How Will Singapore's First Reserved Presidential Election Pan Out And Affect Its History?
Selamat pagi, Madam President.
Following amendments to the Constitution, the next President of Singapore will be from the Malay community. Political observers and mainstream media tip that it will be a woman from the establishment. Beyond the debate of abject tokenism, gamed meritocracy and the types of ceremonial ribbons one gets to cut, how will this chapter read in the nation’s history books?
Shirwin Eu focuses on the matter at hand with an earnest military precision. He has just parked his car outside his in-laws at Pavilion View. Here, in the west of Singapore, surrounded by the contemporary façades of terrace houses and a serenity that can only be afforded to remote suburbs like these, his wife, cradling their sleeping toddler, sits quietly in the backseat. “Give me a minute,” Eu whispers while his hands are laden with childcare amenities.
Eu opens the door to the porch to let his stepson in and to drop off the bulk of whatever that he is carrying. He then scurries back out to attend to his wife, opens the car door and navigates her out with open hands as though a towering block of Jenga is about to collapse. The bird chirps on this cool Sunday afternoon. A minute or so later, he’s out front again to turn off the car engine. “Sorry about that,” he smiles. “Come in.”
In a pink polo shirt that seems to flap across his scrawny figure like a flag in the wind, and shorts that rest above his knees, Eu isn’t quite as presidential as they come. Not only is he ineligible to run in the upcoming Presidential Election, an election that is reserved for Malays, he also reflects a general misunderstanding that since politics is for the common people, the people in politics should embody the common.
But if there’s anything that this educated, blue-collar, Chinese father of two has, it is hope. An idealistic hope. A hope that has neither anchor nor destination. Like a shepherd firing his rifle at wolves in the dark and, if he’s aiming at anything, he is aiming for the best. Still hope, nonetheless.
“The first thing I’d do if I’m elected as the President of Singapore,” Eu says as he leans back on his seat as though feebly auditioning for the role of Francis Underwood, “is to do nothing.” He lets that linger in the air for a second longer than it should, as though the confidence in his assertion, that to do nothing, is echoing out to every corner of the land, awakening the sleeping patriots, raising the flag or something of equal measure. He doesn’t knuckle the table twice, but he continues to elaborate that Singaporeans should be given the liberty to make their own decisions in a country that should be more transparent and freer than it is now.
Sazzali Sabandi suspends a spoonful of Mee Siam over his bowl as he continues to opine about the purpose of the reserved elections. “I’d feel that you’d have robbed a Malay candidate of a total victory,” he says. “But at the same time, you have to look at what the government is trying to achieve with respect to representation. In terms of tokenism, they can’t run away from it, but as long as they keep the entry requirements strict, if you are eligible to play the game, you play the game.”
In order to qualify for the Reserved Presidential Election, there are a number of boxes to tick for a candidate from the private sector under the amended Elected Presidency criterion. Firstly, your ethnicity has to be Malay. Secondly, you are the biggest boss of a company. Thirdly, your company shareholders’ equity must ring to a tune of SGD500 million (formerly SGD100 million in paid up capital). Additionally, there’s a long list of qualifications in the Constitution that must be met. In a nutshell, the candidate is a person cut from an absolutely rare cloth and, depending on which side of the fence you sit on, it is a kind of cloth that either defies or defines the Singapore flag in all its intents and purposes.
Sabandi takes a mouthful of what has now become a lukewarm spoon of Mee Siam. A former platoon sergeant in the military who now leads a team at a corporate bank, the 35-year-old is politically and culturally aware of the debate on tokenism that continues to rage. His punditry sits away from the pedestrian: an emotional and unrefined euphoria that’s been smeared on social media. Out from his scrawny build comes a nasally wisdom and the most authentic laughter you’ll ever hear; he suspends another spoonful in the air.
“When you look at it, 13 percent of Singaporeans are Malays and maybe 0.1 percent would qualify to run for the Presidency—out of those numbers, how many would actually do it?” He says analytically. “And if you extrapolate those numbers on a yearly basis [and if there was never a reserved election], when will there ever be a Malay President? Fifty? A hundred years? By then, would we even remember our roots? Even now, not many remember Yusof Ishak. It’s not a matter of enticing a particular race; it’s a matter of securing a part of history.”
