The Elected Presidency, pp. 2 of 4

First, given the original symbolic and unifying role of the president, the addition of the fiscal custodial role created tension in the office. While the symbolic role does not require any formal qualifications, the PAP government felt that the custodial role requires the president to have leadership experience helming very large public bodies or private organisations. This requirement obviously precludes the vast majority of Singaporeans from becoming a viable candidate. Some commentators have criticized this change as elitist and classist, especially given how relatable the first four presidents were to the common people. Other commentators however noted that such requirements were in line with the meritocratic nature of Singaporean society and that the custodial role of the president is both a vital and very technical part of the job. The requirements ensure a minimum level of competence in the office’s fiscal duties. Nevertheless, their opponents felt that it would suffice if a president had ready access to advice from highly trained advisors in these fiscal matters.

A related issue is whether these high-level career requirements create a special burden for minority communities, especially for the Malay community, which has historically lagged behind others in socio-economic attainment. If there are fewer Malays or other minorities in positions of leadership in the largest organisations, a few commentators argue that it creates an artificial barrier to entry for them. The PAP government’s response was to encourage minority communities to concentrate their energies to growing their respective talent pools.

Second, the provision of ethnicity-based reserved elections created controversy both within and outside of minority communities. This year’s presidential elections are set aside for the Malay community because we have not had a Malay president in the five terms since the elected Presidency started. (Wee Kim Wee’s term is taken into account because the 1991 constitutional changes applied to his last two years in office.) Of course, the dearth in Malay presidents extends further back. Since the republic’s first president Yusof Ishak died in office in 1970, no Malay person has ascended to the presidency.

Perusing letters to the newspapers and comments on social media, it seems that the issue of reserved elections has divided opinion in the Malay community. Some segment of the community naturally welcomes the news that the next president will definitely be Malay, however there does not seem to be significant discursive support for the general idea of race-based reserved elections as a solution to the perceived problem.  On the other hand, the segment of the community who opposes this development are more vocal online and make more sustained arguments, perhaps the most central of which is that these reserved elections go against the meritocratic values which the community has accepted as its own. After seeing more and more Malays climb the private and public sector ladders in the last couple of decades, they argue that these reserved elections are a form of affirmative action, which is neither needed nor wanted. One Malay professional who wrote in to the Straits Times called it a “major step backwards” for the community.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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