Singapore presidential race for Malays only

Singapore presidential race for Malays only

Singapore President Tony Tan waves to the crowd during National Day celebrations at Marina Bay on Aug 9. (Reuters Photo)
Singapore President Tony Tan waves to the crowd during National Day celebrations at Marina Bay on Aug 9. (Reuters Photo)

SINGAPORE: An election featuring a controversial racial provision will be held later this month to choose a successor to Singapore President Tony Tan, who stepped down on Thursday after completing his six-year term.

The election for the mainly ceremonial post, expected to be held on Sept 23, will be the first to be reserved for Malay candidates only, in line with constitutional changes passed last year. Under the changes, if Singapore has not had a president from a particular race for five consecutive terms, an election will be reserved for that race.

The government has said that the move is necessary to ensure that the minority races also have a chance to be elected as president.

The city-state, where the politically and economically dominant Chinese account for three-quarters of the population, has not had a Malay president for 47 years since its first president, Yusof Ishak, died in office in 1970.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong defended the approach to the next election in comments made in November last year.

"If we do not make deliberate arrangements to ensure a multi-racial outcome, the presidency could well become a single-race office because minorities do find it harder to win in a national election," he said.

"You have seen the surveys. They show that at least a significant minority of Singaporeans consider race as a factor when they vote, and will not vote for somebody of a different race to be president. ... And that puts the minority candidates at a disadvantage in an election."

The move has attracted controversy, with some critics accusing the government of trying to avert a repeat of the 2011 election when Tan, a former deputy prime minister seen as the government-backed candidate, won by a narrow margin and only garnered 35% of the votes in a four-way contest.

Although still largely symbolic and ceremonial, the president's role as head of state had been expanded in the past to include the power to veto or disagree with the government in the use of the country's reserves and appoint and remove key office holders in the public service.

After the presidential system was changed in 1991 from one which was chosen by Parliament to one that is directly elected by the people, there have been three Chinese presidents and an Indian. No Malay candidate had even run for the post.

A major hurdle has been the high qualifying criteria to run for the presidency.

In terms of experience, the candidate should have served for at least three years in a very high-ranking public-sector post such as a cabinet minister, chief justice or speaker of parliament, or as a chief executive of a private company with a minimum shareholder equity of S$500 million for at least three years.

Halimah Yacob, who recently resigned as the Speaker of Parliament and a legislator from Lee's ruling party to run for the presidency, is widely seen as the only one who has the experience required to qualify for nomination.

According to local media reports, the other two contenders are the marine services firm chairman Farid Khan, 61, and property executive Mohamed Salleh Marican, 67.

The two might have a tough time meeting the qualifying criteria, as it is not clear whether their companies meet the shareholder equity requirement.

If she wins, Halimah, a 63-year-old lawyer by training who, will be Singapore's first-ever woman president.

But some have also questioned whether the candidates who have applied to run for the presidency so far can really be regarded as Malay.

Halimah's father, who died when she was 8 years old, was Indian though she has insisted that she was brought up as a Malay by her mother and has been accepted by the Malay community.

Khan is ethnically Pakistani while Salleh Marican, whose father is Indian, has been said to be less fluent in the Malay language.

The candidates will be informed if they qualify to run for the presidency before the Sept 13 nomination day. If there is only one eligible candidate, he or she will be declared the new president on that day without the need for any election.

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