Singapore: New president imposed without a contest

A protester at the rally against the unopposed election of Halimah Yacob as president, in Hong-Lim Park on September 16.
September 29, 2017

Singaporeans were officially informed of who their next president would be on September 11. Halimah Yacob, elected unopposed, will be the republic’s first female president in its 52-year history as a sovereign nation.

While the milestone of having a country’s first female president is often a lauded, the same cannot be said for Singapore. Underlying this landmark moment are a questionable series of events that left many Singaporeans feeling cheated and disillusioned about the state of Singapore’s democratic process.

From the start, it was clear that the identity of the next president was decided by Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) long before Halimah was elected unopposed. This was done slowly and systematically.

Constitutional amendment

The first step was an announcement by Lee Hsien Loong last November that the next president was to be reserved for a person from the minority Malay community, after constitutional amendments to this effect were passed by parliament.

According to the amendments, presidential elections can be restricted to members of a particular ethnic group if no one from that group has held the presidency for five consecutive terms. Although the changes were made in the name of minority representation, many people in Singapore speculated the move was to prevent a candidate viewed as a threat to the government from winning the presidency.

In the case of this year’s election, the threat came in the form of Tan Cheng Bock, who contested the previous election but was narrowly defeated in 2011 by the PAP’s unofficially endorsed candidate. Tan is an ex-PAP MP, but he was not the preferred candidate for the current batch of PAP MPs.

Tan had earlier indicated his intention to contest this year’s election. Based on the groundswell of popular support, Tan would have been the front-runner.

As such, the PAP suddenly declared minority representation as a strategy to remove the risk of Tan becoming president. This happened despite Singapore declaring meritocracy as part of its ruling principles.

This was not the first time the PAP changed the rules of an election in response to a perceived threat or minor victory by the opposition.

In 1981, Joshua Benjamin Jayaratnam of the left-leaning Workers’ Party won the Anson by-election — a historic victory that marked the first time a PAP candidate was defeated in an election for a parliamentary seat since Singapore became independent in 1965. In response, the PAP introduced the non-constituency MP scheme for the 1984 elections, in which the losing opposition candidate with the highest vote was ensured a seat.

After Chiam See Tong won the seat of Potong Pasir for the opposition Singapore Democratic Party in 1984, the PAP then set up Group Representative Constituencies (GRCs) — a uniquely Singaporean system that involves three MPs being elected in a group ward.

This was ostensibly to ensure multi-racial representation on electoral tickets. However, the scheme has been criticised as it allows less-popular PAP members to get into parliament on the GRC ticket. Over time, the number of MPs elected on a GRC ticket has increased from three to six.

Most importantly, the elections department is controlled directly by the Prime Minister’s Office. This makes it easy for the government to resort to electoral gerrymandering in any area where it looks like opposition parties are doing well, so as to limit their prospects of winning seats. This also raises issues of potential conflicts of interest and adds to impressions the process is not fully transparent.

Handpicked

In the lead up to this year’s presidential elections, it became clear that Halimah was the handpicked successor to incumbent president Tony Tan. A few months before the announcement of the presidential election, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing addressed Halimah, then speaker of parliament, as “Madam President” instead of “Madam Speaker” while in parliament in an apparent slip of the tongue.

To facilitate this process, Halimah was required to resign from her position as speaker and MP. She also needed to renounce any official membership to political parties, to give the impression that the president is impartial and not politically influenced. Knowing that the presidency was to be handed to her, Halimah did not hesitate to do so shortly after the election was announced.

At about the same period, two other potential candidates, Farid Khan and Salleh Marican, emerged. At this point, most Singaporeans were not feeling optimistic. All three candidates had links to the Malay community, but none are considered full-blooded Malays. Halimah’s paternal lineage is Indian, which according to the Singaporean patrilineal system, should classify her as Indian. This inconsistency was swiftly brushed away, most notably on Wikipedia, where her Malay heritage was more strongly emphasised.

The other issue of concern to Singaporeans was the suitability of potential candidates. Both Khan and Marican have track records with managing large amounts of finances, but Halimah does not.

A strong financial background is considered important for the president’s role, in addition to managing the civil service and protecting the country’s national reserves.

Furthermore, there is a public perception by some that the management of national reserves lacks accountability and transparency. This was exacerbated by recent revelations that billions of dollars were lost by Temasek Holdings, which is Singapore’s sovereign wealth-fund company, whose chief executive officer happens to be Ho Ching, the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loon.

Strategically, having a president who is politically aligned to the ruling party is beneficial to it as the president has the authority to launch investigations and make changes in the public service.

To promote the perception that this process was organic and not predetermined, Halimah initially told the media that she needed to think about whether to run for the presidency. However, some media were already reporting information from reliable sources showing that she had made up her mind ahead of time.

Furthermore, the public service also contributed to the perception that the presidential election was not stacked in any potential candidates’ favour by ensuring that all three candidates were issued certificates by the Malay Community indicating they met the ethnic requirements to run.

These acts were perceived by disgruntled Singaporeans as “wayang”, which in Malay refers to an act of pretence, with the literal meaning being that of a puppet show.

Predictably, Khan and Marican were then informed they were ineligible, as they did not meet the minimum threshold of $500 million company shareholder equity over the past three financial years.

Protest

On September 16, 2000 people attended a silent sit-in protest in Hong-Lim, under the hashtag #Notmypresident. This was to show their displeasure at the way the process was undermined, which left them feeling short-changed at not being allowed to vote for the presidency. Tan Cheng Bock attended and was warmly welcomed by the crowd.

In response to accusations that the protest was anti-Malay, renowned journalist Damanhuri Bin Abas stated in a September 18 Online Citizen article that it was the government that had politicised the issue of race.

This was done with the tokenistic gesture of reserving the presidency for Malays and putting people in boxes being categorised as either Chinese, Malay, Indian or Other by a committee.

Abas said that what the Malay community in Singapore needs is for the government to stop boxing them along narrow ethnic lines in a system that is a hangover from British colonial era. He said the government should grant Malays full access to equal opportunities and end discriminatory policies.  

The presidential saga has ultimately underlined the undemocratic nature of the Singaporean electoral system and the lengths to which the PAP government will go to hang on to power. This includes use of repressive legislation such as the Internal Security Act, which allows the government to indefinitely detain anyone it considers threat.

It also reinforces the brand of gutter politics that the PAP is willing to engage in and is a symptom of the broader systemic lack of democracy in Singapore.

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