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Singapore gets a Malay head of state

by September 16, 2017 General

SEPTEMBER 17 — So a Malay Muslim woman, Halimah Yacob, has just become Singapore’s head of state.

Diversity, empowerment for women and more checks and balances within our system: is it time to celebrate? Probably not.

In fact there are some troubling aspects about Halimah’s journey to the top.

Firstly I do need to clarify that though nominally the head of state, Singapore’s president is not the head of government and politically has far less power than the prime minister.

In fact the office is a largely a ceremonial one, though Halimah will have responsibilities beyond just shaking the hands of foreign dignitaries.

Singapore’s president must approve any attempt by the government to spend reserves not accumulated during its tenure; this is important as Singapore has a considerable tranche of reserves.

The president must also approve and can potentially veto the appointment of senior civil servants including the Chief Justice, the Attorney General and the Comissioner of Police.

Halimah will also have the power to launch investigations pertaining to corruption and monitor/mitigate the government’s implementation of Singapore’s stringent internal security laws.

That being said, Singapore’s past presidents have largely concurred with government decisions and appointments.

Still, since the position officially became an elected one via amendments to the constitution in 1991 (prior to that the president was appointed by Parliament) we have had, in principle, an elected head of state.

President-elect Halimah Yacob (centre) takes the oath of office while flanked by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) and Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon (right) during the presidential inauguration ceremony at the Istana in Singapore, September 14, 2017. — Reuters picPresident-elect Halimah Yacob (centre) takes the oath of office while flanked by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) and Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon (right) during the presidential inauguration ceremony at the Istana in Singapore, September 14, 2017. — Reuters picThe practice though has been somewhat different. In 1999 and 2005 the elections were walkovers and in fact our new leader too was not actually elected. As she was the only eligible candidate, she was deemed to have won by default.

That’s right, no one else was on the ballot. Is that because no one else wanted to be president? Not quite. I mean the president is entitled to over S$1.5 million (RM4.6 million) maintenance and expenses — there are definitely people who want the job.

But Halimah was the only candidate deemed eligible this year. The criteria for eligibility for the office of Singapore’s president are exceptionally high and candidates must receive a certificate stating they have met this criteria from the Presidential Election Committee in order to run.

Not only must candidates be older than 45, of good character etc. but they must also have been either a very senior public official — a minister, Chief Justice, CEO of Temasek Holdings etc. or have helmed a private company with a traded equity exceeding S$500 million for the past three years.

Basically there are only a handful of people, possibly around 100, eligible for the position at any given time. And as of this year via amendments to the constitution passed in April, it was decided the office would be reserved for a member of a particular community if no one from that community has served as president during the previous five presidential terms. The communities were defined as Chinese, Malay, Indian or Other.

Now the wisdom of racialising political positions is somewhat troubling but on a practical level if only 100 people are eligible at any time and we then say that of these only Malay candidates can stand, well then you end up without a lot of choice — as we did.

The upshot of this is that people are confused.

We had an election but we never voted.

We were promised Malay candidates but Halimah had an Indian father and her husband also isn’t Malay, therefore our Malay president’s children are only one quarter Malay.

But again why does this matter at all other than to highlight the obviously flawed and fluid concept of race?

The reality is this outcome, though it does seems like a good one — a Malay Muslim woman at the top — has left many people unhappy.

A large section of the public is disappointed because we were promised an election and never got one. Ethnic minorities seem to be disconcerted because:

1. Why only the president — we have never had a non-Chinese PM

2. Were minorities given this concession just to disqualify certain other candidates?

Other than Halimah herself, who was beaming away on TV, and the government which she herself was a key part of (as Speaker of Parliament) until just weeks ago, it’s hard to find anyone who seems satisfied with our Presidential Election.

Many also point out that while the president is meant to serve as a check on the government’s power, Halimah has been part of the government as an MP and Speaker for 16 years.

Basically if this was going to be the outcome all along, the walkover of a strongly pro-government candidate, why did we bother with the idea of an election? An appointed president would have achieved the same without the expectations and disappointment.

We do have to keep in mind though that this isnt Halimah’s fault. It’s the fault of the system and the clearly too rigid eligibility criteria.

Personally I wish our new president well; we have a lot in common: we are women, we have some Indian ancestry and most importantly she is from an HDB flat in Yishun (so am I)!

She has said she will stay in her flat and not move into the Istana so I am now a Presidential neighbour (that’s a thing!). Take that everyone who hates on Yishun (hating on “far off” Yishun is a Singapore thing!).

But my neighbourhood’s new VIP status aside, Halimah does move our systems and processes forward while advancing the interests of women and minorities.

Menwhile a great many stakeholders including Halimah need to get together and look at our presidential system and its electoral requirements… becuase this current system isn’t really working.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.