Ensuring minority representation in EP delicate problem that must be solved: PM Lee in NDR 2016

Ensuring minority representation in EP delicate problem that must be solved: PM Lee in NDR 2016

Singapore has made “significant progress” in becoming one people, regardless of race, language and religion since its founding in 1965, said Mr Lee, citing a recent survey which showed strong support for meritocracy, and that the majority believe race does not influence success.

Istana with Presidential flag
File photo of Singapore's Istana with the Presidential flag. (Photo: AFP)

SINGAPORE: The Constitutional Commission appointed to review the Elected Presidency system in Singapore has made recommendations to improve on current arrangements in all three areas it was asked to review, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday (Aug 21).

The speech was delivered in two parts over Sunday evening, after Mr Lee took ill in the middle of the English portion of the Rally.

The Commission has made recommendations in these three areas: On how the President can give more weight to the advice of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA), on how to update the criteria for someone to be a candidate, and on how to ensure that minorities regularly have a chance to be elected to the position, Mr Lee said.

“In principle, we accept its main recommendations,” Mr Lee said.

He added that a White Paper will be published on how exactly the changes will be implemented, after which a Constitutional Amendment Bill will be tabled in Parliament before a full debate when the Bill comes up for the Second Reading.

In his speech, Mr Lee explained why the Elected Presidency was being reviewed, especially in the three areas the review focused on.


For the CPA, Mr Lee said that when the system of the Elected President was designed, the CPA was set up so that the President can make decisions with the benefit of the collective experience and judgement of the CPA.

He added that the CPA arrangements have worked well, and that the Government had envisaged that over time, as the CPA became more established, it would be improved.

The changes which were proposed to the CPA are incremental and straightforward, Mr Lee said.

second day of public hearings held by constitutional commission of elected presidency

One of the public hearings for feedback on the Elected Presidency, which was held at the Supreme Court auditorium, Apr 22, 2016. (Photo: Lianne Chia)

The Prime Minister also said that the criteria for a candidate needs to be updated as some of the criteria is now out of date since it was first set 25 years ago.

One such criteria is how the President must have held key appointments in the public service, or had experience in the private sector running large and complex companies with S$100 million in paid-up capital.

However, the latter criteria is out of date as a S$100 million company is no longer large and complex – there were 158 such companies in 1993, and now there are 2,000.

"But S$100 million is the wrong number today," he said. "It's too small for a company to be considered even in the same kind of responsibility as the President is doing here.

"So we've got to update this benchmark," he added.

He cited the example of how former President SR Nathan gave permission for the Government to draw from its reserves during the global financial crisis, after the CPA was consulted. The President holds the “second key” over the country’s reserves and appointments.

Mr Lee said that the President has to make critical decisions in the midst of uncertainty and crisis, which is why Singapore needs the most qualified person.


As the President is the Head of State, every Singaporean "has to identify with him", said Mr Lee, adding that everybody must know that somebody of their race has a chance to be President.

Mr Lee said introducing a special provision for minorities for the Elected Presidency system is a delicate problem that has to be solved.

Noting that the issue can make changes legally difficult to draft, politically sensitive to explain and will psychologically take time to accept, Mr Lee said that Singapore must still ensure that minorities get elected as President from time to time.

He acknowledged that there some people fear that if explicit arrangements were made to ensure a minority President from time to time, it will compromise the principle of meritocracy.

Mr Lee noted that the Government can and will make sure that all candidates for President, including minority candidates, fully meet the qualifying criteria with no compromise. He added that it will then will be clear that when there is a minority President, he will be as fully qualified as any other President.

The Prime Minister brought up examples in other multi-racial countries where race is still a factor and a minority candidate is at a disadvantage. To assure minorities of their place, such societies often consciously arrange for minorities to be appointed or elected, he said.

For example, Canada, an English speaking country with a large French minority of 22 per cent alternates between an English- and a French-speaking Governor General. Similarly in New Zealand, a non-White Governor General is appointed – the current Governor General is LTG Jerry Mateparae, a Maori, while the previous, Sir Anand Satyanand, was ethnic Indian.

PM Lee Jerry Mateparae

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Governor-General of New Zealand Sir Jerry Mateparae meet during the Governor-General's visit to Singapore. (Photo: Kenji Soon/MCI)

Additionally, Switzerland has a Federal Council with seven members, which includes representatives from minority ethnic groups in an unwritten understanding. The Swiss Presidency rotates annually among the Federal Council members.

Mr Lee also brought up the situation in the United States, which had its first black president when Mr Barack Obama was elected in 2008. While some would then assume race was no longer in US elections, the breakdown of votes by race showed that 43 per cent of whites voted for Mr Obama, while 95 per cent of blacks and 67 per cent of Hispanics voted for him in his race against John McCain.

The Prime Minister cited the special provisions for minorities in the constitution for Group Representation Constituencies (GRC), saying that minority communities had misgivings when the idea was first introduced - that it would not be needed, that it would be patronising, and that the status quo was acceptable.

Mr Lee noted that now, people have come to accept GRCs, and that it has become an important stabiliser in the Singapore system, ensuring that there will always be minority MPs in Parliament.


Speaking to Channel NewsAsia after the Rally, Member of Parliament Cedric Foo said: "Affirmative action is not new, it’s something that’s practiced in many countries. The reason why he is seeking this change, subject to the Commission reviewing the Constitution, is to make sure that every race including the minority race can expect at some point to have one of their own occupying a key office in Singapore."

