Law Minister K Shanmugam’s latest Facebook post shows a picture of PM Lee, newly unelected President Halimah Yacob, and Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, at the swearing-in ceremony for the unelected president.
Mr Shanmugam captioned the photo:
“Malay President, Chinese Prime Minister and Indian Chief Justice.
“Representation of Singapore.”
On the surface of it, the minister’s post indeed shows a multiracial veneer of this country, with each of the top positions being held by a member of a different race. This superficial reading of the post is apparently how some people viewed it, going by some of the comments posted on Mr Shanmugam’s page.
But on closer reflection of the photo, one cannot help but feel a certain sense of sadness and regret, at how the photo in fact has come to represent what is wrong with our system.
The president is an unelected one, who became president by default because the two other potential candidates were denied their Certificate of Eligibility by the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC).
These two other candidates were more qualified in terms of finance experience, a fundamental requirement for the elected presidency. The president’s main roles are twofold – to guard Singapore’s reserves and to be a ceremonial head of state.
The two men had decades of experience between them, with one running one of the biggest marine service companies in the world, and the other having built up his own business from 40 years ago and became the first Malay businessman to list his company on the Singapore Stock Exchange.
The shareholders’ equity of their respective companies were between $250m to $400m, according to news reports. It is a little short of the $500m required under the elections act.
But Halimah Yacob herself has little experience in this aspect of finance. Having previously been Speaker, she oversaw the operational budget of Parliament which, according to Budget 2017, amounted to a mere $40m.
And she did not have to work for the budget. It is given by the government, factored into the annual national budget.
Her lack of finance experience apparently was not an issue for the PEC who, ironically, disqualified the two other candidates on exactly this point – that they did not have enough finance experience because their companies’ shareholders’ equity fell short of $500m!
While Halimah Yacob qualified under the Public Service track provided under the law, it still leaves an unanswered question: how does her lack of finance experience qualify her to be the president who has to oversee the reserves which amounts to half a trillion dollars?
Qualifications aside, Halimah Yacob is an unelected president today because of affirmative action – her “election” to the presidency was through a Reserved Election, set aside this time specifically for the Malay community.
In the end, her elevation to the post is suspect – it is based on the questionable disqualification of the two other more qualified candidates, and the fact that the Reserved Election meant no other persons from any non-Malay race could challenge her in a contest.
The no-contest resulted in Singaporeans not being given the opportunity to cast any vote for or against Halimah Yacob.
And this is critical: Singaporeans did not vote for their president.
Let us now turn to the Prime Minister’s post.
Under the practice of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), only the Chinese are seen as more suited to be Prime Minister. This, the party says, is because Singaporean voters vote along racial lines. And since the Chinese form the majority of the voting bloc, any party which want to survive politically must recognise this and act accordingly.
It thus has come to pass that the present prime minister has openly and publicly said that Singapore is not yet ready for a non-Chinese PM, although the country may be willing to accept one in the future.
But that does not seem to be borne out by the facts on the ground.
Let’s take an example for comparison, and let’s use Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, a Chinese, and his Indian Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and their election results through the years.
Election results are the ultimate gauge of direct support from the people.
Since Mr Tharman entered politics in 2001, we shall start from the year’s election results.
2001 General Election:
Tharman’s team – 79.75%
Lee’s team – Uncontested
2006 General Election:
Tharman’s team – Uncontested
Lee Hsien Loong – 66.14%
2011 General Election:
Tharman’s team – 66.96%
Lee’s team – 69.33%
2015 General Election:
Tharman’s team – 79.29%
Lee’s team – 78.64%
The electoral support for Tharman is clear – he is as well supported as the Prime Minister.
So, to say that Singaporeans will not vote for a non-Chinese leader or his team is utter rubbish.
8 in 10 voters in Jurong voted for Tharman and his team in the last election – putting Tharman’s team way ahead of all other teams.
And mind you, Mr Tharman is not one who is often in the spotlight or the limelight, but Singaporeans can tell quality when they see it. The DPM is also well regarded around the world, and was chosen to head the International Monetary and Financial Committee (IMFC) of the IMF until 2015.
In a poll conducted by research firm in September last year, a whopping 55% of Singaporean respondents said they preferred him to the their next Prime Minister, rather than any of the other 6 so-called 4th generation potentials (who, incidentally, are all Chinese).
But despite all of Mr Tharman’s undisputed capability, charisma, vast experience (he has helmed several heavyweight portfolios before becoming DPM), and international standing, he is deemed by the PAP leadership to not be suitable for the PM position for one simple reason – he is not Chinese.
It is the sadness of all the world that we would so blatantly and horribly deny a man his rightful place because of the colour of his skin.
It is the sadness of all the world.
And so, we return to the photo posted by Mr Shanmugam.
The Prime Minister is reserved exclusively, by the PAP (for it is the party which votes for its leader who becomes the PM, and not through direct votes from S’poreans), for persons from the Chinese race.
Singaporeans do not vote for their PM.
Neither do they have any say in how or whether the ruling party, ie the PAP, should continue this racist practice.
Finally, we come to the Chief Justice in the photo.
CJ Sundaresh Menon, by all accounts, possesses an impressive intellect. Having been in one of his courtrooms where he presided over a case, one is indeed struck by his probing questions and his brilliant mind.
Singapore indeed is fortunate to have someone like him as Chief Justice.
The CJ, however, is also not an elected position. That is how it should be. It is the Prime Minister who appoints, with the president’s consent, the CJ.
There is no reason to suspect that Sundaresh Menon was appointed to his post based on any other reasons than on his own merit. One certainly hopes that he was given the post on merit and not because he happens to be an Indian and would be expedient as a CJ to show how we are a multiracial society.
That would indeed be a very sad thing.
Of the 3 persons in the photo above, the Chief Justice is the uncontroversial one.
This brings the issue full circle to this question:
Should not the President and the Prime Minister, just like the Chief Justice, be in their posts based on merit, and not on race?
To artificially reserve an election for only one race, and then to set rules so stringent that even those who are actually more qualified are disqualified based on those rules, and then to have a walkover for the only remaining candidate, and subsequently declare her president by default, is no way to showcase our multiracialism.
On the contrary, it belittles and insults it.
And in the same way, to prevent an entirely capable person from becoming our Prime Minister simply because his skin colour is not the same as that of the majority race here is dumbfounding and yes, the worst of racism.
And so, the picture on Mr Shanmugam’s Facebook page.
It is not a “representation of Singapore”.
It is a representation of all that is wrong with our race and electoral policies and practices here in Singapore.
Let the photo remind us to strive and become more authentic, rather than to see things so superficially and then feel good about how we are being multiracially represented, supposedly.
Otherwise, we would only be deceiving ourselves.
There is a sadness in the Law Minister’s Facebook post, because the photo he posted does not represent, at a deeper level, what we should be. Does the photo represent an authentic us, or an artificial, superficial construct, of us?
The answer is quite obvious.