The importance of diversity: Singapore’s reform of the elected presidency

Singapore’s parliament discusses proposals for fundamental changes to its elected presidency next week. The arrangements on the table have received criticism, but are crafted to fundamentally protect representation by all racial minorities and support the country’s proud history of multiculturalism. 

By Holly Reeves

In August 2017 Singaporeans will cast their votes for a new president. The winner will serve as head of state, not the head of the government, so this is not an election with the weight of Trump versus Clinton. However, it comes in the wake of a political development that threatened to turn the country’s politics upside down for the first time in 60 years.

Year after year and term after term since 1959, the island nation has been governed by the People’s Action Party (PAP), a centre-right party in the tradition of Lee Kuan Yew. In both parliamentary and presidential votes, their candidates have been a shoo-in for whatever office they are standing for. Then, in the last vote in 2011, something unusual happened. The government’s preferred candidate for president, Tony Tan, won the vote with just a 0.34% margin.

Changing times

Fast forward to today and the PAP government is talking about important changes to the presidential election system that reflect the people’s recent calls for greater transparency. In a paper that is due for discussion by parliament after it opens on 7 November, the administration is putting forward far-reaching and progressive reforms that will ensure Singapore’s proud history of racial diversity is sustained. Most specifically, the next president should be specifically selected from an underrepresented racial minority if that group had not held the role in the five previous consecutive terms. 

Although the terms of the paper clearly promote Singaporean values some critics have called into question their timing. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hit back at these comments saying “Problems with individuals we can possibly have, but individuals grow old, individuals come and go. We are looking at changes which are for the long term… How am I going to make sure I’ve got capable people to be the President and how am I going to make sure that I have multiracial representation in the presidency over the long term?”

On the other side, the opposition Singapore Democratic Party dismissed the proposal out of hand. “Only the very naive will fail to see the move for what it is – to ensure that the PAP’s candidate ascends to the office. The elected Presidency scheme degenerates into a deeper and bigger political farce.” But is this the view of the people? 

Safeguarding diversity

The big sell behind the new proposal is that it guarantees the selection of a candidate from a specific racial minority if that group had not been represented in the five previous consecutive terms. There are also higher expectations of persons coming in from the private sector, rather than politics or the judiciary – they must have been a senior executive in a company with at least S$500 million (US$367 million) in shareholders’ equity. This narrows the pool of potential candidates to within the low thousands, or probably even hundreds. Other changes increase the number of presidential advisors and tighten the powers the president themselves can use.

And while opposition groups are stirring the pot, some question if the elected presidency reforms are meant to quell the threat of other candidates. The PAP leader Prime Minister Lee insists this is not the case saying, “I cannot guarantee that nobody who is going to be difficult will become President. It is not possible because … wherever you cut off, there will be somebody, even a former minister or a former judge or somebody who may have run a very big company may have his views and may clash with the Government.”

Instead, it is better to look at the proposals in a wider view. Regardless of the forward and back of party politics, 60% of Singaporeans say they support the move to diversify racial representation. And the government agrees; according to Home Office Minister Mr. Shanmugam, this is “an area the Government believes is the right thing to do, (so) we have to convince people.”

The best possible system

In this context, you can read the 2011 presidential vote as a call that demanded to be answered. As such, the new proposals not only support Singapore’s long history of promoting and encouraging multiculturalism, but respond to growing calls for greater transparency. According to Prime Minister Lee, “we must try our best to design our system so that it works with a best chance of success, and yet also know that however hard you design the system, no system will guarantee that it will sure work and it can go wrong.”

Indeed it should be this point that sits at the heart of presidential reforms. Racial diversity is important, but even more so is the need to continue the country’s record of inclusivity and decency. In the words of Lee himself the overall goal is to have, “good people, honourable, capable, committed in politics, standing in public office. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s the ideal we have to aim for.” The PAP should be commended for the work being done on the new arrangements; they are listening to the people. The opposition may do well to do the same.