SINGAPORE: The proposed changes to ensure minority representation in the Elected Presidency (EP) are not "tokenism", and minority candidates will have to meet the same criteria as everyone else.
In an exclusive interview with Mediacorp broadcast on Sunday (Sep 4), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the proposed amendments to the EP system were a "very necessary symbolism" of what Singapore is as a multiracial society. He also said that this was an important issue that he felt strongly about and did not want to “leave to his successor”.
Referring to the recent Channel NewsAsia-Institute of Policy Studies survey on race relations, he said people prefer somebody who is one of their own to be President.
"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.
Mr Lee said other examples were looked at when considering changes to the constitution, including Canada, New Zealand and Switzerland. In Canada's example, he said there are English-speaking Canadians and French-speaking ones, and the latter make up about 22 per cent of the population. But when it comes to choosing the Governor General of Canada, they alternate between the two groups.
"So it's over-representation for the French speakers, but it's something they find necessary as an accommodation for the minority," he added.
NO EASY RIDE INTO THE ISTANA
Addressing some concerns from minorities that they do not want a presidential candidate to be seen as having an easy ride into the Istana, Mr 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 Singapore had Elected Presidents, the Presidents appointed by Parliament – 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 Mr Lee.
Referencing the different proposals submitted to or presented to the Constitutional Commission, Mr Lee noted that they ranged from a rotation among the races to presidential teams comprising a Chinese and minority to having a President and Vice-President of different races.
“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.
During the hour-long interview, Mr Lee also made it clear that the changes being considered were not because of any pressure from any community.
Said Mr Lee: “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.”
But why now, after 25 years after the Elected Presidency was introduced?
The Prime Minister said there were three reasons.
Firstly, he said this problem was there 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."
Secondly, he said 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.
“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,” said Mr Lee.
“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.
UNDERSTANDING THE PRESIDENT'S ROLE
Asked if the 2011 Presidential Election, while hotly contested, was a good example of "democratic expression" given that Singaporeans got a chance to vote and see candidates of different types contest the election, Mr Lee said while it is good to have a contest, it has to cover the right issues and people must understand what this is about.
"I think the problem with the 2011 election, in my view, is that many of the candidates did not understand or did not accept what the President’s duties are, what his constitutional role is and what he’s being elected to do," the Prime Minister said. "They made statements and promises to the voters which are really not the President's responsibility or duty or function. And if the President tries to do that sort of thing, I think the system will malfunction because the Government cannot work.
"There can only be one Government and the President has certain roles and duties which are to hold the second key on money and on people but not to go and check the Government or tell the Government what it is supposed to do. And I think not all the candidates understood that, or maybe they did, but thought if they made these statements, it would help them to win the election," Mr Lee said.