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Breaking the presidency and Singapore, straw by straw

by Vernon Chan

The radical changes to the presidency that the People's Action Party (PAP) mooted and enacted in 2016 have angered a public originally resigned to seeing the office incrementally remade at the whims of the PAP, for the convenience of the PAP. The old changes fooled no one into thinking they were designed to fix the problems of the presidency; the new changes fool very few as well.

In 2016 when the changes were mooted, it was expected that candidate Halimah, whose hat was thrown into the ring by class clown Chan Chun Seng, would have an easy walkover in the reserved election for a Malay president.

But it was the PAP's proxy campaign for candidate Halimah and its off-kilter messaging that convinced a large section of Singaporeans that the ruling party was intent on endangering the social fabric of Singapore itself, just to ensure a win for its candidate.

Meritocracy was coined as an ironic term. In Singapore however it was taken up and championed very earnestly by S Rajaratnam shortly after independence to promote a strong and vibrant Singaporean identity that transcended race and could be free of communal politics. Meritocracy as understood in Singapore is a system that provides equal and fair opportunities so the most deserving win, and not a system guaranteeing equal outcomes.

Singapore's leaders (from Lee Kuan Yew to even members of Lee Hsien Loong's cabinet) have long acknowledged that Singapore is hardly an equal society; there are communities that are less privileged, perform poorer, and so on.

Their solution to inequality, even entrenched inequality, has been to dedicate more resources to the under-skilled, the poor, the under-privileged—so that they will eventually earn their victories. In speech after speech over the decades, they have rejected racial quotas as a solution to Singapore's racial inequalities, affirming time and again that meritocracy is about providing equal opportunities, not guaranteeing equal outcomes. This is in adherence to honoring the national pledge "to achieve justice and equality".

To argue so convincingly for a racially reserved election without also arguing that it is an exception to the rule, is to change Singapore's long-held stand on meritocracy, from ensuring equal opportunity for different communities to compete, to ensuring equal outcomes regardless of merit. The PAP has kicked Singapore down a slippery slope; it cannot ensure that the public and private sectors will not follow suit in reserving some other post or appointment for any race

Calling the reserved elections a meritocracy during the campaign and continuing to call it a meritocracy after Halimah has assumed office is an insult to their intelligence, as well as an abandonment of a key principle of Singapore society.

The PAP should've known that reserving a seat would divide Singaporeans

Has the PAP abandoned multiracialism?

If Lee Hsien Loong's government was unprepared for the public backlash to the new elected presidency, they were even more blindsided by how the nation's first ever reserved presidential election turned out. Public disquiet over the reserving the presidency for a specific race has turned into public outrage over the race of the 3 candidates, precisely because of the reserved election for a Malay president.

According to their national ID cards, Halimah Yacob and Marican Salleh are Indian (both have an Indian father and a Malay mother), while Farid Khan is Pakistani. Under Singapore law, one's race is defined as the race of one's father. Most of the criticisms of the candidates being Indian or "not Malay enough" are based on this principle, which the PAP has conveniently ignored for the duration of this election.

According Singapore's constitution, ethnic Malays are guaranteed free education. Halimah Yacob, in her interview with Susan Long, admits that she isn't classified a Malay under census and NRIC, and also did not qualify for free education either.

While Mendaki (the racially based welfare organisation, one of 3 funded by the state) claims to help Malay-Muslims, it is public knowledge that Mendaki turns away the offspring of Malay mothers and non-Malay dads, and advises them to seek help from the correct racial welfare organisation stated on their national ID cards. Its definition of "Malay-Muslim" can be inferred to be an NRIC Malay who is also MuslimIts concerns, as far as well know, are ethnic Malay.

In the cabinet itself, there used to be a minister for Malay-Muslim affairs. The last holder of the post was Mr Sidek bin Saniff, who retired from politics in 2001. This is different from the minister-in-charge of Muslim affairs, which apparently exists in conjunction with the minister for Malay-Muslim affairs. The current minister for Muslim affairs is Dr Yacoob Ibrahim. Perhaps the PAP would one day explain the difference between the ministerial posts for Malay-Muslims and Muslims, and why only one exists now.

