my conscience and consulting wise people', it carries weight and people respect you and they feel proud to be Singaporean. That's what we want.



First, we knew this problem was there when we made the elected presidency. Everybody sensed that this will make it much harder to have a Malay president or an Indian president. But we felt that we had time. We've seen how it's worked. We've had one minority elected president, Mr Nathan, who served with distinction. But he was elected both times unopposed and he won the hearts of Singaporeans. But when he first came out, without Singaporeans knowing him well, I'm not sure how an election would have turned out. It's difficult to say.

(In) 2011, the election was a hard-fought one, very fierce and I don't think in that kind of election a minority will have a fair chance and I expect in future there will be future presidential elections which will be as hard fought, as tense, and I think that will make the problem more acute. That's the second reason.

The third reason I'm doing it now is because it's something which I feel I ought to do and I ought not to pass this on. I'm familiar with the system, I helped to design it, I've been part of operating it and mending it, improving it, crafting it as we have gone along, changing the provisions to make them work. So I know this problem and I have a responsibility to deal with it. And I can tell Singaporeans, I believe this is something which needs to be done and I believe it and I want to do it and I will persuade you that it is something that we should do and which is good for Singapore.

As economy grows, so must job criteria
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2016

The qualifying criteria to be president, set 25 years ago, need to be updated to ensure a private sector candidate for the role is qualified for, and capable of, doing the job, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.

In a television interview broadcast yesterday, he noted that the economy and size of the national reserves had multiplied around seven times.

But the key criterion for a private sector candidate - having run a large and complex company, defined as one with $100 million in paid-up capital - had remained constant.

In 1990, $100 million was a "significant threshold", with fewer than 200 companies fitting that category, meaning that a few hundred people qualified, Mr Lee said.

But today, he added, 2,000 companies meet that mark - and counting two to three persons who have been chief executive or chairman, "at face value, I should have 5,000 or 6,000 people who are qualified and capable of being president".

"But I don't believe all 5,000 or 6,000 of them actually have the experience and the relevant competence in their work in order to do the president's job," Mr Lee added.

The figure for paid-up capital has to be revised to a realistic level that is not too constraining, but gives a sense of the big decisions that have to be made as president, he said.

This criterion should also be revised regularly, perhaps every two terms, to adjust for inflation and the size of the economy, he added.

The Constitution stipulates that those who have held certain key appointments in the public sector qualify as presidential candidates. Mr Lee said this is "more or less self-adjusting because, if you're a minister of finance, as the economy grows, your job grows with it".

Asked about the view that changes to the qualifying criteria aim to disqualify those not seen as friendly to the Government, Mr Lee said his concerns were for Singapore's future in the next 30, 40 or 50 years, and not over individuals.

"We are looking at changes which are for the long term," he said, citing capable candidates and multiracial representation.

He added that even if qualifying levels are raised, he "cannot guarantee that nobody who is going to be difficult will become president".

"It is not possible because however, wherever, you cut off, there will be somebody, even a former minister or a former judge or somebody who may have run a very big company, (who) may have his views and may clash with the Government."

He said one way to prevent things going wrong is to have good people in politics: "It's not a guarantee but it's the ideal we have to aim for."

Changes to elected presidency: Govt likely to have leeway on when to reserve election, say observers
Observers expect there will be a minority election only when there is no president of that race for some time
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 6 Sep 2016

Impending changes to the elected presidency are not likely to tie the Government's hand to rigidly rotate the highest office of the land among Singapore's main races, said observers yesterday.

Neither do they expect a committee to actively seek out eligible minority candidates.

They were commenting on how a provision that reserves an election for a particular minority race could be implemented.

They foresee the law being amended to give the Government broad discretion to declare an election only for candidates of a minority race, in the event the race has not had a president for some time.

Also, they expect the current practice of letting individuals step forward to seek election to remain.

Said Singapore Management University (SMU) constitutional law expert Jack Lee: "I see the Government leaving it to qualified candidates to come forward on their own and put themselves up for election."

He was one of five commentators who gave their views yesterday on how changes to the elected presidency, to ensure all races have a chance of having a president from time to time, would work.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in an interview with Mediacorp on Sunday, said a Constitutional Commission report on proposed changes to the presidency will be published this week. The Government will give its response soon after.

PM Lee said it was important to make the changes now, as he expected future presidential elections to be hard-fought, which would make the difficulty of electing a minority president more acute.

He indicated that "the least intrusive and most light-touch way" would be to reserve an election for a minority race, if Singapore had gone without a Malay or an Indian president for a long time - say, four, five or six terms.

He added that if there is no qualified minority candidate, the election could be opened to candidates of any race. But the following election would have to be reserved.

This flexibility, said former Nominated MP and lawyer Shriniwas Rai, means the Government will not be pinned down to a strict schedule of, say, having to have a Malay president every 24 years, said Mr Rai.

SMU's Dr Lee said the Government can take a leaf from the book of the group representation constituency system, with the prime minister given the powers to reserve an election for a designated race.

