The Elected Presidency, pp. 3 of 4

Commentators from the general public are similarly divided. Those who support the reserved elections provision tend to support the intended outcome more than the process itself. Those who oppose this provision similarly argue that it is not needed because Singaporeans are now open-minded and meritocratic enough to vote for the best candidate regardless of ethnicity.

However, to argue that reserved elections go against our meritocratic values is to assume that the playing field is level in the first place. Despite our high regard for meritocracy, a 2016 Institute of Policy (IPS) survey commissioned by Channel NewsAsia found evidence to the contrary. Among other findings, it found that only 59% of Chinese respondents found a Malay president acceptable. Thus, at best, given two candidates of equal standing, 41% of Chinese respondents would prefer the one who was not Malay. At worst, perhaps this segment will take any non-Malay over any Malay candidate regardless of relative ability. While the minimal interpretation is not necessarily an expression of racial animus, it does represent a significant handicap for Malay candidates. The numbers for hypothetical Indian or Other presidents were not much better.

For the PAP government, the long absence of a Malay president in the Istana is not simply a problem with our meritocratic value system; it is also a problem for the credibility of our multicultural national character. Thus, the issue of whether or not we should have reserved elections goes beyond the interests and self-regard of the Malay or any other minority community. It extends to how the entire nation views itself and its credibility among other nations; that it is what it says it is. If we are a multicultural exemplar to the world, not having an ethnic rotation in the Istana hurts our credibility. This is not to say however, that this author agrees with the particular solution the PAP government has offered for this problem, only that a superficially colourblind and supposedly meritocratic approach can potentially gloss over salient imbalances in the status quo.

A third controversy revolves around the domination of the ruling PAP party over the office of the president. Ever since the start of the elected presidency, all three elected presidents have entered office as the PAP party’s candidate of choice. Critics of the PAP have expressed suspicions that the new provision for reserved elections was a ploy to prevent Dr. Tan Cheng Bok from contesting the election this year, having come so close to beating current President Tony Tan in 2011. An ethnic Chinese, Dr. Tan is ineligible to run in an election reserved for the Malay community. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong however, has gone on record explaining the timing of the November 2016 amendment. PM Lee expressed his desire to see these changes through before he stepped down and had to leave them for his successor. This statement, of course, implies that PM Lee intends to step down some time after the 2017 election and before the subsequent presidential election.

Nevertheless, this issue has raised an older controversy regarding the independence of the presidency. Critics of the PAP have argued the fact that candidates with implicit PAP endorsement dominate the elected presidency and this undermines confidence in the independence of president and therefore undermines the point of having an elected presidency in the first place. Some commentators have even suggested we return to an appointed presidency because of this issue. Defenders of the policy reply that while only the implicitly endorsed candidates have won the presidential elections to date, this only reflects the people’s confidence in their abilities and the PAP’s track record in identifying top talent. Of course, this only leads to the common rebuttal that it is unhealthy for a democracy for the PAP to monopolise all the talent.

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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