By Alfian Sa'at
We've had four Presidential elections (of which two went uncontested). The issue of whether it was important for a minority Singaporean to become the Elected President did not once crop up. Not even when there were four Tans running for the post in the year 2011.
So I can't help but view the recent call for a minority race President with skepticism.
If minority representation was so important, why was this not factored in when the office of the Elected President was first introduced? Why now? And then one remembers that the next Presidential Election is due next year, and that the previous one in 2011 resulted in a very slim victory margin –0.35% – for the candidate that the PAP had backed.
Yusof Ishak is rolled out to provoke nostalgia for a time when Singapore had a Malay President. But he became President only in 1965. In 1959, when Singapore attained self-government, Yusof Ishak was appointed the Yang di-Pertuan Negara, a position that was formerly held by Sir William Goode. When Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, the post of Yang di-Pertuan Negara was that of a vice-regal representative of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (the elected monarch of Malaysia).
A Malay head of state, Malay as National Language, the national anthem, etc were all part of a Malayanisation campaign to sweeten the deal for Singapore's entry into Malaysia. The Malayan political elites had never wanted Singapore to be part of the Federation, as it was considered too Sinocentric. Having a Malay head of state was reassurance that it was not.
That ship has long sailed. I, personally, have never had any yearning for there to be a Malay President. I know there are arguments about how having a Malay President will instill pride in the Malay community, that when we Malays view the portraits of a Malay President and his wife in schools and government buildings we will feel less invisible. I'm sorry but to me it will only make the President and his wife more visible and that is all.
I wonder whether conditions for the Indian community improved during the 12 years when S. R. Nathan was President, whether the community's image was elevated in the eyes of the majority when he held office. And then I remember that one of the more racist things S. R. Nathan was called was 'the prata man in the Istana'. What next with a Malay President, Singapore? Some joke about how the President walks in front of the PM because the 'Ahmad' sits in front of his Chinese boss when he's chauffering?
So I say now, as a member of the Malay community: I don't need a symbol to elicit respect, what I need is respect for my rights. What I want is for the government to be transparent about what is happening with their manpower policies in the military, to see more Malay ministers in portfolios other than environment and infocomm, to settle the issue of wearing tudungs as part of uniforms, to stop perpetuating cultural deficit theories, to enact anti-discrimination laws. There is a Malay President on our dollar notes and I've never heard of it, even subliminally, challenging longstanding stereotypes about Malays being 'bad at money'.
And most importantly, I don't want us minorities to be used, once again, as a pretext to devise a system which will allow the People's Action Party (PAP) to entrench power. The Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system was first proposed as a means to ensure minority representation but successive elections have shown how it's been used to gerrymander, to create unequal voting power (an Hougang voter sends 1 representative into parliament, but an Ang Mo Kio voter sends 6), to dilute electors' voting power, to usher in new faces riding on the coattails of popular incumbents at the helm of each GRC.
Long story short: I would rather have a Chinese Elected President who can act as an effective check on the government than a puppet Malay President holding a golden rubberstamp.
This was first published on Alfian Sa'at's Facebook page.
Yusof Ishak was appointed the first President of Singapore and served his term from 9 August 1965 to 23 November 1970. The office of Yang Di Pertuan Negara was changed to office of president in 22 December 1965. The first President died while serving his term as President on 23 November 1970 at the age of 60 years old.