In the elections department, a GRC committee has verified Halimah Yacob as a Malay for the purposes of contesting in general elections. That's because the PAP enacted laws expanding the definition of Malay to include anyone who isn't an ethnic Malay but is a Muslim who practises Malay culture.

Given there are at least 4 government agencies with conflicting definitions of what it means to be Malay, it is outrageous that the PAP would then set up a a race committee for the elected presidency to throw up yet another different definition of race, just for this particular election.

Having 5 government agencies or authorities who can't agree on a simple thing as "Who is Malay" does not do well for the credibility of the PAP or the office of this particular elected president. Worse, it sends the signal that while race is a sensitive issue for Singaporeans, race is a game of masak-masak, suka-suka for the government.

More upsetting than how government agencies can't agree on what a Malay is, was the PAP government's eventual confirmation that the definition of a Malay for the purpose of the presidential election is cultural and religious, not ethnic. That's while all other races in Singapore are defined on an ethnic basis, including Malays up to now.

Singapore's CMIO model is a multiracial model of society. This is different from a multi-cultural model of society, and possibly the only reason why Singapore is a relatively harmonious society while multiculturalism has failed in Europe. Yes, the CMIO model is very simplified and ignores variations in ethnic identity. While one can belong to a particular race, one is free to practise or identify with any culture or cultures one chooses. In contrast, modern multiculturalism requires people to stick with their single and discrete identity, forcing people to engage with each other via identity politics and for politicians to treat their electorate as comprising of different single issue, single identity voters.

People were upset because they saw the latest definition of Malay as inconsistent with the CMIO model of society and worse, a betrayal of Singapore's multiracialism. While they may have accepted that the next president would be Malay in the old ethnic sense, it is clear that they would did not envision or accept that the constitutional changes would put an Indian or a "cultural Malay" in the seat of president.

The return of communal politics and racial chauvinism?

The most flabbergasting thing about the PAP proxy campaign was its insistence that it was being open-minded about race, that its definition of who is a Malay is ultimately sociological: A Malay is whoever the Malay community accepts as Malay, whether or not ethnically one is Malay or not.

Sociologically, that's not how things work. How does a community define itself? Per Bourdieu, a cultural community is held together by members who are invested in and invested by the pursuit of producing what is a cultural identity that is consecrated within the field. Bourdieu would tell us that any cultural community is marked by members who engage in positioning and position-taking, partaking in strategic differences and playing games of orthodoxy, vanguards, and exclusion.

In other words, allowing the "community" to define itself and to vet presidential candidates is a recipe for the return of communitarian politics and racial chauvinism. Public discourse on "all are Indian" and "not Malay enough" can be seen as attempts to lobby the racial committee for the presidential election.

Far damning though is that the racial committee itself had apparently asked candidates how Malay they are. In his interview with The Middle Ground, Marican Salleh says "he had to write down answers to verify that he was truly a member of the Malay community. He was asked to detail how he, as a Muslim, practised his religion and also to give evidence that he is as Malay as he says he is."

It would appear that far from making this a simple exercise of whether one is or is not a member of a race or ethnicity, the star commission itself had indulged in games of ideological and cultural purity, by asking precisely the same questions that the public was castigated for asking by the PAP's proxies during the campaign.

Sociologically, what we have here is straightforward. By devising a racially reserved presidential election, the PAP has created the very structures that would force candidates, the public, and the racial committee to pander to racial chauvinistic impulses, to play irresponsible games with race and identity.

The failure to predict, understand, and ameliorate all this when the PAP mooted sweeping changes to the elected presidency is indicative of its general incompetence, or just how much of a rush job it undertook to guarantee an Establishment candidate would win this year.

This article was first published at akikonomu.blogspot.sg and reproduced with permission.