SINGAPORE: The Parliamentary debate on proposed changes to the Elected Presidency drew to a close on Wednesday (9 Nov), with the Bill to amend the Constitution passing 77 votes to 6.
While the Workers’ Party’s proposal for a referendum on Presidency and for an elected Senate was a key topic of contention over the three-day debate, many Members of Parliament and Nominated MPs raised a variety of other issues, including the need for a more holistic qualifying criteria, and concerns over race.
RACIAL REPRESENTATION SAFEGUARDS WILL "ASSUAGE MINORITIES"
Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli said on Wednesday that the proposed change to have a reserved election for a racial group which has not been represented after five continuous terms will “assuage the minorities particularly”. He added that he has heard support from the Malay community for this in the townhall dialogues he conducted.
“Actually, every time Presidential candidates are announced, I would be accosted by them with remarks of disappointment because a Malay candidate is not contesting,” he said. “Of course it goes away months after, but it never fails to crop up when the Presidential Election season arrives again.”
And while these grouses may seem a “minor matter”, he noted that seemingly small things can snowball. “That is why, it is good that we address this seemingly small issue on ethnic representation of our Elected President – because it is a matter touching race or religion - before it accumulates over time and snowballs with other issues into an avalanche,” he said.
“The amendment of the Constitution to ensure all ethnic groups a chance at becoming an Elected President will be remembered as a prudent foresight of the Government and a great generosity of the majority,” he added. “In the passing of this amendment, I see a continued effort at acknowledging the aspirations of my community and all other minorities, and thus, see a commitment to our multiracial and multi-religious compact.”
MP Zaqy Mohamad also noted that the Prime Minister is "expanding political capital to encourage and get citizens behind this to also protect our multi-racial and multi religious diversity and principles”. Speaking on Tuesday (8 Nov), he welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement that the next Presidential Election would be reserved for Malay candidates.
“The Malays community’s maturity stands out in this issue. Although they welcome the change which promises the certainty of a Malay President, the main concern is that this should not be seen as tokenism. Some are worried that this election will not be based on merit. This concern is understandable because meritocracy is an important value to the lives and success of Singaporeans,” he added.
The issue was also touched on by MP Joan Pereira, who suggested that a separate, fourth racial category be created for Eurasians. “We Eurasians, being culturally distinct as Asians with European ancestry and heritage, have a unique perspective to contribute to the office of the Elected Presidency,” she said. “As the embodiment of East-West unions, we are also living testimonies of inter-racial, cultural and religious harmony and unity.”
“By bringing something different to the table, we can help enrich the office of the Elected Presidency,” she added.
TALKING ABOUT RACE IMPORTANT, BUT DIFFICULT
Whilst accepting that the desire to see a President from one’s own community group is a real one, NMP Kok Heng Leun warned that the moved to provide for minority representation in the Presidency may exacerbate, instead of address issues of equality.
“The fact that we need to amend the Elected Presidency Bill to ensure minority representation says a lot about how far the majority is, from real engagement with minority races. And by real engagement, I am not talking about superficial exchanges, such as eating thosai, or mee rebus, or wearing other races’ traditional outfits on Racial Harmony Day,” he said, in a speech ending with many MPs thumping the armrests of their seats in approval.
“In fact, such a provision may exacerbate the issue, in that it provides a convenient argument for the majority to say this special provision already allows for a Malay, Indian, or Eurasian President, negating the need to really reach out, understand, appreciate, and support the best candidate regardless of race, language, or religion.”
NMP Chia Yong Yong also acknowledged that the need to talk about race and religion, even if it “hurts” to do so. In an emotional speech delivered on the final day of the debate, she admitted she was initially reluctant to take part in the debate because she felt that she “did not want to talk about racial problems”.
“But after three days, I felt that not to speak up is not right,” she said. “For the longest of times, I prided myself as being colour-blind,” she said. “After all, I grew up in a kampong, I had Malay friends, Indian friends, Eurasian friends, and I always proudly said I was colour-blind. I did not realise that my kind of colour-blindness is blindness, and if we had more people like me with this colour-blindness, we would ultimately destroy our society.”
“I didn’t like to talk about race, I didn’t like to talk about religion, and I always said we are all the same. And we are. But just because we do not talk about it doesn’t mean that difficulties do not exist,” she said.
And as she voiced her support for the proposed amendments, she also called for Singaporeans to go beyond the Bill, and look at the “people-level relations”.
“We look at how we relate to each other, and talk to each other as equals, with respect, and I hope that Singaporeans will not politicize race and religion. We have too much at stake, and so beyond the political debate within this house, let us be one people,” she said.
CALLS FOR MORE HOLISTIC ELIGIBILITY CRITERIA
Speaking on Day Two of the debate, PAP MPs Zaqy Mohamad and Chris de Souza, and NMP Kuik Shao Yin called for more holistic eligibility criteria to be considered.
Mr Zaqy argued for that the more stringent financial criteria to be implemented incrementally rather than in a single step, and that this can be complemented with “some other softer or relevant criteria”, such as the candidate’s participation in a charity or community organization or non-profit organisation.
“My point that it is not reflective nor healthy for the Government in the long run if the key criteria to evaluate the President’s ability is his corporate track record. In Singapore, where we are encouraging multiple peaks of excellence and promoting diversity and inclusiveness, the gauge to measure the President must be broader and not narrower,” he said.
Acknowledging that financial proficiency and leadership ability as “useful attributes for the office of the President”, Mr de Souza said that there must be an important additional requirement, that the candidate “must be people-centred, community-centred, and nation-centred”.
Ms Kuik said: “Shouldn’t we require candidates hoping to become the symbol of national unity to possess at least a bullet point or two on their resume in some actual ground experience in building bridges or bringing communities together across sociopolitical divisions?”
She requested that the Government consider relooking the strict eligibility criteria, especially if there is a "recurring pattern of uncontested elections due to lack of eligible private sector candidates or a recurring pattern of elections dominated only by public sector candidates”.
“A string of uncontested elections or even elections with homogeneous establishment candidates harms our democracy as it only feeds into a dangerous narrative of a “rigged system” that entrenches either cynicism or apathy among the electorate,” she added.