Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shared his thoughts about the proposed changes in the Elected Presidency in a Mediacorp broadcast on Sunday (4 September), citing heavily on the joint survey conducted by Channel News Asia (CNA) and Institue of Policy Studies (IPS) that one’s race does matter in an election for President.
Mr Lee said that for most people, they would say that they would choose a candidate regardless of their race and goes on to say, “But in a survey where it is anonymous, they will you that race does make a difference. And a significant number would prefer for the candidate to be their own race. And if a minority candidate stands for election, a Malay or an Indian, he would be at a disadvantage.”
For years and years and years, only white men became president and Obama only became the first black elected president after 40 odd presidents before him. Obama’s victory shows that a black can now win, it shows that race is still a big factor in America’s election.
PM Lee said that race is one of the factors in one’s definition of the best candidate. And said that if Singapore wants to have a minority president from time to time, which he felt is important in Singapore.
When asked if the minority candidates would fit the criteria of the President candidacy is a large enough pool to choose from and whether the quality of the candidates is good enough, PM Lee gives a non-answer by saying that the pool is obviously smaller than the Chinese candidates and he believes that the pool will grow in time.
PM says that it is not “tokenism” but “symbolism” on ensuring minority President
“I don’t think it is tokenism, but I think it is a necessary symbolism of what we are as a multiracial society. what Singapore means, stands for and aspire to be.” said PM Lee.
What the government is trying to do with the elected presidency is to design a mechanism to produce an outcome that is multiracial and reflect the color of the society.
PM Lee said that it cannot be sure that the current elected presidency will deliver that diversity and referred back to the CNA/IPS survey, said that people would prefer a President of their own race.
“And the natural result of people preferring one of their own race is that a minority race President will find it hard to get elected, and so it’s something we should do something about, and which we can do something about,” he said.
Minority Presidential Candidate would have an easy ride into Istana and less qualified?
On the question of concerns from minorities that they do not want a presidential candidate to be seen as having an easy ride into the Istana, PM Lee said: “I think that’s entirely understandable and it reflects also the success of our meritocracy that we’ve imbued this in every citizen and people want to succeed on their own merits and nobody wants to come in on a free ride and be seen that standards have been lowered for a particular race and I think we have to make sure of that so whatever mechanism we do, we have to make sure that the same qualifying criteria apply same standards and there cannot be any relaxation or any doubt that that person who’s elected is of that quality and there are minorities who are of the quality.”
He noted that before the era where Presidents were being elected, the Presidents who had been appointed by the Parliament such as Mr Yusof Ishak, Mr Devan Nair, Mr Benjamin Sheares and Mr Wee Kim Wee, were all eminently qualified.
“Would they have won elections? Well, that depends on who’s standing and how it’s conducted, but they were appointed by Parliament and they served with distinction and I think we want a mechanism which can produce this kind of an outcome, this kind of diversity as an assured outcome, which presently we don’t have,” said PM Lee.
In the end, PM Lee did not really answer the question of whether would the minority candidate, which majority of Singaporeans would assume to be endorsed by the People’s Action Party, will face much contestation in light of the upcoming changes to the Presidential Election.
The results of the Constitutional Commission
In response to the question of the proposals presented to the Constitutional Commission, PM Lee brought out several examples that they from a rotation among the races to Presidential teams comprising a Chinese and minority and having a President and Vice-President of different races.
He went on to state, “But I think probably the least intrusive and most light touch way of doing it is to say if everything works well, we don’t have to do anything but if after a long time we have not had a President of a particular race, say after four, five or six terms, we’ve not had a President of a particular race, then in the next election, if a qualified candidate of that race presents himself or herself then that election will be reserved for that race and so you will be able to get a Malay or an Indian President. If no qualified candidate turns up from that race, then it’s open and you carry on and then you have free election. Whoever wins, wins. The election after that, the same rules will apply again because a longer time would have elapsed and again let’s see whether a qualified candidate turns up. So you want the mechanism where if you’ve had a long gap, then the next election if you have a qualified minority candidate, then the election is held only amongst a minority group,” explained Mr Lee.
So what PM Lee is saying is that the government’s mind is pretty set to set new rules to ensure that a Malay President is to be elected in the upcoming Presidential Election given that there has not been a Malay President for six terms since the last Malay President is late Mr Yushok Ishak in 1965 to 1970.
New changes will come before the next Presidential Election
When asked if the new changes will be implemented before the next Presidential Election that is to be held in 2017, PM Lee answered without hesitation, “Yes, I think we should”.
Saying that the government has spent some time talking and thinking about it, PM Lee recounted that he had floated the idea in Parliament on January this year.
PM Lee had said in Parliament on 27 January,
“Since we introduced the Elected President system and brought it into effect in 1991, we have not had a Malay President. From 1999, we had an Indian President, Mr S R Nathan, who served for two terms with distinction. Mr Nathan was elected unopposed both times. But in future, when Presidential Elections are more likely to be contested, and even hotly contested, I believe it will become much harder for a minority President to get elected.
It is the same problem with Parliamentary Elections which led us to create GRCs to ensure a minimum representation of minority race Members in Parliament. I think we should consider a similar mechanism for Presidential Elections to ensure that minorities can be periodically elected if we have not had a particular minority as President for some time.”
Referring to PM’s speech, further hints are dropped to indicate that the upcoming Presidential election will be held to ensure a Malay President will be elected.
PM Lee goes on to state that the white paper produced by the Constitutional Commission will be published next week.
Why now, after 25 years after the Elected Presidency was introduced?
PM Lee said in his reply that the changes being considered were not because of any pressure from any community, “We are not in a situation where the minorities are demanding something and the majorities are pushing back saying ‘We don’t want it’ – I think it is something that which we need to do. I’m pushing this not because I feel pressure from the minorities or because we need to make a political gesture, but because I think it’s a right thing to do. It’s a right thing to do. Nobody is asking but I think it’s something which we ought to do and do now for the long term of Singapore.”
He said the government had already acknowledged this problem when the Elected Presidency was introduced and “everybody knew, although they were very polite and they didn’t bring it up in the open”.
“But at the beginning, we felt that we had time. It was a problem, it was not an immediate problem because right … immediately we were not having fierce elections,” Mr Lee said. “We’ve had 25 years. I think we’ve seen how it’s worked.”
Then he pointed out that things have changed after 25 years. Singapore has had one minority Elected President, Mr S R Nathan, who served with distinction but he was elected unopposed both times in 1999 and 2005. Mr Lee said: “I think he won hearts of Singaporeans. But when he first came out, without Singaporeans knowing him well, I’m not sure how an election would have turned out.”
He added that the 2011 election, which was contested by four Chinese candidates, was a “hard-fought one” that was “very fierce” and he did not think that a minority will have a “fair chance” in that kind of election.
PM Lee noted lastly, “The third reason I’m doing it now is because it’s something I feel I ought to do and I ought not to pass this on, kick the can down the road and leave it to my successor,”
“I’m familiar with the system. I helped design it in the beginning when we first introduced the system. I’ve been part of operating it and mending it, improving it, crafting it as we have gone along, changing the provisions to make them work; and I’ve worked it with Mr Nathan and Dr Tony Tan as I have been Prime Minister. So I know this problem and I think I have a responsibility to deal with it and I think I can tell Singaporeans I believe this is something which needs to be done and I believe it and I want to do it. And I will persuade you that it is something that we should do and which is good for Singapore and if we don’t do this, I think we will have trouble for Singapore not today, not tomorrow, but 10 to 15 years, 20 years’ time definitely. We ought to do it now before the problems come,” he added.