Singapore Buzz For A Non-Chinese PM Amid Debate Over Malay President

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People wave the Singapore national flags during the national day parade and celebration held in Singapore’s Marina Bay on Aug. 9, 2017. (Photo: Xinhua)

 

Singapore made history on September 13, 2017 by choosing a woman as the Head of State.

Halimah Yacob, 63, an immediate-past Speaker of Parliament, was elevated to be the Elected President (EP) in a walkover. A member of the Malay community, she rose to the highest office of the land in the first reserved Presidential Election since 1991 when the institution was created for the election of the President for a six-year-term on a nation-wide, one-man-one-vote basis.

This year’s election, restricted to Malay candidates, took place 11 months after the Government under Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pushed through Parliament amendments to the current election system. One key change is a built-in triggering mechanism that says if no President has been elected from the racial groups—Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others, including Eurasians, for five years, a reserved election will kick in for candidates from that racial group. Another new feature is the higher bar for private-sector candidates, namely, that they must have at least three years’ experience running a profit-making company with at least $500 million shareholder equity, up from the previous $200 million.

The first Malay President, Yusof Ishak, appointed by Parliament in 1965, was followed by other appointed Presidents–Benjamin Sheares (Eurasian), Devan Nair (Indian) and Wee Kim Wee (Chinese)—including elected Presidents Ong Teng Cneong (Chinese), S. R. Nathan (Indian) and Tony Tan (Chinese).

Halimah Yacob’s uncontested election came 47 years after President Yusof’s five-year term ended in 1970.

The election of a second Malay President has been hailed by the government as affirming Singapore’s multi-racial population (5.8 million) make-up of Chinese (75%), Malay (13%), Indian (11%), and Others (3.4%)

“People think we may be going backwards, towards racial politics. But actually, the reality is the opposite. We are making necessary changes to strengthen our multi-racial system.” Lee Hsien Loong said during a grass-roots meeting on Sept 30.

But sections of the intelligentsia have decried the reserved presidential election as a regressive step for multi-racialism.

“How do I tell my son to believe in the national pledge ‘We the people of Singapore pledge ourselves as one united people regardless of race, language and religion to build a democratic society based on justice and equality…’” said a father of a school-going child, taking part in a silent sit-in on September 16 to protest against the Reserved President scheme in Hong Lim Park. At least a thousand people, many clad in black T-shirt emblazoned with the hashtag #NotMyPresident, gathered at the designated Speakers’ Corner site close by Chinatown where citizens and permanent residents can stage demonstrations and air their views on controversial national policies.

On social media, commentator Ismail Kassim said, “This (reserved Elected President) is the greatest setback to multiracialism since independence and a blow against meritocracy, and the concept of having the best man for the job, to be freely chosen by the electorate.”

It was apparent that their preferred candidate in an open Presidential election was the outspoken former ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) law-maker, Tan Cheng Bock, who showed up at the rally and was immediately mobbed by the crowd. The veteran politician who still retains a following in PAP ranks, came close to defeating the establishment candidate, Tony Tan, in the 2011 presidential election by a mere 7,382 votes.

In his campaign for President, Tan Cheng Bock (77) declared he would ask “relevant questions” and would even “warn” the government if it should try to dip into the country’s reserves without justification, a stance on the President’s “second key” role to safeguard the nation’s accumulated reserves that did not endear him to the government.

But Tan’s supporters were gearing for another go to send him to the Istana, the presidential palace, when the government sprang its surprise Reserved President gambit. Tan’s frustrated supporters read it as designed to block him out of the race, a charge the government denied. If not, why did the government implement the Reserved President scheme, which Parliament endorsed only in November last year, without giving the electorate time to prepare for the momentous change?

Given that the Reserved Election went the government’s way, some protesters at the Speakers’ Corner and on social media were also upset that two other candidates—businessmen Mohamed Salleh Marican and Farid Khan—were ruled ineligible by the Presidential Election Committee for not meeting the $500 million capitalisation criterion, thereby allowing Halimah to be returned as President without contestation.

Arising from the intense Reserved Presidency debate, the spotlight turned unwittingly towards the issue of a race-blind way of choosing the next Prime Minister on the basis of best-person for the post.

The idea gains currency as Prime Minister Lee, 65, had said his political successor should be identified soon after the next general election, which must be held by 15 January, 2021.

And the name on many lips at the rally to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is the popular and capable Deputy Prime Minister who is also Co-ordinating Minister for Economics and Social Policies, Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

Tharman (60) who is of Ceylonese Tamil ancestry, is rated highly against other potential candidates. A Yahoo commissioned straw poll shows him leading 69% against fellow Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean (34%), Finance Minister Heng Swee Kiat (25%) and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing (24%).

“Mr Tharman is well qualified and respected, with international experience,” said one rally participant. Indeed, the London School of Economics-, Cambridge-, and Harvard-trained economist had held the Finance and Education portfolios, and now helms the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the central bank and financial regulator. He had been the first Asian chairman of the International Monetary Fund financial committee.

Despite such credentials, Tharman must still develop language skills to reach out to both the Chinese and non-Chinese electorate.

When asked “could a non-Chinese be Prime Minister?”, Lee Hsien Loong replied it is possible but a lot hinges on the person’s ability to communicate effectively with the grassroots. (Time interview July 24, 2015)

“You must have the right person, you must have the politics worked out, you must be able to connect both with the Chinese as well as the non-Chinese population,’’ he said.

He added that, with the new generation of Singaporeans, the prospects are better for a non-Chinese to gain acceptance as Prime Minister.

The English-speaking Tharman finds himself at home with the young generation who speaks English, the administrative lingo in Singapore.

Unlike the Presidency, however, there is no provision in the Constitution for rotating the office of Prime Minister among the different racial groups. In line with the Westminster parliamentary system, Singapore’s Prime Minister is chosen by his peers in the ruling party and on gaining majority support of MPs in Parliament is formally and duly appointed by the President.

In the 52 years as a sovereign state, Singapore has had three consecutive Chinese heads of government. The first to take office as Prime Minister after Singapore attained self-government from the British Raj in 1959 was Lee Kuan Yew.

The People’s Action Party leader presided over the merger with the Federation of Malaysia, and the British colonial territories of Sabah and Sarawak to form the Malaysia federation on September 16, 1963. He continued as Prime Minister after Singapore’s secession from Malaysia in 1965 and held office till November 28, 1990 when he passed the baton to Goh Chok Tong. Prime Minister Goh was at the helm till 12 August 2004 when Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, became the third Prime Minister.

Interestingly, in the early days of Singapore’s struggle for self-government, the race factor did not figure prominently in the rise of political leaders. In 1955, David Saul Marshall, a Jewish criminal-lawyer-turned politician, led his Labour Front to victory in the Legislative Assembly election and became Singapore’s first Chief Minister. His oratory and genius in getting criminals off the hangman’s noose had made him a folk hero to the   Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Eurasians caught up in the struggle for multi-ethnic independence.

“He believed he was in a unique position to do so; he was an Asian but neither Malay, Chinese or Indian. He would gather all the races together so that they could live in tolerance and harmony,” according to Alex Josey, author of David Marshall’s Political Interlude.

In the contemporary discourse on finding a successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the public sentiments expressed in favour of the best man for the job might appear to run ahead of the political leadership.

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