At the time of writing, only two private candidates have publicly announced their interest to run for the Presidency: Farid Khan and Salleh Marican. The former is the Chairman of a marine services provider, Bourbon Offshore Asia, and the other is the CEO of Second Change Properties, a listed company on the Singapore Stock Exchange that retails everything from fashion apparel to jewellery.
While the two Presidential hopefuls are strong on paper, their eligibility rests on the Presidential Elections Committee and the Community Committee—one more so than the other for Khan and Marican. While it’s unclear if Khan meets the SGD500 million criteria, he is also identified as a Pakistani. The 62-year-old’s eligibility now depends on the Community Committee, a panel that certifies the ethnicity of all candidates. Marican, 67, on the other hand, registered his shareholders’ equity at around the SGD250 million mark. It is up to him to convince the Presidential Elections Committee that he is the man for the chair.
For curious Presidential hopefuls hovering outside the hat, there are five panels to shake hands with if the candidate wishes to be elected.
Formed in February 2016, the Constitutional Commission was set up to study and make recommendations on aspects of the Elected Presidency. The Commission is chaired by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon who is also the chair of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. The Commission members include DBS Bank Chairman, Peter Seah, and Ho Bee Land chairman and CEO, Chua Thian Poh, who serve on the Presidential Elections Committee and the Council of Presidential Advisors respectively.
From January through April, new appointments were made to the 10-member, up from eight, Council of Presidential Advisors and is chaired by former Singapore Exchange chairman JY Pillay. If the President wishes to exercise his discretionary powers on the national reserves or the appointment or removal of key office holders in public service or Fifth Schedule entities such as the CPF Board or the GIC, he must consult the council first. The current President nominates three members and one alternate member; the other alternate member is appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister, in consultation with the Chief Justice and the Chairman of the Public Service Commission; the Prime Minister nominates three members; the Chief Justice nominates one; and the Chairman of the Public Service Commission, who also leads the Presidential Elections Committee, nominates one.
In May, the six-member Presidential Elections Committee was formed. It determines the candidate’s eligibility and is headed by Eddie Teo, a chairman of the Public Service Commission and who’s also part of the Constitutional Commission.
In the same month, the Prime Minister also appointed the 16-member Community Committee, on nomination by the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. The Committee is made up of three sub-committees—a Malay, Chinese and Indian and Others committee—that certifies the ethnicity of the candidates. The Malay sub-committee, that will certify Khan and Marican’s race, is led by Imram Mohamed, former chairman of the Association of Muslim Professionals. The main committee is headed by Timothy James de Souza, a member of the Presidential Council of Minority Rights.
Lastly, there’s the 16-member Presidential Council for Minority Rights, chaired by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon—who, as mentioned earlier, also leads the Constitutional Commission that recommended amendments to the Elected Presidency. The Council examines all legislation to ensure that they are not disadvantageous to any racial or religious community. They also advise the President on nominations of appointees to the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony, the Malay Community Committee, and the Indian and Other Minorities Communities Committee.
When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in January last year that there will be a review of the Elected Presidency system, the Constitutional Commission returned with a 183-page recommendation in August of the same year. In September, the government published a 49-page White Paper detailing proposed changes to the Elected Presidency. A bill to amend the Constitution was tabled in October and passed in November after a frivolous debate.
Eugene Tan, an Associate Professor at the Singapore Management University, questions the merit of a reserved election.
“We certainly don’t want a situation in which there is affirmative action in the electoral process for minority race candidates,” says the 47-year-old. “This could even mean in which you say that, in certain years, the Presidential Election will only be open to minority candidates, because that undercuts the whole meritocratic ethos, it undercuts the multiracial ethos as well, because people could criticise the minority race President for being in office only because of his race.”
On the matter of tokenism, Sabandi suggests that no matter which racial lines you draw, no matter which political party you support, whether a reserved or an open election, the discourse remains relative to the ultimate purpose of the President of Singapore, and that has and will always be to elevate the spirit of what it means to be Singaporean.
“No matter who the President is, he will still stay at the Istana, he might even appear on a two-dollar note,” Sabandi says, “and true enough he has limited powers, but that doesn’t mean that he is powerless. There are certain causes to which he can lend his weight. There’s no reason why the President can’t be charismatic or inspire, or to wield that soft power.”
