Presidential polls raise questions on race in 'merit-based' Singapore

WHEN Singaporean schoolchildren learn about the 1965 separation between Singapore and Malaysia, they are told that the major reason for the split had to do with Malaysian politicians’ insistence on playing racial politics, while their Singaporean counterparts espoused a “Malaysian Malaysia”, where everyone would be equal.

“We are going to have a multiracial nation in Singapore. We will set the example. This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everybody will have his place, equal; language, culture, religion,” Lee Kuan Yew famously declared during a press conference on August 9, 1965.

Yet, if anything can be learned from this year’s damp squib of a presidential “election”, it is that the People’s Action Party (PAP), whose rule in Singapore has been uninterrupted since 1959, is not as above racial politics as it claims.

Under new changes made to the elected presidency, this year’s election was confined to Malay candidates.

And, the authorities were not just going to take your word for it, either.

Candidates were required to apply for certificates from a Community Committee to confirm that they were, indeed, Malay (a similar system is used for ethnic minority candidates running in general elections under the Group Representation Constituency system).

Three hopefuls submitted applications: former Parliament speaker Halimah Yacob, and businessmen Salleh Marican and Farid Khan.

All were certified as Malay, but the Elections Department announced yesterday that the two men did not qualify to run as they had failed to meet the other criterion of being a chief executive of a company with at least S$500 million (RM1.6 billion) in shareholders’ equity.

The shareholders’ equity of Salleh’s company, for example, averaged about S$258 million over the past three financial years.

Halimah has even less financial experience than both men, but automatically qualified as the rules also say that individuals who have held office in senior positions, such as Parliament speaker, for three years are eligible to run for president.

With the other two out of the race even before nomination day, Halimah became Singapore’s eighth president by default.

Singaporeans had long expected this conclusion. It was too convenient for PAP to suddenly decide on changes to the system just before an election in which Tan Cheng Bock, who had been a very close second to the party-favoured Tony Tan in the last presidential election, intended to try for another bite of the cherry.

On top of that, Halimah’s victory had already been foreshadowed by a less-than-impressive slip-up on the part of Chan

Chun Sing, minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, who had addressed her as “Madam President” months before anyone had even announced an intention to run.

All in all, this year’s reserved presidential election was seen as a ploy by the PAP government to keep a firm hand on all the levers of power in Singapore.

Against this backdrop, PAP’s claim that the reserved election was about boosting racial representation to better protect multiculturalism in Singapore was met with scepticism. But, there was little that could be done.

Parliament is overwhelmingly dominated by the party, and the amendments were passed despite the objections of the tiny opposition presence.

A court challenge by Cheng Bock was dismissed. An adjournment motion filed by Sylvia Lim of the Workers’ Party on August 28 was balloted out after PAP MPs filed two other adjournment motions the next day.

After years of restrictive laws and an oppressed civil society, there was little capacity for any organised resistance from the citizenry beyond angry Facebook posts.

People’s ire then turned to the details. The requirement for candidates’ race to be assessed by a committee triggered questions, particularly since, out of the three then-hopeful applicants, both Halimah and Salleh have Indian fathers, while Farid’s identity card listed his race as Pakistani.

This focus on “who is Malay” was the last thing Singapore needed. It prompted people to go down a line of questioning that danced dangerously with concepts of racial purity, and further entrenched the habit of viewing everyone through a racial lens. Commentators noted an increase in anti-Malay rhetoric, while a speaker at a forum on the election opined that an individual had to be Muslim before they could be considered Malay.

Gender also became a wedge issue, as people became split over the problems with a reserved election and the symbolic value of a Malay-Muslim woman as Singapore’s first female head of state.

None of this is beneficial to the country. This reserved election, rammed down Singaporeans’ throats in such a ham-fisted way, has only sown more division and disillusionment, eroding public trust in our institutions.

But, it seems as if PAP no longer cares, as long as it can continue shoring up its power.

“We will set the example,” Lee had said in 1965.

Based on the farce that we have just witnessed, Singapore has become the example no one should care to follow. – September 12, 2017.

* Kirsten Han is a Singaporean freelance journalist and activist. Last year, she was named Advocate of the Year at the Singapore Advocacy Awards, and was named a Champion of Gender Justice and Equality by the Association of Women for Action and Research. 

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

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