"I generally support that, and I take comfort from the fact that the elected president is no longer just a symbolic head of state, he has very important duties of holding the second key to safeguard our reserves, and also to vet and approve key appointments," he added. "But I’m comforted by the fact that there will be a CPA to advise the President, and also the powers of the CPA will also be incrementally adjusted upwards."

"So with that caveat, I think it is a good idea, however as with any affirmative action, such positions should be reviewed over time, because despite the well and good intentions, sometimes they don’t achieve the desired outcomes."

Meanwhile Senior Minister of State Desmond Lee also hailed PM Lee's comments on the Elected Presidency. "It is important to ensure that the office of the President remains one - that collectively, the entire office, and all who have assumed office, represent all Singaporeans," he said. "I think PM has much more to say about it and I wouldn't want to pre-empt him, but just listening to his Chinese and Malay speeches I think that's where he's coming from."


In the delivered portion of his speech, Mr Lee also said that Singapore has made “significant progress” in becoming one people, regardless of race, language and religion since its founding in 1965.

He cited a recent survey by Channel NewsAsia and the Institute of Policy Studies, which showed strong support for meritocracy, and that majority of Singaporeans - 75 per cent - believe race does not influence success.

According to the survey, the majority also believed that the interest of one's own race should not come before the interests of other races.

Mr Lee said that this was the result of "a lot of work over the years", where Singapore acknowledged its diversity frankly and honestly, and did not pretend that race and religion did not matter.

In his written remarks, Mr Lee also cited the use of English as a common working language, the mixing of all races in HDB estates and the Ethnic Integration Policy, as well as reciting the pledge in schools every day in helping Singapore make progress.

Nonetheless, he noted that Singapore is not a homogeneous society, and that the survey also showed that race still matters when it came to personal choices - such as whom one marries, or when choosing best friends and business partners.

The survey also revealed that most Singaporeans prefer someone of the same race to be President or Prime Minister. However, a smaller number – but still a majority – said that they would accept a minority race in the positions.

President race survey

According to the survey, the majority of respondents of all races were agreeable to a Singaporean Chinese in both positions, with more than 80 per cent of Malays, Indians and Others saying they would accept a Singaporean Chinese as Prime Minister and as President.

A majority of respondents, albeit a smaller number, also said they would accept a minority race in the positions – around 60 per cent of Chinese, 75 per cent of Malays and around 68 per cent of Others said yes to a Singaporean Indian Prime Minister or President. When it came to a Singaporean Malay Prime Minister or President, just over half of Chinese, around 70 per cent of Indians and about 80 per cent of Others said yes.

Mr Lee pointed out that it was not surprising that in elections, race is still a factor, and that all things being equal, a minority candidate is still at a disadvantage.

He acknowledged that when the position of the elected President was created, it was known that race would be an issue, but the more pressing issue then was to find suitable candidates to stand. While Mr Nathan was the one elected minority President so far, Mr Lee noted that he ran unopposed during both his elections.

He added that the Constitutional Commission has proposed a mechanism to ensure a minority President.


In his speech in Mandarin, Mr Lee said the President as head of state was “the unifying symbol for all Singaporeans”, adding that it is important that there is a Malay, Indian or other race as President from time to time.

“I hope the Chinese community will support the constitutional changes," said Mr Lee, so that "if we have a good minority presidential candidate, he can also represent all Singaporeans”.

He said that while there are GRCs to ensure that there will always be minority Members of Parliament (MP), for a non-Chinese to be an MP is not easy, and for a non-Chinese to be President is even harder.

PM Lee at NDR on minorities in elected Presidency

(Photo: Xabryna Kek)

“Hence, at the beginning of this year I proposed amendments to the constitution and changes to the elected President scheme to make sure that from time to time, we will have a non-Chinese President,” he said.

He noted that while some have argued that there is nothing wrong with having a Chinese President in a majority Chinese country, and that elections should be allowed to run their natural course, those with such feelings need to face up to Singapore’s multi-racial context.

“Under the current system of contested national elections for President, we may not have a non-Chinese President for a long time. If this is the case, this will weaken the sense of national identity among minorities, and thereby affect our cohesion,” he said, adding that this was a serious issue that affects Singapore’s social cohesion, multiracial society and safety.


In his Malay speech, Mr Lee brought up Singapore’s first President, Mr Yusof Ishak, whom Mr Lee said “represented all Singaporeans”.

Mr Lee also brought up Mr Yusof’s 1968 New Year message, in which the former President said “we in Singapore should not fall into the tragic error of viewing the variety of language, religion, culture and race as a stumbling block to progress and prosperity”.

Yusof Ishak

Mr Yusof Ishak (right) presenting the President’s Scholarship to Mr Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana in 1970. (Photo: Yusof Ishak Collection, National Archives of Singapore)

“On the contrary, if we approach these differences with goodwill, tolerance and healthy curiosity this rich variety will ultimately turn out to be our salvation,” Mr Yusof added in an audio recording played at the rally. “It is this tolerance for variety, among other things, which today makes Singapore the dynamic and progressive city it is.”

Mr Lee said in Malay that Singapore has done well to heed Mr Yusof’s words, and that Singapore must continue to work hard together to better integrate, practice give-and-take and build goodwill so that the country can stay united.

“We have to make sure our political system represents all Singaporeans, and all races,” Mr Lee said. “This has been our nation’s bedrock.”

“This is how our minority and majority communities have lived harmoniously and prospered together,” he added. “This is why today we can all sing ‘Majulah Singapura’ together, as ‘one united people regardless of race, language or religion'.”

Source: CNA/av