How Singapore elected a president without a vote


Spectators wave Singaporean national flags during their country's 52nd National Day parade and celebration in ...
Spectators wave Singaporean national flags during their country's 52nd National Day parade and celebration in Singapore on August 9, 2017.

Singaporeans were meant to go to the polls at the end of next week to vote for a new president, but they’ll no longer have the chance, with only one candidate qualifying for the race.

Former Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob has emerged victorious by default, after other presidential hopefuls fell foul of new rules.

“I can only say that I promise to do the best that I can to serve the people of Singapore and that doesn’t change whether there is an election or no election,” she told reporters Monday.

What should be a moment of celebration — Halimah will be Singapore’s first female president — has proved contentious for several reasons and appears at odds with Singapore’s reputation as a technocratic and efficient city state.

While the office of president is largely a ceremonial role in Singapore, he or she has power to veto some of the government’s decisions, for example in fiscal matters that touch on the country’s reserves, or key appointments in the public service.

“The only beneficiaries from this reserved presidential election are Halimah Yacob and her team, as well as Singapore’s opposition, which now has a new line of attack against the PAP (People’s Action Party). The rest of Singapore has suffered,” Sudhir Vadaketh, a Singapore author and commentator, told CNN. Halimah was, until recently, a loyal member of the ruling PAP, which dominates Singaporean politics.

“All Singaporeans are unhappy that meritocracy and electoral fairness, core Singaporean values, have been eroded to fulfill perceived political goals.”

Racial politics

In this election, for the first time, candidates to become Singapore’s president could only come from one racial group: Malays.

It’s a radical policy that would likely prove divisive elsewhere but it’s one the Southeast Asian nation said was necessary to ensure better representation among the country’s three main races: Chinese, Indian and Malay.

“It shows we don’t only talk about multi-racialism, but we talk about it in the context of meritocracy or opportunities for everyone, and we actually practice it,” Halimah told The Straits Times newspaper, before declaring her intention to contest the election.

The new rules also set stricter criteria on the background of candidates. For example, those from the private sector are required to be a chief executive of a company, with at least $370 million in shareholders’ equity.

The two other Malay presidential hopefuls — businessmen Salleh Marican and Farid Khan — failed to gain Certificates of Eligibility from the Presidential Elections Committee on these grounds, although the Presidential Elections Committee could have exercised its discretion to allow them to run for the office.

Critics charge that the new rules are a way for the government to stage-manage the election and prevent opponents from running.

In August, Singapore’s appeal court ruled against a legal challenge to the new system by ruling party lawmaker turned critic, Tan Cheng Bock. Tan had narrowly lost the previous presidential election in 2011 to Tony Tan, a former deputy prime minister widely recognized as the government-favored candidate, and planned to run again.

Singapore’s population is 74% Chinese, 13% Malay, 9% Indian and 3.2% are the ambiguously named “Others.”

SINGAPOREANS

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