Cherian George: Elected Presidency Missed Opportunity For Multiculturalism, Halimah Yaacob Would’ve Won With No Help

What do you make of the proposed changes to Singapore’s elected presidency?

The impression I get is that it has been framed as a debate between the need for minority representation and an open system that would allow Tan Cheng Bock to possibly become President. And people are lined up on either side. But I do want to see a minority President. I think it is a very important symbol. But, precisely because I understand the importance of having a minority president, I’m disappointed in the way the government has gone about it.

The assumption seems to be that we don’t now have a minority candidate on the radar capable of winning the presidency in open competition. I think that is wrong. Halimah Yacob can win with no help or handicap. If they picked Halimah Yacob as a candidate, I don’t think they need to block Chinese candidates against her. She is enormously respected, she has extremely strong trade union labour credentials. She is respected by Malays as well as Chinese. This is one of those cases where the PAP as well as some other Singaporeans have a very dim view of Singaporeans, and that view is unrealistically dim. Yes, there might be some prejudice against Halimah on account of her gender, religion and race. But this prejudice probably does not amount to some kind of total trump card that will ensure her defeat. Those backing her might have to fight a little harder. But whatever kind of handicap she carries would just quantitatively amount to a tiny disadvantage. And I don’t see how that can compromise her track record. And I also cannot believe that the PAP with all its machinery and the union movement as well as many Singaporeans wouldn’t go all out to bat for her. After all, how wonderful would it be for Singapore to have a female, Malay, Muslim president?

I have total faith that there are enough male, Chinese, non-Muslim Singaporeans who will campaign for her. Unfortunately, many others do not have such faith. And I see it as a huge moment of opportunity for Singapore’s multiracialism. This is an opportunity to signal to the world, and ourselves, that after fifty years of nation building, we are ready to embrace a President who is not from the conventional mainstream.

Instead, what are we heading for? We’re heading for a situation where the PAP has decided to give a Malay candidate a walkover, which will taint the presidency forever. Whoever becomes the president next year will be a token president. Why taint it with the label of tokenism? It’s so unnecessary. I believe that if it were a straight fight between Halimah Yacob and Tan Cheng Bock, Halimah would win hands down.


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