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2017 presidential election will be reserved for Malay candidates: Singapore PM

  • Charissa Yong

    The Straits Times

Singapore   /   Tue, November 8, 2016   /  05:31 pm
2017 presidential election will be reserved for Malay candidates: Singapore PM Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong walks past an old photograph of his father, the late Lee Kuan Yew, during a remembrance ceremony held at the old Parliament House to mark the first death anniversary of Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on March 23, 2016, in Singapore. (AP/Wong Maye-E)

The next Singapore’s presidential election, due in 2017, will be reserved for candidates from the Malay community.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, announcing this in Parliament on Tuesday, said: "That means if a qualified Malay candidate steps up to run, Singapore will have a Malay president again... this would be our first after more than 46 years, since our first president Encik Yusof Ishak."

Having reserved elections is one of the proposed changes to the elected presidency being debated in Parliament this week. It is meant to ensure that minority presidents are elected from time to time.

Under the constitutional change proposed, an election will be reserved for a particular racial group if no one from that group has been president for five continuous terms. Candidates running in these reserved elections will have to meet the same criteria as those running in open elections.

There have been questions on when the first reserved election would be, as it was previously unclear which past president the Government would begin counting the period of five continuous terms from.

Lee said the Constitutional Amendment Bill stated that the Government should legislate on this point, adding that it has received advice from the Attorney-General.

He said the Government will start counting the five continuous terms from the term of President Wee Kim Wee, who was the first president to be vested with the powers of the elected president. Wee was in office when the elected presidency came into effect in 1991.

Since then, there have been five presidential terms with the elected presidents in office: Wee, Ong Teng Cheong, S R Nathan who was in the office for two terms, and the current term of President Tony Tan Keng Yam.

Lee also said the racial group of each of the elected presidents will have to be defined for the purposes of the Act, with Wee, Ong and Tan considered Chinese, and Nathan considered Indian.

In effect, this means there has been no Malay president for five continuous terms. Hence the provision to reserve an election for candidates from the Malay community will be triggered for the next presidential election, due next year.

Whether to ensure people from different races can and do indeed become president is the most difficult question in the current debate on the elected presidency, "because it goes right to the core of our fundamental belief in a multiracial society", said Lee.

"Every citizen, Chinese, Malay, Indian, or some other race, should know that someone of his community can become president, and in fact from time to time, does become president."

Race is a very live consideration, with real world implications, he said, noting that Singapore's ethnic groups are always subject to different external pulls and influences.

And racial harmony in Singapore can be affected by developments in other countries, he added, citing as examples the rise of China, the issue of race and religion for Singapore's closest neighbors, as well as the threat of a terror attack here.

Surveys also show at least a significant minority of Singaporeans consider race as a factor when they vote, which means minority candidates are at a disadvantage in an election.

This is also the case in countries like the United States, he added.

The current United States election is about globalization, jobs, insecurity, but race is also front and center, Lee said, citing how Republican Donald Trump's supporters are overwhelmingly white, lower and middle-income voters who feel threatened by demographic changes happening in America.

Black voters are again overwhelmingly voting for Democrat Hillary Clinton, but with somewhat less enthusiasm than they voted for Barack Obama.

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