Managing Singapore’s multiculturalism: is racism ever positive?

Photo: Micha Józefaciuk/CC BY-SA 3.0 PL

Singapore is proud of its reputation as a diverse and harmonious nation, but is an election that guarantees a leader from a racial minority the right way to sustain that?

By Tan Zhi Xin

The introduction of the Elected Presidency Scheme in 1991 marked a turning point in the history of constitutional development in Singapore. Fast-forward to 25 years later and Singapore appears to be at yet another crossroads with the proposal of a reserved election.

In a nutshell, the idea is that if Singapore has not had a president from a racial minority group for more than five consecutive terms, then only candidates from that particular race can contest the next election. If there is no qualified candidate on that ballot, the election will be open to all. The following election is then again reserved for that particular minority racial group.

Public reactions towards the proposal are mixed. While some are in favour, many are sceptical. These critics mainly fear that the proposal, if passed, would unfairly compensate the minority at the expense of the revered principle of meritocracy. This would, in turn, politicise the presidency. Mercifully, both fears are unfounded.

Compromising meritocracy?

Meritocracy is a principle deeply ingrained in the minds of all Singaporeans. And by some readings, it is the reason why Singapore enjoys prosperity and stability today. “In Singapore’s multiracial society, meritocracy necessitated a nondiscriminatory approach to developing and deploying human resources, which then became the (legitimising) basis of social stability, a principle of governance and a pillar of national identity,” explains Kenneth Paul Tan, an associate professor and acting dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

It is, therefore, unsurprising that the public perceives a reserved election as offering a compromise on the highly important meritocracy principle. In short, people fear a trade-off between achieving minority representation and ensuring a competent president.

But this is spurious reasoning because a reserved election does not entail a lowering of the bar for the presidency. Currently, a person who wishes to run the highest office has to fulfil a set of stringent requirements. The Constitution Commission has proposed that this set of qualifying criteria will be tightened in the future to ensure the election of a well-equipped president.

Racial diversity, racial differences, and racial inequality

The second concern about a reserved election is that it reinforces racial differences. Safeguarding the election for a minority race, and prohibiting a candidate from the majority racial group from contesting the race unless there is no eligible candidate, highlights the innate differences between racial groups – undermining racial harmony.

However, this is a false perception. People who follow this train of thought fail to realise that racial diversity has always existed in Singapore; it is a distinctive feature of the nation. Indeed, racial differences are a biological reality; the mere presence of them does not necessitate racial inequality. Grievances only arise when there are perceived relative differences in the treatment of the various racial groups. This usually only happens when people actively radicalise the innate differences and turn them into an issue of race.

However, since the 1969 Race Riot, Singapore has not witnessed another outbreak of serious ethnic clashes. This four decades of racial harmony is attributed to sound governmental policies that ensure no single racial group is ostracised. Taking this into account, is the concern that a reserved election will upset racial harmony still relevant? Unlikely.

Politicising the presidency

Another group of people contends that reserving an election for a racial minority group politicises the leadership in the sense that it introduces race as a determining factor. Naysayers point towards the victory of Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential elections of the United States. They argue that the United States did not need a reserved election to elect its first black president, so why should Singapore? Apparently, these people feel race should, and must, be excluded from the election.

Perhaps the best response to these naysayers would be underlining that treating everybody the same – equality – does not always yield the most desirable result. Equality only works when everyone is at the same starting point. But in Singapore, the Chinese population makes up more than two-thirds (74.2%) of the total population. This means that if all things are held constant, a minority candidate is at a disadvantage in an open election. As such, a reserved election is a feasible solution to level the playing field. But until that happens all talk of equality and fairness is just pussyfooting around the issue.

Above all, people need to realise that as the head of state the President personifies the country. He is a symbol of the nation’s unity. The ceremonial and symbolic responsibilities of the president are far greater than his custodial responsibility. In that sense, electing a candidate from a minority race is more efficient in projecting an image of a racially harmonious Singapore than if the President were from the majority race.

Granted, Singapore is relatively racially harmonious – but there is still latent racism within the population. This discrimination and intolerance is only beneath the surface insofar as the government intervenes to suppress them in the name of harmony. Singapore still has a long way to go.  And to move towards the long-term goal of building a race-blind society, a reserved election is needed, even if that entails short-term discomfort.

As Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong said, “I’m pushing this not because I feel pressure from the minorities or because we need to make a political gesture, but because I think it’s a right thing to do. It’s a right thing to do. Nobody is asking, but I think it’s something which we ought to do and do now for the long term of Singapore”.