From the wreckage of a presidential ‘election’, racism rises like a disturbed ghost

Now that the People’s Action Party government has installed Halimah Yacob as the so-called president of Singapore, racism has gained a legitimacy we once thought was forever barred. That said, this presidential charade was not the first time the PAP dispensed with its founding principles. Racism was introduced into our electoral system in 1988 through the ugly invention called “Group Representation Constituencies”. In 2017 as in 1988, the PAP demonstrated that principles can be disposed like tissue paper when they need to fend off limits to their power.

This round of the decades-long slow-motion disaster began when they announced that for the next term of the presidency, candidates must be (a) Malay and (b) meet a much higher threshold of prior experience if that person is from the private sector. The higher threshold conditions include having been a chief executive of a company with at least $500 million in shareholders’ equity, and which was profitable after tax for the three years during which he or she was chief executive. The bar is set so high that few Singaporeans would qualify, let alone those of a minority race comprising only 13.4% of the resident population based on the 2010 census.

(I couldn’t find the Malay percentage of the citizen population. Census data seems only to carry numbers for “resident population”, a term that includes Permanent Residents, who do not have the vote.)

The New York Times, in its story “Singapore Has a New President, No Election Needed” (12 September 2017) pointedly wrote:

But what could have been a notable milestone for Singapore’s democracy is instead being publicly questioned as a rigged process, and her [Halimah’s] legitimacy is already coming under fire.

While Singapore’s Constitution does, in fact, provide for voters to elect their president, the eligibility requirements to stand for election were drawn so narrowly that only Ms. Halimah made the cut.

It is an open secret that for all practical purposes, the bar was intended to eliminate anyone the PAP considers not its chosen. In particular, it served to block a possible challenge from Tan Cheng Bock who, in the 2011 presidential election, lost that election to PAP stalwart Tony Tan by a mere 6,982 (0.33%) valid votes cast. Tan Cheng Bock was readying a new challenge in 2017.

After Halimah discarded all her dignity to “stand” for this sham of an “election” and was duly shooed in, I began to notice some distasteful comments on my Facebook wall. It was a series of posts by someone with a Malay-sounding name, who made accusations against non-Malays for not recognising Halimah as a legitimate president. The imputation was that these non-Malays were motivated by racism to “not accept” a Malay president.

There was a small moment of mirth however when someone posted a reply asking: What about Malays who refuse to accept Halimah as a legitimate president? Are they racist too?

The funny thing about this original poster with a Malay-sounding name is that he had, prior to Nomination Day, been actively posting about Halimah’s part-Indian ancestry. His posts were not particularly flattering. By posting — equally vivdly — about the non-Malay forebears of other possible contenders Farid Khan and Salleh Marican, he seemed to be suggesting that none of them were Malay enough. An alternative reading could be that he was cheering Farid Khan and Salleh Marican on by pointing out that Halimah was no more Malay than they were.

As it turned out, Khan and Marican were both denied the Certificate of Eligibility they needed in order to register officially as candidates, not on the ground of their ethnicity — the question therefore remains unanswered — but by the commercial threshold. Halimah, having been Speaker of Parliament, did not need to meet the commercial threshold. According to a Wikipedia article about her, she has never been in the private sector, let alone been responsible for $500 million in shareholder equity or for turning any profit (not that I endorse such nonsensical criteria).

It’s not possible for me to know how representative the views of this guy with the Malay-sounding name are. But the trouble with social media is that his views can be propagated and magnified, and over time, the characterisation of fellow citizens as racists contained in his posts can affect others’ perception.

It became even more disturbing when I overheard a similar comment spoken by a fellow bus passenger with a Muslim headscarf the other day. She was speaking with someone who seemed to to be a Filipina (judging from the accent). The Muslim woman which I assume to be Singaporean said she was not surprised that ultimately, there was no vote called because “the government knew that Chinese and Indian Singaporeans would never vote for a Malay.”

The Filipina then asked, “but weren’t the other candidates also Malay, since the whole contest was reserved for Malays?” or something to that effect.

“Yes,” said the hijabbed woman, “but they were planning to spoil their votes instead for voting for any Malay.”

In a way, she was right. In the run-up to the non-election, lots of people I spoke with were planning to spoil their votes. Voting is compulsory in Singapore; you can’t boycott the polls without penalty, but you are free to spoil the ballot paper.

Even ministers were saying things that suggested that they were aware of the ground sentiment. Chan Chun Sing spoke of a “political price”; Tharman Shanmugaratnam alluded to it too when he said “It is understandable that questions are raised on the reserved election.”

But I am pretty certain that these people who told me they were going to spoil their vote were doing it to protest the racism built into this presidential contest when it was reserved for Malays. As Tharman noted of popular disquiet, “there is something encouraging in it,” and that “There is clearly an aspiration for race to matter less.”

Far from being an expression of racism as the hijabbed woman on the bus saw it, the likely mass spoiling of votes would have been an expression of distaste at the PAP’s resort to race in its political machinations. But even as I point this out, it does not negate the fact that this woman now saw herself and her community has newly re-victimised, when no one intended so.

And then when a minority community regularly plays the victim card even when others consider themselves innocent of it… well, be very careful there, for other communities may consider themselves justified when they reciprocate with antagonism anew.

I am totally conscious of the fact a majority community, by sheer weight of numbers, will enjoy advantages and privileges. To begin with, norms are often set with reference to them. I am a gay man, remember?, in a society dominated by heterosexuals. I won’t deny that minority ethnic groups suffer daily an abrasive marginalisation. But the route out of this situation is not to hardcode racism, such as in reserved elections or reserved parliamentary seats. It is to do everything we can to change social attitudes. In fact, hardcoding sets everything back.

I have said it many times before: this government is bad for Singapore and our future. In its selfish insistence on holding on to unchecked power, it is destroying our institutions — the constitution, the police, the justice system, an independent, thinking civil service — and, as is now clear from this episode, it is undermining our founding principles. Long gone, needless to say, are our fundamental liberties like freedom of speech. It’s a wrecking ball of a government.

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