Contradictions On The Slippery Slope Towards The Reserved Elected Presidency

This is a summary of my thoughts that I shared at a Discussion Session with undergraduates from the University Scholars Program at Cinnamon College, NUS on 3 Apr 2017.

I was asked to broadly comment on the following issues:

  1. Given the varying responses to the Reserved Presidency, how this will affect the unity of the Malay community.
  2. How this will affect the standing of the Malay community in Singapore’s political landscape.

The announcement of the next Presidential Elections in Singapore being reserved for a Malay candidate has evoked mixed reactions from the Malay community in Singapore.

There are 3 broad reactions to the notion of a Malay Reserved President.

  1. Disinterest. This is not so much driven by apathy, but a sense of resignation that the limited role of the Presidential will not have much impact on the Community, or that the outcome is a foregone conclusion (with the Government-supported candidate winning).  It did not help that Mdm Halimah Yacob has been referred to as “Madam President” in Parliament by Minister Chan Chun Sing (albeit by mistake).
  2. Agreement. The reactions from this group within the community stem from a belief that it is important for the Community to have a reference point as a beacon of hope for the community, and to also project the President as a symbol of multiculturalism in Singapore.  There are those who express an underlying defeatism – that the Community will not get a chance to have a Malay candidate through meritocratic process. An IPS survey to the effect that Singaporeans will vote along ethnic lines is thrown in to support this view. There are also those from the Community who exhibit opportunism – an attitude of “it’s there, so just grab the opportunity, and don’t be apologetic.”
  3. Disagreement. I belong to this group.

What are the Objections?

The Malay Community has never asked for a reserved Malay president in recent times. This was never raised as an issue by any Malay-Muslim Organization (MMO), any Malay Member of Parliament or any thought leader within the community.

In fact, the announcement of a presidential race for Malays came as a complete surprise to most within the community.

This announcement came as the Community grapples with are more fundamental problems that need fixing – gaps in educational attainment (relative to other communities in Singapore), lower socio-economic standing, over-representation in crimes/drugs, discrimination.

A prevailing sentiment was that if there was indeed a commitment to uplift the Malay community, why not fix the various gaps and issues within the Community?  The Community would want to product a Malay presidential candidate can make the qualifying criteria and be elected in a national elections on his or her own footing.

There is also strong perception that genesis for the Reserved Presidency was to exclude a certain Chinese candidate from qualifying.  Hence, the perception was that the Reserved Presidency was not borne out of a desire to promote the interests of the MMC. Consequently, those who hold that perception felt upset that the Malay community is used an instrument in this game.

The Government has always said that meritocracy is sacrosanct. That was what defined Singapore and made us different. This mantra was oftentimes cited as a differentiating factor for Singapore in the wake of Singapore’s eviction from Malaysia. This call was made consistently, even long after Singapore’s independence.

Interestingly and perhaps ironically, Madam Halimah Yacob herself, during her speech during a National Day Rally in 2012 mentioned the significance of meritocracy in Malay (obviously addressed to the Malay community):

“Kita perlu beri sepenuh perhatian dan jangan jemu jemu bekerja keras demi kebaikan semua.

Tuan-tuan dan Puan-puan, Saya yakin dibawah sistem meritokrasi, dan bermodalkan usaha gigih kita, masyarakat Melayu/Islam mampu mendaki tangga kejayaan yang jauh lebih tinggi.”

English translation: “We have to give full attention and cannot shun hard work for the collective good.”

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I am confident that under our system of meritocracy, and based on our hard work, the Malay/Muslim community can ascend the steps of success”

In trying to address this anomaly, an argument had been made is that the principles of meritocracy is not sacrificed as a Malay candidate will need to meet the stringent qualifying criteria for President.

However, meritocracy is not just about setting minimum qualifying standards for a candidate.  It is about picking the best person for the job.

This was the argument made by the Establishment in the past against any ethnic-based affirmative action programs.

But yet, we make exceptions to meritocracy where it appears to be expedient to do so.

This gives rise to a slippery slope – where do you stop disapplying meritocracy?  Apart from the reserved Presidency, the Group Representation Constituency, which guarantees minority representation, is another instance of meritocracy being disapplied (though the evidence seems to point towards more minority representation in parliament before the GRC were introduced, but that is another matter).

So where do you stop in disapplying meritocracy?

  • Should we have a reserved Prime Minister?
  • A reserved Deputy Prime Minister?
  • Reserved Ministers in “heavyweight” ministries (such as Finance, Defence, Trade and Industry, Foreign Affairs) ?
  • Reserved Permanent Secretaries?

The argument – that the elected Presidency embodies the multicultural aspect of Singapore – must similarly apply to other roles above.

It can be argued that it is important to have multicultural representation on senior policymaking roles, no?

Lest I be misunderstood, I am not advocating reserved positions or ethnic-based affirmative action programs for these position.

But by having a Malay reserved President, have we set a wrong precedent for Singapore?

Another argument against the Reserved Presidency is the belief that contrary to the IPS survey, Singaporean voters will not be blinded by ethnic affiliations in voting.  Consider the fact that the GRC led by Tharman Shanmugaratnam had garnered the highest percentage of votes at the last General Elections.  Muralidharan Pillai, a first-time candidate, had defeated Dr Chee Soon Juan at the Bukit Batok By-Elections.  There is thus evidence that Singaporeans look beyond ethnic affiliations.

There is yet another disconnect.  On the one hand, statements have been made to the effect that Singapore is not ready for a minority Prime Minister (even if polls done by research company Blackbox Research show that DPM Tharman, a minority, is seen as the most credible candidate for Prime Ministership).

And so, in the context of the Prime Minister’s position, the assertion is that minorities are not ready to assume leadership of Singapore as a country.

However, a diametrically-opposed position is taken for the Presidency – in that it is now important for Singapore to have a minority as the President.

Why the contradictory stance?

Crutch Mentality.  The other fear is that having a reserved presidency perpetuates the perception that the MMC will not succeed unless there is affirmative action.

Will a Malay Reserved President therefore have the legitimacy and respect?

Already, there is already resentment amongst quarters of the non-Malay Singaporean community.

Also, if Singapore wants to be truly inclusive, why not reserve the Presidency for women? Or for people coming from lower socio-economic backgrounds?  True inclusivity must move beyond ethnicity.



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