Mr Rai said the law should make it very clear each special election will be for a specified minority.

The commentators also called for more lead time between the issuance of the writ of election, which kicks off the process, and Nomination Day. Three to six months give qualified individuals time to decide whether to contest, said Dr Lee, noting that in recent years, it ranged between five days and a month.

Two of the observers cautioned that PM Lee's suggestions need to be carefully managed as they are politically sensitive.

Minority elections could give the impression that the particular community cannot succeed without getting a leg-up, said Dr Lee.

National University of Singapore political scientist Bilveer Singh had strong reservations about opening the election to all if no qualified minority candidate was found.

It would signal to the minority community that none of them is suitable for the post. "This can be very damaging," he said. "Personally, I find it hard to swallow."

As SMU law don and former NMP Eugene Tan put it: The Government has its work cut out for it as it persuades Singaporeans that the changes are crucial.

"The challenge is to persuade Singaporeans that this mechanism is one that is workable and robust, even as it seeks to further the cause of multiracialism," he said.

Provision for minority president welcome but be wary of tokenism, say community leaders
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 6 Sep 2016

Singapore should have a Malay or other minority president from time to time to assure minorities they have a place here, and reduce the risk of some feeling marginalised, community leaders said yesterday.

"The president represents the nation, so having a head of state from a minority race from time to time gives a clear signal that we are multiracial and all-inclusive," said Association of Muslim Professionals chairman Abdul Hamid Abdullah.

But Nominated MP Azmoon Ahmad feels the office need not be rotated rigidly among the main races.

"Whether the president is Chinese, Malay, Indian or none of these is a secondary concern. He must first and foremost speak for every Singaporean," he said.

Their comments reflect the mixed feelings of many Malays towards impending changes to the elected presidency to ensure it is representative of Singapore's multiracial society.

On the one hand, they note the country has not had a Malay president since Mr Yusof Ishak, who held the post from 1965 to 1970. It has had two Indian presidents, Mr Devan Nair from 1981 to 1985, and Mr S R Nathan from 1999 to 2011.

But on the other hand, they do not want a situation that could lead to the election of a Malay president being seen as an act of tokenism.

In a TV interview with Mediacorp broadcast on Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the changes are needed as in a close election, a Malay or Indian candidate would find it harder to get elected.

Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli said in a roundtable interview with Berita Minggu on Sunday that the changes had to be made now, when society is united, to avoid problems in future.

"If Muslims feel they are deliberately marginalised, have no stake in the country, and feel left out - these are things that could be exploited and if it gains momentum, it could be a big problem," he said.

PM Lee had, in his interview, said there could be a provision to reserve an election for candidates from a minority race if there has been no president from that race for, say, four, five or six terms.

They must also meet qualifying criteria stated in the Constitution, no different than for other candidates.

Mr Lee noted the pool of qualified minority candidates is not as big as that of Chinese candidates, but said over time, it will grow.

Said former NMP Imram Mohamed: "We have people who would qualify, like Speaker Halimah Yacob and several CEOs. It's a matter of whether they want to run."

Former MP Inderjit Singh felt the Indian community would welcome the new rules too, given the difficulty of getting elected in an open election. Mr Nathan was unopposed in both the 1999 and 2005 elections.

Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations council member Thomas Pek said it was vital to take steps to ensure a minority president occasionally: "Between equally capable Malay and Chinese candidates, most Chinese will pick the Chinese.

"We should not deny minorities such a chance as it goes against our goal of being a multiracial society."

Elected President must reflect values, ethos of a Singaporean nation: Yaacob
By Rachelle Lee and Nur Afifah Ariffin, Channel NewsAsia, 5 Sep 2016

Any candidate aspiring to Singapore's Elected Presidency must be a unifying figure who reflects the values and ethos of a Singaporean nation, said Communications and Information Minister Dr Yaacob Ibrahim on Monday (Sep 5).

Dr Yaacob added that any Elected President must continue to preserve the principles of meritocracy and multi-racialism.

"He or she must reflect the values that are reflective of our society, a multi-cultural society, a figure that is unifying to bring all of Singaporeans together. I would want that person to be of such a character, to be such a position because then he is respected and accepted by all Singaporeans, not just by the minority community. Then we truly have a President for all Singaporeans," said Dr Yaacob on the sidelines of a send-off for haj pilgrims.

Dr Yaacob's comments came after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made the case for safeguarding minority representation in the Elected Presidency. In an exclusive interview with Mediacorp which aired on Sunday, Mr Lee said that it was important that a person from a minority group be President from time to time, and that the proposed changes to ensure such representation were "not tokenism".

Mr Lee noted the different proposals submitted to the Constitutional Commission, and noted that the least intrusive way of ensuring minority representation would be to hold a restricted election if Singapore has not had a President of a particular race after a long time.


While some minority groups in Singapore said it was important to have minority representation, they noted that these changes could have adverse side effects.

