My guess that is most Malay Singaporeans, and many non-Malays too, would think that the next person to occupy the largely-ceremonial post of President should be Malay. There is a general sense that this position should be rotated among the different ethnic groups. Out of six presidents that we’ve had so far, only the first one, Yusof Ishak (right) was Malay. Of the rest, one was Eurasian, two Chinese and two Indian.
It should be the turn for a Malay again, many would argue.
Well, yes and no. I actually think a stronger case can be made for the next president to be a butch lesbian of Malay-Siamese ancestry who happens to be a divorcee and single mother. We’ve never had one before.
However, all such daydreams come up against the harsh reality that since 1993, this is an elected position. Who emerges as the eventual President is determined by the dynamics of nomination and voting.
While these are still early days yet — the Elections Department only began issuing application forms for the Certificate of Eligibility on 1 June 2011 — from various news reports, those identified as potential contenders have all been male Chinese. This is not surprising since the extremely narrow conditions specified in Article 19(2) of the Constitution as to eligibility effectively filter out a lot of Malays through Article 19(2)(g), the third limb of which requires a candidate to have headed a company with paid-up capital of at least $100 million. The reality in Singapore’s private sector, and even statutory boards, is that Chinese predominate. Males too.
Article 19 says:
(2) A person shall be qualified to be elected as President if he —
(a) is a citizen of Singapore;
(b) is not less than 45 years of age;
(c) possesses the qualifications specified in Article 44(2)(c) and (d);
(d) is not subject to any of the disqualifications specified in Article 45;
(e) satisfies the Presidential Elections Committee that he is a person of integrity, good character and reputation;
(f) is not a member of any political party on the date of his nomination for election; and
(g) has for a period of not less than 3 years held office —
– (i) as Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker, Attorney-General, Chairman of the Public Service Commission, Auditor-General, Accountant-General or Permanent Secretary;
– (ii) as chairman or chief executive officer of a statutory board to which Article 22A applies;
– (iii) as chairman of the board of directors or chief executive officer of a company incorporated or registered under the Companies Act (Cap. 50) with a paid-up capital of at least $100 million or its equivalent in foreign currency; or
– (iv) in any other similar or comparable position of seniority and responsibility in any other organisation or department of equivalent size or complexity in the public or private sector which, in the opinion of the Presidential Elections Committee, has given him such experience and ability in administering and managing financial affairs as to enable him to carry out effectively the functions and duties of the office of President.
- Given these rules, I wouldn’t be surprised if the only realistic source of eligible Malays were from government ranks: ministers and the recently-retired Speaker of Parliament, Abdullah Tarmugi. But then, a funny thing happened last week. After news broke that former People’s Action Party (PAP) member of parliament (MP) Tan Cheng Bock was keen on contesting, Lim Boon Heng said that it might not be wise for those too closely associated with the PAP to enter the fray.
Given the current sentiment among the electorate, Singaporeans might prefer a President who is not so closely linked to the People’s Action Party (PAP), retired minister Lim Boon Heng said yesterday when asked about former PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock’s bid to run for the Elected Presidency.
The former Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office said he read the news of Dr Tan’s intention with “very, very mixed feelings”.
Both Mr Lim and Dr Tan were first elected to Parliament in the 1980 General Election (GE). They were parliamentary colleagues for 26 years before Dr Tan stepped down from politics prior to the 2006 GE. Mr Lim retired from the political scene before the recent GE.
Speaking at the sidelines of a People’s Association event, Mr Lim said: “My sense is that people would prefer if there were someone who can be a strong unifying symbol for Singaporeans, who’s not so closely related to the PAP.”
While there could be exceptions, he added: “I don’t know whether Dr Tan Cheng Bock, in spite of his independent streak of thinking and expression of views, fully meets the bill.”
— Today newspaper, 30 May 2011, S’poreans might prefer a President ‘not so closely related’ to PAP: Lim Boon Heng
If Tan Cheng Bock is “too closely linked” then all other former MPs, ministers and Tarmugi, are out. On the face of it, Lim might just be musing about how, in light of the present anti-PAP mood as evidenced by the vote-swing against the party in the 7 May general election, identification with the PAP would be a liability.
There are other possibilities in explaining Lim’s remarks. Perhaps the PAP has another name in mind from one of the statutory boards or even someone that only qualifies under the catch-all wording of Article 19(2) (g) (iv), and Tan Cheng Bock’s likely candidacy throws a spanner in the works. S R Nathan, the current president, for example, was a virtual unknown when he was wheelbarrowed into the Istana (the presidential palace) in 1999 through an uncontested “election”. In other words, it may be that the PAP is hoping for another walkover in 2011 so that its preferred candidate gets easy passage.
But Lim is getting it wrong. Anyone, especially if he is obscure, who gets to be President courtesy of a walkover is going to be so strongly identified with the PAP he would be seen as a stooge. That act of wheelbarrowing is identification enough.
To come back to the point, the chances of a Malay Singaporean ascending to the Presidency is low unless the PAP engineers an uncontested election allowing their preferred nominee (provided he or she is Malay) to “win”. Yet this would violate the spirit of the Constitution. Moreover, should the PAP be seen resorting to its dirty tricks again, smearing the reputation of candidates it did not secretly endorse or somehow getting the Presidential Elections Committee to disqualify all opponents, the electorate would quickly see the PAP as reverting to type, promises of reform cast away like used tissue.
Thus, the desire for orderly ethnic rotation stands in contradiction to the desire for a more competitive political field. This is not to suggest that Malays cannot win in an open election; I can well imagine many non-Malays, in the spirit of fairness, voting for a a Malay candidate. The problem is that under the present rules, few of them can get past the nomination hurdle. So, to have any hope that the next President would be Malay, we’re either going to have to rig the election or free up the rules.