The following letter is by AWARE on the elected presidency:

We agree that the representation of diverse races in political leadership is important, and welcome the greater recognition that racism and prejudice are urgent and enduring problems that require proactive solutions.

Members of minority groups need to see people like themselves being represented meaningfully in important public institutions.

This applies to women, too. Singapore has not reached a stage where we are free from gender biases—some unconsciously held—that limit women’s chances to participate fully in the political sphere. For example, some still believe that mothers do not belong in politics because of childcare.

But we are doubtful that the best solution to persisting discrimination is a mechanism to place a single symbolic figure in the presidency and limit the choices available to the electorate.

It is more important, and builds more public confidence and trust, to address the broader and deeper ways in which women and racial minorities are excluded from advancement and decision-making.

Diversity must also come in terms of values, thinking, background and experience, as well as demographic characteristics.

Though women make up half the population, there is currently just one female full minister out of 20 individuals in the Cabinet.

If we are serious about ensuring representative leadership, the Cabinet, with its much greater executive power, should be a more urgent priority for reform than the presidency. Moreover, because Cabinet positions are appointed, diversity can be ensured without interfering with electoral choice.

Even if women in politics do not presently have the same level of experience as men, that is not a reason for inaction.

After all, following last year’s general election, two new male MPs were given acting minister positions, and the Prime Minister spoke explicitly about longer-term succession planning.

Similar efforts should be made to proactively identify and groom female talent, with a view to increasing the profile of women in political leadership over the next few decades.

One inspirational example is Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who famously appointed a Cabinet that fully reflects the gender and racial demographics of the Canadian population, with the justification “Because it’s 2015” (“Trudeau appoints ‘a Cabinet that looks like Canada’“; Nov 6, 2015).

Chong Ning Qian (Ms)

Research Executive

Association of Women for Action and Research

The letter was first published in The Straits Times.

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