Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has announced in that the next Presidential Election due in 2017 will be reserved for Malay candidates, based on the hiatus-triggered model.
PM Lee announced this on Tuesday (8 November) during the second day of the Parliamentary debate on the proposed amendments to the Constitution..
Speaking on the Elected Presidency (EP) scheme, PM Lee said, “That means if a qualified Malay candidate steps up to run, Singapore will have a Malay president again. This would be our first after more than 46 years, since our first president Encik Yusof Ishak.”
One of the suggestions to refine the EP made by the Constitutional Commission in August was the hiatus-triggered mode, in which, a Presidential Election would be reserved for a particular race, after five terms without a representative from that race assuming the highest office in the land.
It was previously unclear which past president the Government would begin counting the period of five continuous terms from.
According to PM Lee, the Constitutional Amendment Bill stated that the Government should legislate on this point and that it has received advice from the Attorney-General.
There have been five presidential terms with the elected presidents in office since then: Mr Wee, Mr Ong Teng Cheong, Mr S R Nathan who was in the office for two terms, and the current term of President Tony Tan Keng Yam.
PM Lee noted that the racial group of each of the elected presidents will have to be defined for the purposes of the Act. Mr Wee, Mr Ong and Dr Tan considered Chinese, and Mr Nathan considered Indian.
This means there has been no Malay president for five continuous terms.
“Therefore by the operation of the hiatus-triggered model, the next election, due next year, will be a reserved election for Malay candidates. That means if a Malay candidate steps up to run or more than one Malay candidate steps up to run, who is qualified, Singapore will have a Malay President again… I look forward to this,” said PM Lee.
PM Lee noted that one in three Presidents will be non-Chinese over six terms – larger than the proportion of non-Chinese in the population through this arrangement.
Some felt that this mechanism went against meritocracy. Therefore, PM Lee said that candidates in a reserved election will still have to meet the same qualifying criteria
PM Lee said that the Government had thought hardest about ensuring multiracial representation in contemplating over the refinements, which also touched on updating the qualifying criteria for candidates and strengthening the Council of Presidential Advisers.
According to PM Lee, the candidate must represent all Singaporeans and the office must be multiracial as the Head of the State. He said that if the President always comes from the same race, not only will the President cease to be a credible symbol of our nation, the very multiracial character of the nation will come into question.
He also said that whether to ensure people from different races can and do indeed become president is the most difficult question in the current debate on the elected presidency, “because it goes right to the core of our fundamental belief in a multiracial society”.
“Every citizen, Chinese, Malay, Indian, or some other race, should know that someone of his community can become president, and in fact from time to time, does become president,” PM Lee said.
He also said that this was not a theoretical matter, as race had real world implications in Singapore, adding that enormous progress may have been made but the different ethnic groups continue to be subjected to “external pulls and influences”.
PM Lee said that outsiders may misunderstand Singapore to be a Chinese country, given the population composition and cultural familiarity of the Chinese and Singapore, seeing the close ties between the two.
“Thus we must always remember that we are not a Chinese country, but a multi-racial, multi-religious Southeast Asian nation with an ethnic Chinese majority but not a Chinese country. We have to show this domestically, to our own population, Chinese population, as well as the non-Chinese population and we have to show this externally, to other countries too,” he said.
PM Lee said that similar concerns over race and religion exist in Singapore and the President is the most important unifying symbol of the nation, warning that without intervention to ensure a multiracial outcome, the Presidency could end up a single-race office.
He also urged Singaporeans to be realistic, though he was heartened by aspirations to be race-blind.
PM Lee also noted that surveys also show at least a significant minority of Singaporeans consider race as a factor when they vote, which means minority candidates are at a disadvantage in an election, adding that this is also the case in countries like the United States.
He pointed in the US, the presidential race between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton may be about globalisation, jobs and insecurity, but race continues to be front and center. Trump supporters are largely lower- and middle-class whites, while African Americans are “overwhelmingly” voting for Mrs Clinton.
PM Lee said that practical arrangements have to be made to make multiracialism in Singapore work, although Singapore’s ideal is to be race-blind.
He stated that as Singapore gets closer to the ideal and minority candidates are regularly elected as president in open elections, these reserved elections will be needed less and less.
“As we get closer to this ideal, and minority candidates are regularly elected President in open elections, we will need hiatus-triggered reserved elections less and less,” he noted.