President must be a potent symbol of our multiracial ethos

by: Muhammad Farouq Bin Osman/

The impending race for the Singapore Presidency should set us thinking what the position really is all about. I have always felt that the office serves, first and foremost, as a potent symbol of our multiracial ethos. It was for this reason that in the years preceding the establishment of the Elected Presidency, an unwritten convention was adopted whereby a representative from each of Singapore’s four major ethnic groups assumed the highest office in the land on a rotational basis, as was the case for our first four presidents.

However, this changed following the Constitutional amendments of 1991 which mandated for the president to be directly elected through universal suffrage as opposed to being appointed by Parliament. Add to that the stringent eligibility requirements which severely limit the pool from which a presidential candidate could be chosen.

An implication of this current arrangement is that the significance of the office of the head of state as an embodiment of Singapore’s multiracial heritage is diminished. The very essence of the Presidency as an expression of our inter-ethnic unity carries less weight today than it was during the years before the scheme was introduced, since the ethnic factor is not as relevant a consideration now in the presidential selection process.

Yet we know that surely, the president’s role is not just limited to guarding the reserves and ensuring the integrity of public service appointments, but to encompass the intangible albeit no less important function of being a living proof of our national identity and values.

Many have argued on the altar of meritocracy that the ethnic background of the presidential candidate should matter less than his or her qualifications or experience in public service. However, this line of thought precludes the fact that our first four presidents, who were not subject to the Elected Presidency scheme were appointed based on their impeccable character and sterling record of leadership and service to the nation anyway.

There is therefore no conflict of interest between having a system of ethnic rotation for the Presidency and the need for suitably qualified candidates.

Such a system should be enshrined in the Constitution to guarantee equal representation for all ethnic groups in the Presidency. This is where only persons of a particular ethnic group are allowed to offer themselves as presidential candidates in a designated year.

After all, a similar principle governs the rationale behind the Group Representation Constituency system.

This letter was originally sent to the Straits Times forum page but was rejected for publication.

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