Left to right: Salleh Marican and Farid Khan, Presidential candidates from the private sector.
Eu is eloquent in articulating the issues that he believes are plaguing this country. Having served as a People’s Action Party grassroots member, he admits that he became disillusioned after seven years with the party.
“I saw a systemic problem: when a party is in a favourable position to protect itself and there’s no transparency for the public or even within the system,” Eu argues, “this will open itself to a corruption of power and money. When you have the party, the union and the government singing the same tune and when homefront security can detain you under the Internal Security Act and the police can detain you under the Sedition Act, that’s very dangerous. I’m okay that we are not meritocratic, I’m okay that we are not democratic, but put that in the pledge. Let’s not try to look good on the democratic front, and then do things the communist way.”
What would the future of Singapore look like if the system continues the same way?
“Collapse,” Eu opines. “The Constitution that Lee Kuan Yew built can easily last another 10 or 20 years, but if the system continues to inbreed, where they choose leaders only from within the system and everyone else is an outcast, it’s dangerous.”
His family doesn’t think that he should be running for the Presidency. When asked, he has no political plan or strategy should he ever be allowed to campaign. He turned up to contest because he felt like it. That it was the right thing to do.
If the opening chapter of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is anything to go by, Eu completely disregards the first five constant factors of determining the conditions of a playing field, in this case, the Presidential Election.
In chapter one, “Laying Plans”, the first tenet is The Moral Law, where the people completely commit to their leader’s morality, vision and purpose; the second is Heaven, a consideration of natural forces and time; the third is Earth, a consideration of the physical terrain, the paths and the obstacles; the fourth is The Commander and his wisdom, philosophy and beingness; and lastly, Method and Discipline, or how a leader commands, organises and manages his troops.
As telling as it is, Eu doesn’t abide by any of those five adages. He does, however, have five demands of his own. “A man needs wealth, power, status, fame and women,” he enthuses. “I can’t deny that I’m also interested in all of these because if it increases my happiness index and also, as a result, I’m able to bring peace to the environment that I’m living in, it’s a win-win and I see myself as a candidate above anyone in the market.”
Born on August 9, Singapore’s independence day, Eu’s source of national issues could possibly be sponged up from the political insights of the passengers he ferries as an Uber and Grab driver. Perhaps the 34-year-old’s source of party loyalty was birthed from his single mother, who was granted financial assistance from the government during the recession in the ’90s and who is herself, according to Eu, a pioneering member of the PAP. Perhaps his distrust of the current system is rooted in his experience with the system itself, where he claimed that he was once the vice-chairman of the PAP’s youth party but left the Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency in 2013.
“I know a friend who used to work in the Prime Minister’s Office, volunteered for the grassroots and had ambitions of being a Member of Parliament,” Sabandi narrates. “One day I asked him, why are you no longer active? And he said that MPs were spending too much time kissing babies. Granted that it’s arduous work—listening to people on the ground every night, giving out vouchers. When a person’s ambition is to change things on a larger scale, and when you look at what the old guards did—taking Singapore from third world to first—he started feeling disenfranchised.”
Eu might have felt the same way, of the desire to change things. “There was a time when I was serving the party, I felt that they weren’t as open-minded and liberal as what is stated in the pledge—to be democratic,” he explains. “I’m a person who’s hungry for transparency and efficiency, but if these two are not being met, I find it a struggle to make a decision.”
On June 1, the Elections Department opened its doors to applicants of Singapore’s first-ever Reserved Presidential Election. Eu, decked in a grey hooded jacket and stonewashed jeans, was the first to arrive. Under his crumpled grey cap was a baby face that spotted a great, wide grin. Curious reporters outside the building on a balmy Thursday afternoon were waiting to pounce on him. Again. This wasn’t the first time that Eu had appeared in front of the media.
Eu debuted during the 2015 General Elections when he attempted to contest in Bukit Panjang as an independent candidate. When a reporter asked why he hoped to join the elections, he said, “Because I hope to be elected?” and when asked what he could offer to Singaporeans, he answered, “Erm, policies? That’s my strength I believe.” Last year, Eu also appeared at the Elections Department to contest in the Bukit Batok by-election where he asked for a waiver of the necessary paperwork, assenters and election deposit money. Eu was ineligible for both contests.