Mr Benett Theseira, president of the Eurasian Association, commented: "We were concerned that having a restricted election that is restricted to minorities could potentially diminish the office of the President because forcing citizens to vote only in a restricted way, only (within) a minority, could create some resentment. And certainly (it) may even harm the multiracial harmony that we have because it just creates unhappiness."

Women's rights group AWARE’s head of advocacy and research, Jolene Tan, said: "We question whether reducing the amount of say that the electorate has, over who gets voted in a particular time will strengthen that person's mandate. That's why we proposed broadening what we thought were some arbitrarily narrow criteria in order to allow a wider pool of candidates to stand, but the decision would still be very much seen as that of the electorate."

Political observer and law don Associate Professor Eugene Tan added that this could also unwittingly cause people to vote along racial lines, as minority groups could see having a President from their race as a "group right".

Assoc Prof Tan, who is a law professor at Singapore Management University, said: “One positive implication is that the office of the Elected President would see a minority President from time to time, and I think that's a very powerful and symbolic testimony. But in terms of the other implications, one concern would be: Would the minority groups see it as having a minority President (who) comes from their race?

“Will they see it as a group right, when we look at Singapore our whole constitutional system, the Government. It's not premised on group rights, it's premised on individual rights and I think if we somehow we crystallise this notion of groups having this group right, then I think we could set back the cause of multiracialism. Because they will say it is our right to have a President from our race, so we need to be careful how we manage the whole process.

“The other implication would be Singaporeans could be reinforced in their tendencies to vote along racial lines because the argument voters of each minority group would say, each minority group will have their turn as President and the changes are likely to cater to that minority race.

“So it is conceivable that an ethnic Chinese would say: 'The minorities will have their turn' when it is an open election, meaning open to all races. An ethnic Chinese voter would say: 'I should vote for a Chinese candidate', so with that we might then be marginalising the principle of meritocracy and … also getting people to think and vote along racial lines.

"Likewise, when you think of the minority voters, (they) would say: 'That minority candidate from that race will have their turn, but in the meantime, let me vote for someone from my race.'"

Assoc Prof Tan warned that such thinking could undercut what it means to be a multiracial and meritocratic society. Nevertheless, he said having a minority President from time to time is a powerful and symbolic testimony of Singapore's multiracial society. 


However, a group of students who had initially proposed that there was no need for provisions to ensure minority representation in the Elected Presidency changed its stance after the Prime Minister's comments on Sunday.

The group of National University of Singapore (NUS) law students were among 19 groups and individuals who were selected to present their proposals to the Constitutional Commission on the Elected Presidency.

The students had told the Constitutional Commission that there was no need for provisions to ensure that minority candidates can become President, saying that they felt that a candidate should be elected based on competency, not race. 

On Monday, one of the group's members, third-year NUS law student Carina Kam said: "As much as we hope for a colour-blind Singapore, I think it's quite inevitable to acknowledge that there will always be people who will vote along racial lines. If the reality is really that people still vote along racial lines, then I can see the need for such a system."

A Singapore Management University (SMU) law student from another group who submitted proposals to the Constitutional Commission said that the call for adequate minority representation is appropriate because the President represents all Singaporeans, but also pointed out that the candidate's quality should not be compromised.

Said Alexander Kamsany Lee: "Speaking for people of my age, it was observed by PM Lee himself that among new generations, there is a lot less race consciousness. So I think people would see it less. For sure, it will still be there, but I think the general requirements for someone of that office is a person with an acute sense of finance, with a sense of people - these are the most important characteristics, regardless of his race."

However, the third-year SMU law student said he thinks that there is a need to ensure that minorities have a chance to hold the highest office. "People of my generation tend to be less race-conscious. But I don't think that race blindness, as an absolute sort of thing, is possible or should be aspired towards. I think certain things are innate. We shouldn't lose sight of differences just because there's a chance of prejudice."

In his comments, the Prime Minister had cited a recent CNA-IPS survey that found the younger generation to be more “race blind”. The survey found that younger Singaporeans were more accepting of a President or Prime Minister of another race.


Those Channel NewsAsia spoke to said minority candidates from the private sector would need to do more to win the hearts and minds of voters, compared to public sector candidates.

Another individual who submitted proposals to the Commission feels the media has a part to play in raising the profiles of private sector candidates. To date, all of Singapore's past presidents were from the public sector.

Raffles Medical Group’s executive chairman Loo Choon Yong noted: "Mainstream media must look into the track record (of a candidate and) give him exposure. And if he is a good person - Singapore is not such a big country - very quickly, people would know him. And on social media, the responsible ones should also do their work to educate and inform people and share the track record of such candidates so that the electorate would know who they are electing."

Dr Loo also said that any changes to the constitution should not come at the expense of meritocracy.

National Day Rally 2016
Regardless of Race: Channel NewsAsia - Institute of Policy Studies Survey on Race Relations
Public hearings on Elected Presidency

Constitutional Commission Report to review the Elected Presidency

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