In an interview with the mainstream media, reported on 28 August, election applicant Halimah Yacob urged Singaporeans to “look past race” in the upcoming presidential election in September.
Mdm Halimah made the call “despite this being a reserved election for the candidates from the Malay community”, Channel Newsasia reported. The former Speaker of Parliament then laid out her experience in various sectors, including the labour movement, to show that she is eminently qualified to represent Singaporeans.
But can, and should, Singaporeans “look past race” in an election which is specially reserved for a particular race – the Malays, in this instance?
The entire premise of the Reserved Election is based on race – that the head of state of Singapore must be represented by each of the races at some point in time in what can only be described as a carousel system of racial representation.
The very fact that Mdm Halimah would qualify to run as a candidate is based, primarily, on her racial make-up.
This upcoming Reserved Election, therefore, would perhaps be of more significance to the Malay community (and if it is, there is nothing wrong with this), rather than for the other races, although it may still hold importance, given the role of the president.
But therein also lies the problem of a Reserved Election, as many have already pointed out – namely, that it diminishes the credibility of the eventual office holder, since he or she would be seen as having only assumed the office because of affirmative action.
Mdm Halimah, on her part, has argued that although the election is a reserved one, candidates would still have to satisfy the qualifying criterion as per an open election. This may be so, but the basic entry-point qualification is still one’s race, in this case.
So, to urge Singaporeans to “look past race” may be the politically correct thing to say. But in reality, the eventual winner will always be seen as someone who became president through an alternative route, designed and ring-fenced specially to prevent other races from contesting.
The irony here is that someone of Mdm Halimah’s reputation would easily win in an open election. Instead, it is rather unfortunate that she would – if she wins in September – be seen as a “lesser” winner because her challengers were artificially limited to only those from her own community.
This, perhaps, is the greatest harm that a Reserved Election will do to the Elected President office – that its occupant did not face a wider pool of competitors to indisputably earn the right to represent the nation at the highest level.
So, let’s not “look past race” because the Reserved Election is a flawed scheme which needs to be abolished. It needs to be reverted to the appointed president scheme we had before, and for the Elected President scheme to be abolished altogether.
Institutionalising race as a pre-requisite for anyone to represent all Singaporeans should be consigned to the rubbish heap of absurdities.