Race, Representation, and Meritocracy: Questions Surrounding the First Female President of Singapore

Jacob Wang (PO ‘21)

Singapore has been lauded as the paragon of a multi-racial society where meritocracy prevails and different ethnic groups live in harmony. The three main ethnicities are Chinese, Malay, and Indian, which together account for 74%, 13%, and 9% of the population respectively. However, not all were content as Singapore welcomed its first female president, Halimah Yacob, in September of this year. Yacob was elected unopposed, with her potential contenders blocked by the Presidential Election Commission (PEC) on the basis of their race or previous experience. Singapore’s increasingly stringent qualifications for its president raises controversies and debates on the fundamental role of the presidency in Singapore in light of its diversity.

Compared to the prime minister of Singapore, who is vested with the general control of the government, the president largely assumes a ceremonial position as the head of Singapore and exercises custodial powers over the reserves. Since independence in 1965, up till 1993, the president was elected by the Parliament; however, a constitutional amendment in 1991 turned the presidency into a popularly elected office. Previous qualifications for the presidency include a minimum age of 45, non-affiliation with any political party on the date of their nomination, a service in public sector in significant capacities or service in the private sector as Chief Executive Officer in a corporation with at least S$100 million (74 million in USD) in shareholders’ equity.

At the Parliament Sitting on January 27, 2016, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong proposed two constitutional amendments pertaining to the qualifications for the presidency. First, Lee argued that owing to the inflation rate and Singapore’s increasingly intricate economy, there was a need to raise the minimum requirement of the size of company for those who previously served in private sector. The proposed amendment required a candidate from the private sector to be a senior executive of a company with at least S$500 million ($370 million) in shareholders’ equity. Second, Lee explicitly suggested that it is hard to elect a president from minority racial community in an open election. Therefore, there is a need to adopt some mechanism to ensure all races can be represented by future presidents. The Prime Minister proposed the election should be reserved for a racial group if it is not represented for five terms, or 30 years. Since both Indians and Chinese have been “represented” by the office of president for the past 30 years, the presidential seat was automatically reserved to one of Malay descent.

Lee’ proposal was incorporated into Singapore’s constitution without delay. Notably, the People’s Action Party (PAP), Lee Hsien Loong’s party affiliation, has been the single ruling party of Singapore since 1959 and is currently occupying 82 out of 101 seats in the Parliament, so the amendments passed easily. Originally, there were three Malay presidential hopefuls; however, two of applications were turned down for failing to meet the minimum requirement of S$500 million in shareholder’s equities. This left Halimah Yacob, former Speaker of Parliament, as the only eligible candidate for office, leading into a so-called “walkover election.” Though this is not the first presidential walkover election, the new amendments seemed to have narrowed the possible candidate pool and contributing to the lack of competition on the ballot.

Many questioned PAP’s ulterior motive to implement those two constitutional amendments, especially because such changes were institutionalized arbitrarily without the consent of the populace. Some suspect that the financial requirement was raised to bar people outside of the establishment and elite system from becoming presidents. All socioeconomic classes and professions in the private sector cannot achieve equal representation if the requirements to run for president are exacting relative to public sector requirements. The past five presidents, by accident or by design, worked in the public sector. In addition, the outrageous electoral restrictions for those who previously served in the private sector can also lead to a perpetuation of a pro-establishment and elitism culture.

More controversially, people questioned the validity of meritocracy when race is taken into consideration as a deciding factor of the vetting process for presidential elections. Some Malays saw the move as a positive discrimination against their community: the Malays are promised to be “gifted” a president of their own race once every 30 years. That is, as long as they are complacent with the fact the all the past and current prime ministers, the ones with concrete executive power, are of Chinese parentage.

What is going on in Singapore certainly will have significant ramifications on other multi-racial countries in the world. Singapore’s newly established racial condition is predicated on the belief that it is almost impossible to elect a President from a minority group as most people simply vote on the basis of race. Though the election of the US’ first black President Barack Obama and London’s first Muslim Mayor Sadiq Khan says otherwise, Mr. Lee Hsien Loong remains doubtful of his fellow Singaporeans ability to look past race in the polls. The question remains: if any multi-racial country is operating under true meritocracy and respect of diversity, should not racial categorization and preferential treatments are rendered completely obsolete to create a false image of harmony and racial equality?

What was Halimah Yacob’s response? “I’m a president for everyone. Although there’s no election, my commitment to serve you remains the same.”

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