By Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim

Madam Halimah Yacob was sworn in as Singapore’s eight President on 14 September 2017.  It was supposed to be a momentous occasion: not only is she from a minority ethnic group but also the first female head of state. On any other occasion, this would have been a day to celebrate as it constitutes an important milestone in Singapore’s post-independence history. But the run-up to the historic occasion was fraught with public disquiet.

When the idea of the reserved presidency was first mooted, it was greeted by the community with mixed feelings. Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Dr Yaacob Ibrahim shared in November last year that the desire to see a Malay President “cuts across the community” as he observed, for instance, in closed-door discussions. This wish was however not immediately palpable in the larger Malay/Muslim community. Many were concerned about the implications of the reserved presidency on perceptions towards the community. The appointment of Mr Masagos Zulkifli to full Minister in 2015 and the presence of two Malay cabinet Ministers for the first time was hailed as a reflection of its progress and ability to rise to leadership positions on merit. The need to now reserve an election for the Malays is seen as a regression.

Affirmative Action?

The reserved presidency was seen as a form of affirmative action, which is often deemed antithetical to the core principles of meritocracy. Some have argued that it is not affirmative action because the reserved election does not facilitate the entry of a candidate who fails to adequately meet the eligibility criteria. However, it would be difficult to ignore the fact that it is possible for a reserved presidential election to exclude candidates with better credentials than the ones applying from the pool of otherwise eligible ones. A pertinent question is: if affirmative action – or whatever one wants to call reserving an election for minorities – can be tolerated in a meritocratic system, can the same not be done for minorities at lower starting points whose plight meritocracy exacerbates?

The Community’s Aspiration for Malay Leaders

The Malays may have expressed their wish for Malay representation in positions of leadership. The presidency could be one of them but their concerns have always centred on matters such as education, employment, social mobility, poverty, discrimination in the workplace and longstanding issues such as the question of Malay loyalty and representation in the Singapore Armed Forces and key civil service appointments. Considering that these have to do mainly with policies, they thus come under the purview of the government. Hence, it can be inferred that the Malays want leaders in positions where they can debate policies. The President, apart from her constitutional and ceremonial roles and responsibilities, may use the influence of her position to support social causes but it would be untenable for her to support the cause of any one ethnic community instead of the larger Singaporean society even if she is from that community.


The stated aim of the reserved presidential election – to facilitate multiracial representation in the highest office of the land – is a laudable one. But it begs the question of the longer term implications on the social fabric of a country for which interracial harmony is crucial to its continued social and economic development.

There are already a host of policies and institutions entrenching race consciousness: the electoral system, the race-based self-help model, Ethnic Integration Programme in HDB estates and statistics according to ethnicity that tend to lead to racialisation of issues. Not that all these should be done away with immediately, but progressively. The goal ultimately should be to progress towards nationhood by forging a Singaporean identity that can uphold the ideals enshrined in the pledge: one united people regardless of race, language or religion[1].

The reserved presidential election is yet another move in making racial lines more distinct, thus hardly a step forward in nation-building. As Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute researcher Dr Norshahril Saat said in his interview with The Straits Times, it “goes against the spirit of fostering a colour-blind society as candidates are first and foremost identified by their ethnicity”.

What is unique about the reserved presidency is that, while the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) addresses minority representation without shutting out potential candidates, the presidential election does. It may not go down well with some members of the non-Malay electorate. The Malay electorate will have its fair share of problems to contend with, such as perceptions of tokenism.

Enough Eligible Candidates?

The scaling up of the financial criterion for private-sector candidates – from having led a company with $100 million in in paid-up capital to the current $500 million in shareholders’ equity – led to worries that few would qualify under these conditions, let alone Malays. But Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reassured in September last year that “There are qualified Malays, there are qualified Singaporeans of all races”. As it turned out, only one candidate of the three who applied for the Malay Community Certificate was eligible to run, leading to unhappiness over the lack of opportunity to vote.

The financial criterion gave rise to the mistaken notion among some that the President’s constitutional role is to manage the reserves, which refers to total assets minus liabilities of the Government and other entities specified in the Fifth Schedule under the Constitution.  The President acts as a guardian in relation to the use of national reserves but, as far as management of the reserves is concerned, Government’s assets are mainly managed by GIC Private Limited while the Monetary Authority of Singapore manages the Official Foreign Reserves of Singapore. GIC owns Temasek Holdings, which manages assets funded by Singapore’s foreign reserves. Moreover, the President has the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) to advise her on matters relating to past reserves.

While financial acumen is the overriding requirement for private-sector applicants, it is much less pronounced for some eligible public sector candidates: chief justice; speaker of Parliament or attorney-general.

