The next presidential election is only for Malay candidates and that feels weird to me, as a Malay

OPINION — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong didn’t hide his intentions in pushing for a minority president in next year’s elections, proposing changes that will ensure non-Chinese presidents be elected from time to time.

And so, it passed in Parliament today. The presidential election next year will only be reserved for Malay candidates. It’s a surefire way to ensure that Singapore will have a Malay president again — the first in 46 years after Yusof Ishak, the nation’s first president.

The constitutional change puts out that elections will be specially reserved for a particular racial group if none have been president for five continuous terms. To ensure fair game and dispel notions of tokenism, candidates running in the reserved elections will have to meet the same criteria as those running in standard open elections. He has to be Singaporean, 45 years old and above, registered as an elector, not a member of any political party, and has held office in a position of seniority and responsibility for more than three years in the public or private sector.

With President Tony Tan intending not to stand in the next election, the pathway is clear. Singapore will indeed have a Malay president next year.

“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,” said PM Lee.

Minority Privilege

A group of Malay rajahs (chiefs) sit and pose with their men, C. 1900. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Speaking as a Malay (well, Javanese on my IC, but not as if y’all know the difference anyway) the fact that the mechanics of a special election for Malay presidents is now part of a system just seems… discomforting.

Thanks and everything big G, but you really didn’t have to mollycoddle a whole community to ensure ‘fair representation’. In fact, this isn’t much of a ‘fair representation’. We’d be way more genuine in our pride for a Malay president if he got elected in an open race — a Malay president that beat the odds and actually has the merit to earn the respect of all races. Not a forced one where everyone has no choice BUT elect a Malay president.

Sure, Singapore has long been seen as a Chinese society — enough to be annoyingly misconstrued as being somewhere in China — and having a Malay president is a small step towards breaking that popular misconception. But having President S.R. Nathan (RIP, sir) for a whole 12 years didn’t seem to do anything, other than having folks overseas getting surprised that the president of Singapore is of Indian descent.

Did having an Indian president even make a major impact on the reputation of the Indian community in the eyes of the majority? In a widely shared Facebook post about tokenism in the presidency, Alfian recounts:

“…one of the more racist things S. R. Nathan was called was ‘the prata man in the Istana’.”

Minor Threat

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This all just seems like a rather condescending way of saying to minorities “Hey, you guys can’t seem to achieve anything much by yourselves. Why don’t you put on this fancy hat for a while before the big boys take over?”

In a way, they’re pointing out that Malay folks need special help from the Government. This can be regarded as reverse discrimination — but more of a symbolic gesture than something that actually has solid, long-term impact on social inequalities. Not to mention that it won’t do much in dismantling historically entrenched Chinese Privilege.

No, I don’t want you to drive deeper a perception of division between races. No, I don’t need a safeguarded position of a president from my race every once in a while to instil a false sense of pride. No I don’t need Bumiputra benefits.

What I want is anyone from any race, religion or cultural upbringing to be an effective president that champions the rights of everyone who sorely needs it — the poor, the marginalised, the discriminated, the deprived. We don’t specifically need a Malay (or Indian, or Eurasian) president to resolve Singapore’s existing racial grievances; we need someone who’s an actually effective leader enough to become a catalyst for change, for the better.

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