After picking up the necessary forms for this year’s Presidential Election—of which all criterion would render Eu ineligible as he’s not of the recommended ethnicity, isn’t the most senior executive of a company nor has SGD500 million of shareholders’ equity lying around-he articulated his bid to the press.
“I understand that this is a reserved election for minorities, for Malay candidates, but the verdict is not out yet... I think there’s always a chance for the government to review its intentions,” he told the somewhat bewildered reporter. “We also know that there is a person who is appealing.” That person Eu was referring to also used to be a Presidential hopeful, Dr Tan Cheng Bock.
During the 2011 Presidential campaign, Dr Tan was enjoying a narrow 2 to 3 percent lead right through the counting hours, but lost by a margin of 0.34 percent to the current President, Dr Tony Tan. The 77-year-old, with his graceful fatherly figure and a warmth that one would entrust a sick child to, held office as a Minister for 26 years since 1980. Pundits have argued that the whole reason why the reserved elections was erected in the first place, was to cockblock Dr Tan’s attempt at running for it.
On May 6, Dr Tan filed an affidavit to the High Court as he disagrees that the upcoming Presidential Election should be a reserved one. It all came after amendments to the Constitution on the Elected Presidency were passed in Parliament in November last year. In a legislation, it states that if no President from a minority race is elected for five consecutive terms, a closed election will be held for the members of that race only. Dr Tan took issue with the government’s count of Elected Presidents.
The government, on the Attorney-General’s Chambers’ advice, started counting the five terms from Dr Wee Kim Wee’s Presidency, making the upcoming election the fifth term reserved for Malays. While Dr Wee was serving his term from 1985 to 1993, the government amended the Constitution in January 1991 allowing the following Presidential Election to be decided by popular vote.
Technically, the first Elected President would have been Dr Wee’s successor, President Ong Teng Cheong, and, if it was, the upcoming election would be the fourth term and an open one; the next reserved election would have been in 2023. “In all my 26 years in Parliament,” Dr Tan said in a press conference, “we had referred to Mr Ong Teng Cheong as the first Elected President.”
However, even if the count was corrected, the Presidential Elections Committee would have dismissed Dr Tan’s application as a private candidate as he’s not a head honcho of a company with shareholders’ equity of half-a-billion dollars.
On July 7, almost a month after Dr Tan’s constitutional challenge, the High Court dismissed his application. Justice Quentin Loh ruled that the Parliament’s choice of the first Elected President is a policy decision that falls outside the remit of the courts.
“His motives are purely selfish and he has shown no regard for the principle of multiracial representation which Parliament intended to safeguard,” Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair said as read in court documents.
Less than a week later, Dr Tan submitted an appeal to the on the advice of his lawyers stating that the judge may have misconstrued the Constitutional provisions surrounding the matter. The appeal will be heard on July 31 after press time. If he fails, Dr Tan would have exhausted all legal avenues.
Sabandi slides aside the bowl of Mee Siam and takes a gander of a memory that he has of his grandfather. “He was a driver at the Istana and he used to say that his favourite President was Yusof Ishak,” Subandi recalls. “He felt that Ishak was the most presidential, like when he inspected the troops, he’d be wearing the traditional military regalia, but he feels that today’s line of Presidents—with their business suits and stiffy acumen—don’t offer the same connection as before.”
One doesn’t have to look far to notice that the late Yusof Ishak did don formal suits during his era. On the face of every dollar bill, no less. But there was something about Singapore’s first President, and the only Malay ever appointed, that resonated through the nation’s cultural veins.
With his neatly combed hair and pencil moustache, Ishak exuded the panache of a quiet leader. Usually in a traditional Malay garb or a looser fit, American-styled, tailored suit—both which drapes over his body as opposed to a more structured fit—he could have been mistaken for a leading man in a movie. Whether he was born in a hospital in Perak, Malaysia or in an imaginary film studio, it was important for him to carry himself with such gravitas as the backbone of Singapore depended on it.