What the emphasis on finance could lead to, apart from very few candidates being eligible, are virtual unknowns with little known track record for involvement in community affairs coming forward to contest. Voters’ decision then hinges upon their evaluation of the known candidate, likely a public sector candidate. If the latter is adjudged to be good, the former will vote for her. Otherwise, the vote goes to the lesser known candidate. The objectivity of the vote is thus marred.

In this year’s case, Mr Salleh Marican is known to the Malay community by virtue of Second Chance being a retail business serving mainly the Malay market. Mr Farid Khan, being in the maritime business, is little known until he announced his candidacy.

The qualifications of the President under current provisions of the Constitution limit diversity among the field of eligible candidates. The executive directors of non-profits devoted to humanitarian and environmental causes; or outstanding academics are unlikely to fulfil existing criteria. The stringent criteria were implemented to ensure that presidential hopefuls have the necessary technical competence and expertise. But how are these defined? The skills set of eligible candidates, say, that of a Speaker of Parliament is vastly different from that of a CEO of a multinational company. If the scope is this broad, then why not an emeritus professor? The stringent criteria and the lack of recognition for a wider range of competencies may be a reason why three out of five past presidential elections ended in walkovers, including the 2017 one.

Halimah Yacob

While many aspects of this year’s elections are debatable, supporters and detractors of the reserved presidential elections have much less doubt about President Halimah Yacob. It augurs well for her community role in unifying Singaporeans. Residing in a HDB flat until recently, she bears the hallmark of a leader who is very much connected with ordinary Singaporeans.

Madam Halimah was brought up in a single-parent household after her watchman father died when she was just eight.  Juggling school, her mother’s Malay food business and her four siblings, the odds were stacked against her but she persevered, enrolling at the National University of Singapore’s law school, a rare feat among Malays during her time.

Her close association with the issues of the common people began with her first career as a legal officer at the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and continued  after her ascension  to  Minister of State, first at the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports in 2011, and then the Ministry of Social and Family Development following a cabinet reshuffle in 2012.

In parliament, as a backbencher, she was known to raise issues that resonated with the disadvantaged. For example, in 2002, on the topic of means testing of public assistance programmes, she argued against procedural red-tape that may cause delay and frustration, and limit access to what many Singaporeans would consider as basic needs. In 2005, she stood up for women, clarifying to then-Minister for Manpower, Dr Ng Eng Hen, that discrimination against women is more widespread than how it was perceived, involving not only situations where a pregnant female employee is dismissed but also other forms of discrimination such as how they are treated at work and access to opportunities.

Madam Halimah is cognisant of the pressing concerns of Singaporeans – healthcare and rising costs of living. She urged the Ministry of Health in 2008 to monitor excessive charges being imposed, especially by specialists, considering that there were shortages of them in certain areas. The same year, on the issue of rising costs of living, she asked then-Minister for Finance, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam to consider introducing additional measures to assist low-income Singaporeans, noting that they find it difficult to cope with the rising cost of living with the high rate of inflation.

Her concern for human rights is particularly notable in 2007 during  an exchange with then-Second Minister for Foreign Affairs Raymond Lim when she argued that the the setting up of the ASEAN Human Rights Commission, if it is only meant to be a consultative one,  will lead to the question of whether the commission will really be effective in monitoring human rights in the region.

During her time in Parliament, she has touched on an array of issues including the Rohingya refugee crisis; the problem of homelessness in Singapore; the plight of children of divorcees; and the declining Malay resident population.

Moving On

As acknowledged by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the reserved presidency is riddled with controversy – from its enactment to the walkover. The discourse on minority representation in Singapore’s highest office should continue so that aspects of it which caused rifts within society stand a chance to be remedied.

In the meantime, Madam Halimah, given the virtually unanimous support she is getting from all sides of the controversy, should make her presidency more visible than that of her predecessor Mr Tony Tan’s, so as to rally people behind forging a harmonious and inclusive society. She got off to a good start, hosting two senior citizens who missed the opportunity of meeting her when she was declared President-elect, to lunch at the Istana. These are simple gestures which will have a positive impact on the credibility of the office of the President. She also visited Agape Village to mingle with staff and beneficiaries. Many would take comfort in knowing her rapport with the people which she built as a politician will not wither with the presidency.

Given her humble background, her ability to relate to the concerns of the disadvantaged and speak for them, she makes a powerful symbol for justice and equality, as academic Cherian George put it.  As Singapore braces itself for a tough future which threatens to undermine the values of inclusivity and harmony, Madam Halimah’s presence is most reassuring.


[1] While the late founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, had said in Parliament in 2009, in response to then-NMP Viswa Sadasivan’s speech, that the pledge is an aspiration, not the reality, he also said that “we will have to keep on trying” if Singapore is to achieve it.

Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim is a Researcher / Projects Coordinator with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), the research subsidiary of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP). The views expressed in the article are his own.

This commentary was also published in Karyawan, October 2017, Volume 12, Issue 4

Photo Source: Todayonline