OPINION: Presidential Elections Changes Further Undermine Democracy in Singapore

OPINION: Presidential Elections Changes Further Undermine Democracy in Singapore
Photo Credit:AP/達志影像
What you need to know

'It’s enough to prompt the question: what’s the point of voting in the presidential election at all?'

This September, Singapore’s president will be Malay. I can say this with certainty because Singapore’s government has changed the laws of the land to make it so.

Following a Constitutional Commission in 2016 to review the elected presidency in Singapore, the People’s Action Party (PAP) government introduced amendments in Parliament to change the system so that an election will be reserved for members of a particular ethnic group if there has been no president from that group for five terms. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in Parliament last year that the 2017 presidential election would be reserved for Malay candidates.

The move to amend both the Constitution and the Presidential Elections Act has been viewed with suspicion – why now? The fact that the PAP’s endorsed candidate, Tony Tan, won the 2011 election by less than 1 percent of the vote hasn’t escaped attention; the new rules eliminate the close second, Dr. Tan Cheng Bock, ensuring that he won’t get a second (and potentially successful) campaign.

The way the PAP counts the five terms has also raised eyebrows: instead of starting with the term of President Ong Teng Cheong, who was Singapore’s first elected President, they have begun with the last term of President Wee Kim Wee. Although amendments were made during Wee’s terms in 1991 to give more power to the office and make the role an elected one, a special provision was inserted into the Constitution to allow him to exercise those powers without being an elected president.

So why start with Wee, rather than the first term in which Singaporeans chose their head of state? If one begins with Ong’s election, we would only have had four terms without a Malay president, thus leaving 2017’s election open. The PAP’s choice to count from Wee’s second term seems to suggest a desire to limit the candidates specifically for the upcoming election.

There has been no satisfactory answer thus far to this seemingly arbitrary decision. When the point was raised by opposition Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim, Minister Chan Chun Sing’s response was to accuse her of casting aspersions about the attorney-general or the prime minister – a red herring if there ever was one, since the legal advice of the attorney-general has little to do with a political decision.

This makes one wonder if all this effort has gone towards ensuring the success of the PAP’s favored candidate. But it gets worse.

While speaking in Parliament, Chan referred to the Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob as “madam president” ­– not once, but twice. His slip-ups were laughed off in the House as a joke, but added to rumors that Halimah is the ruling party’s Chosen One in the upcoming contest.

And just to kick Singapore’s democracy when it’s down, the minister also said that if someone like Halimah were to resign her current position to run for the presidency, there would be no by-election in her group representation constituency. (In some Singaporean constituencies, multiple candidates run as a group in a winner-takes-all contest.)

This is an assault on Singapore’s already flawed democracy, one that disrespects and short-changes citizens.

Engineering the presidential elections so that only members of a particular ethnic group can run does little to improve representation and diversity – especially when the potential candidates for prime minister, where the real political power lies, are still all Chinese men – and can only undermine the legitimacy of the office. The added pity is that Halimah Yacob is well-liked, and winning an open election would be both a historic milestone: Singapore’s first female president. Cruising to victory in a reserved election would taint her journey to the office, opening her up to criticism that she only attained high office because the PAP put her there.

The denial of a by-election when a member of a group representative constituency resigns should also be of concern to all who are concerned with Singapore’s democratic processes. Singaporeans vote in the general elections not only to get people to take care of the town councils – they vote for their representatives in Parliament, who can speak and vote on key legislation that will affect the nation as a whole.

Failing to have a by-election means that voters in that constituency have been deprived of a voice and vote. Of course, Singapore’s parliamentary make-up so greatly favors one party that voting never gets close enough for one vote to make or break the passage of a bill, but the principle still must stand. Otherwise, what would be the point of voting for a group at all? We could simply have a single member of Parliament for a mega-constituency, institute a parliamentary quota for minority representation, and do away with the group representative constituency completely.

When September comes, Singaporeans could see Halimah Yacob move into the Istana uncontested. But even if there were a race, this whole episode has already been a further erosion of an already-skewed democracy. It’s enough to prompt the question: what’s the point of voting in the presidential election at all?