Minority Rights, the Presidency, and Constitutional Change in Singapore

Minority Rights, the Presidency, and Constitutional Change in Singapore
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What you need to know

Making it easier for minorities to stand for and win elections for head of state may be symbolic, but that is insufficient. A fuller, more open public discussion would be more useful than tokenism.

As many as 46 constitutional amendments have been made in Singapore since independence in 1965, and the country is on the cusp of another round. The Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍) administration has set in motion a process for change by proposing to make the presidency more accessible to minority races, streamlining the eligibility criteria for presidential candidates, and modifying the role of the Council of Presidential Advisers.

Singapore’s president, assisted by a council of advisers, performs a largely custodial role overseeing the use of the country’s reserves. There are also two presidential councils on minority rights and religious harmony that provide guidance on racial and religious matters, especially as they pertain to inter-racial and inter-religious relations among Singapore’s main ethnic and religious groups.

During the most recent National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee made it a point to highlight the importance of allowing a member of one of Singapore’s minority ethnic groups to serve as President. Lee’s statement follows his administration’s announcement of an effort to re-examine the presidency at the start of the year.

Some observers have voiced doubts over whether adjustments to the presidential system in Singapore would allow better minority representation and accounting of minority rights. Others suspect that the upcoming changes seek to limit the independence of the presidency. Leaving such hypotheses aside, current proposals to make the office of the President more protective of minority rights and reflective of minority concerns can afford to be more extensive.

Public speculation

Following a series of hearings, a Constitutional Commission convened earlier this year recently submitted its recommendations to the Prime Minister’s Office. The Singapore government feedback and outreach unit, REACH, recently made a call for public comments on the above three areas that the Prime Minister’s Office identified as being key areas of attention. Regrettably, the Commission’s full report, recommendations, and transcripts of its hearings are not publicly available. There continues to be public speculation over whether the current initiative to alter the presidency in the constitution seeks to prevent a candidate that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) does not support from winning office.

Under the Constitution, Singapore’s president cannot be partisan. However, office holders since the introduction of the elected presidency in 1991 have been either former cabinet ministers or senior bureaucrats. The current President, Tony Tan (陳慶炎), was a former deputy prime minister under the PAP. Tan won with 35.20 percent of vote in a four-sided race. His next closest competitor, Tan Cheng Bock (陳清木), a former PAP backbencher with a reputation for an independent streak received 34.85 percent of the vote. Tan Cheng Bock has declared his intention to run again.

Much public commentary suggests some belief that the proposed constitutional changes and the emphasis on having a minority candidate seeks to prevent Tan Cheng Bock from running in the next presidential election due in 2017. The relative lack of information on the work of the Commission fuels popular conjecture on this matter.

Minority rights

The principle of ensuring minority representation and inclusion in high political office is laudable, especially in an ethnically plural Singapore with a dominant majority race. However, protecting minority rights should go beyond the symbolism of high elected office, especially when issues of marginalization and racism remain real challenges. As prominent Singapore playwright Alfian Sa’at notes, having a minority serve as president largely for symbolic reasons can create a sense of tokenism and run counter to the principle of meritocracy. After all, race may have little to do with the constitutional role of checking spending by the executive branch of government.

Indeed, protecting minority rights can and should go beyond having a minority serving as the head of state. Effective institutions too are important in this regard. Here, I find the silence of the proposed constitutional amendments on the Presidential Council on Minority Rights and the Presidential Council on Religious Harmony curious. Both bodies already have existing constitutional mandate to safeguard minority and religious rights. Several minor adjustments can enable them to perform their functions with more effect. Empowering these two bodies may also be especially welcome in a Singapore that is becoming even more diverse and plural.

Institutional tweaks

One step the Presidential Council on Minority Rights and the Presidential Council on Religious Harmony can take to improve understanding of issues of discrimination, race relations, and inter-religious relations is to provide regular work reports. These reports, which can be on a biennial basis, can detail issues of inter-ethnic and inter-religious discrimination and tension and provide recommendations for improving the situation. Such reporting does not currently exist, but can make the work of these councils more transparent. This in turn can provide a platform to educate Singaporeans about minority concerns and issues concerning religious harmony as is consistent with their constitutional and statutory roles.

Another consideration would be for the Presidential Council on Minority Rights and the Presidential Council on Religious Harmony to receive petitions on matters relating to discrimination. The councils should be able to call for public testimony from relevant persons to follow-up on these matters. Transcripts, minutes, reports, advice, and recommendations from these hearings should be publicly available. Petitionary processes allow the councils to be not only responsive to public on matters of minority and religious rights, but seen to be so. Written explanations from the respective councils should accompany any refusal to hear petitions. Petitions are also in keeping with a longstanding tradition in parliamentary systems like Singapore’s that draw on the Westminster model.

Enhancements to the Presidential Council on Minority Rights and Presidential Council on Religious Harmony would likely be more effective in conjunction with non-discrimination legislation. Singapore currently does not have specific non-discrimination laws relating to race and religion, especially in areas including but not limited to limited to workplace discrimination, housing discrimination, and hate speech. More racial and gender diversity on the Council of Presidential Advisers, the main advisory body to the President, can also go some way in incorporating the wide range of minority and gender concerns in Singapore.

Where do we go from here?

Recognizing that Singapore can and should do more for minorities is important for the country going forward. Addressing racism, discrimination, and empowering minorities requires there to be more institutional safeguards for minority rights. These include effective channels for recourse. It means being able to deal with institutionalized and casual discrimination squarely. Making it easier for minorities to stand for and win elections for head of state may be symbolic but insufficient. This is where a fuller, more open public discussion may prove more useful than skirting around tricky issues. Avoiding difficult topics does not make them disappear and may instead permit them to become more complicated.

Modifying the Presidency in Singapore is not enough to address the range of minority rights issues in the country. Minority rights are one aspect of the Presidency that can see further improvement. Others include enhancing the institutional capacity of the office given its custodial and oversight functions. This in turn suggests a need for greater diversity of experiences on the presidential councils and the qualifying criteria of presidential candidates, since financial decisions tend to implicate a host of social and other issues. The work of the Presidency as well can be more transparent, which can encourage greater public confidence in and identification with the office. That said, given the attention given to minority rights in the current re-examination of the Singapore Constitution, it could be the area where debate and reflection about possibilities may be more fruitful.

First Editor: J. Michael Cole
Second Editor: Edward White