As the head-of-state, Ishak knew he needed a clear head between his shoulders, for clarity is a most useful thread when patching up a tapestry of national issues. The motivation of his veracity had to be for country above anything else, and the only way to measure this was to be placed in the trenches.
When he held office as the Yang di-Pertuan Negara in 1959, and together with the first Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, the country was an infusion of racial conflict, economic uncertainty and a brewing distrust of colonial rule. These two political debutants were the starring figures who seeded the public’s imagination of a Singapore that they envisaged it to be. While Lee focused on garnering support for his five-year-old People’s Action Party, Ishak focused on easing racial tensions on the ground.
It wasn’t only a battle to win the hearts and the minds of the people; the support Ishak and Lee banded would catapult them across the separation with Malaysia in 1965 and the first steps towards building a modern Singapore. In the same year, Ishak was appointed as the first President of Singapore. In his activism of peace and multiracialism, he progressively minimised the Chinese whispers of racial strongholds.
Minister Chan Chun Sing approaches the centre of Parliament to make a statement during the second reading of the Presidential Elections Bill. “Madam President, if I...,” the Minister stammers as he wrongly addresses the Speaker of Parliament, Halimah Yacob. “Ma... Madam Speaker, Madam Speaker...,” the Minister struggles to correct himself amidst a roar of laughter in Parliament. Even if it was considered by political observers as an unfortunate Freudian slip or by supporters as an honest mistake, Minister Chan’s addressing Yacob as Madam President, twice, was truly a sight to behold.
The gaffe took place in February, four months before the application for the reserved elections opened. A quick search online for the recording of the Parliamentary session produces a version from gov.sg, where both of Minister Chan’s incorrect addresses to Yacob have been edited out, but an unedited version, as captured from a live TV broadcast, can also be found.
Chan’s mistake can be buttered or watered down for any populist bias, but by the grace of Yacob’s credentials, and the fact that no other candidates have emerged from the public sector, she is the establishment’s strongest bet. But first, as part of a rule on the Elected Presidency, she has to step down from the party.
From the political sphere, a Presidential hopeful must have held office for at least three years. Yacob has served as a Speaker of the PAP-dominated Parliament for almost four years and has been a Member of Parliament since 2001. She also has more than three decades of service for the National Trades Union Congress under her belt.
Yacob, 62, announced in mid-July that she is mulling over a Presidency bid. “I am thinking about it, about running for the Presidency,” she told reporters at a community event.
”I need to consult my family, my colleagues. It’s not a question that you can make a decision alone.”
“Halimah is the best option for the government... not only will she be the first Malay president [since 1970], but she will also be the country’s first female president,” said PN Balji, a veteran journalist and former chief editor of Today newspaper. “There is a sense of real respect for her on the ground...and there is little doubt she has the guts and the gumption to stand up against the government if it is found to be doing things it should not be doing.”
Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a ISEAS-Yusof Ishak fellow, agrees. “She is known to speak her mind and think independently as an MP, and has shown that she can rise above partisan politics as Speaker of Parliament.”
There’s a bump ahead, though: Yacob’s race. When she announced her interest to run on July 16, there have been over 30 edits on her Wikipedia page since. It was written that Yacob is a “Singapore politician of Indian descent”. The current updated page does not reflect her race and there’s an epic editing debate in the “Talk” section of the page. Her late-father is an Indian-Muslim and her mother is a Malay-Muslim.
However, observers are starting to realise an even greater question: how diverse is this reserved election politically as opposed to ethnically?
On Polling Day, tentatively in the last week of September, the public will vote on who they deem worthy as the eighth President of Singapore. If Khan and Marican remain as the only private candidates, and the Presidential Elections Committee or the Community Committee reject their applications, what remains are candidates from the public sector.
Effectively, with such a limited pool of candidates from the public sector, the election could be heading to a walkover as early as September should Yacob be left as the only one contesting and there’s no contention over her race.
“She’s the best person for the job,” Sabandi asserts while finishing the last strands of his Mee Siam. “She has a proven track record, has never been involved in any political drama and... she’s a makcik [Malay for “aunty”]. How to dislike her?”
Perhaps the time, the Constitution and the political climate have come to elect Yacob as Singapore’s next head-of-state. In that case, good morning, Madam President.
This article was first published in Esquire Singapore, August 2017.