During the past September, Halimah Yacob, the former speaker of the Singaporean Legislature, became the 8th President of Singapore. Unlike past Presidential elections, two specific factors caused the 2017 Presidential elections to differ. Firstly, the 2017 election was reserved only for Malay Candidates. This was due to a Constitutional Amendment in June 2017 which decreed that the election would be reserved for a particular racial group if that group had not been president for five continuous terms. Other strict election rules were also tacked on, stating that any candidates that were from the private sector were required to be a Chief Executive of a company and have at least $379 million in shareholders’ equity.
As a result of these strict regulations and racial reservation, the election was uncontested, a political event that had not occurred before in Singapore’s political history. This occurred as the strict regulations regarding the election whittled down the number of candidates to three main “Malay” candidates, two of whom were later disqualified due to their failure to meet the financial conditions of their eligibility.
Shortly after the election was completed, criticisms of the policy were made evident, specifically surrounding the uncontested aspect of the election, where views of the election as undermining the rule of democracy were matched up against Singapore’s evident policy of multiculturalism. Mirroring such criticisms, Chan Chun Sing, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, stated that it would be a “hard journey” to convince Singaporeans that the change was necessary since that “the future of our country is much more important than any political capital.” Being such a controversial issue, the evidently ambitious policy may shed light over the basis of political “multicultural” policies both in Singapore and in other nations around the world.
In regards to the reasoning for Singapore’s electoral rules, a brief background to Singapore’s multicultural policy is needed. From a larger historical perspective, the development of Singapore’s multicultural policy was very much based on a primary sense of political pragmatism dependent on the establishment of a modern “multicultural” state. Tensions between the races were commonplace in the early development of the nation, especially considering the Chinese majority within Singapore compared to the Malay majority in neighbouring Malaysia.
As Singapore was forced out of Malaysia in 1965, partially due to its rejection of pro-Malay policies and its alternative promotion of “multi-racial nation”, Singapore required a forceful implementation of “multiculturalism” in order to maintain unity and cohesion that would be essential in deterring any possible threat from Malaysia. In order to break such racial tensions, the Government adopted a forceful policy of multicultural integration, colloquially known as rojak. Examples of such policies were the enforcement of racial quotas in public housing and the promotion of English, a foreign non-native language, as the common lingua franca between the racial groups. Such pragmatism and utilitarianism in the enforcement of multicultural policies was described by the Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam as “authoritarian, intrusive…[yet] our greatest strength” which exemplifies the general theme of a government dominated and directed construct of multiculturalism.
In the same sense, the implementation of this new electoral policy in 2017 mirrors this longstanding trend of a government guided macro-implementation of “multiculturalism.” This model of implementation has both benefits and costs. Among the benefits is the ease of implementation of such a model of “multiculturalism.” Allowing for the construction and enforcement of projects according to “multicultural ideals”, it provides a general pre-cut model that can be easily emplaced over any part of Singaporean society or politics. The ease and ability to reform such “multicultural” ideals within the electoral system would be hard to find in a nation anywhere else, testament to the multicultural bedrock upon which Singapore is based upon. However, the costs for such a model multiculturalism is that Singapore fails to discuss the issue of racism. The dynamism of multiculturalism requires healthy engagement with its antithesis, racism, in order to avoid being a static and inflexible construct. Singapore can arguably be illustrative from this problem of static “multiculturalism.” In the case of the election, the expression of dissent, being rare in the nation, became distinctly clear after the results were announced. Although the basis for such dissent towards the election were largely based on the degradation of democracy in light of the unopposed election, it highlights a lack of discussion between the people and the government in executing such a policy. Exemplified by Singapore’s strict laws against political and religious defamation, its policy of multiculturalism can be seen not based on a basis of developing and maintaining a degree of civil “understanding”, but rather as a largely state directed and enforced cookie-cutter policy. Consequently, the structure possibly lacks a degree of flexibility to absorb and learn from any opposition towards its multicultural policy without a dynamic governmental change.
In conclusion, Singapore’s recent Presidential election acts as a certain litmus test. Although the aspirations and efficiency of Singapore’s racially reserved elections should be applauded, the political policy has served to also point out weaknesses within the rigidity of the nation’s multicultural framework. Although the election can only be considered a minor exemplification of a disturbance, being a simple loose hair within the larger “multicultural” fabric of the nation, such a disturbance should be noted and corrected before any other further political implications may occur.
By Timothy Law
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.