The resignation of Singapore’s first female Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob to prepare to run in the upcoming presidential election was reported in media as breaking news but most observers had anticipated the move.
Halimah has been touted to win the largely ceremonial post ever since the government made amendments to its presidential election system earlier this year. On top of tightening the already stringent qualifying criteria, another fundamental change limited the election to candidates of a particular race if one of its kind had not won the presidency for five consecutive terms.
The new rule means that the September election will be reserved for only ethnic Malay candidates – a move that has been met with skepticism and accusation of undermining democracy, even as the government has defended the change as a progressive move.
“It shows we don’t only talk about multiracialism, but we talk about it in the context of meritocracy or opportunities for everyone, and we actually practice it,” Halimah, a longtime member of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) said of the reserved election to local broadsheet The Straits Times.
She is required to resign her party membership and seat in parliament to contest the poll.
The President is considered Singapore’s head of state and has some veto power over drawing on the nation’s national reserves and key appointments in the public service, among other more ceremonial roles. Although the presidency is meant to be non-partisan, it is often clear to Singaporeans who the party-favored candidate is.
Government ministers might make statements in praise, or they might receive endorsements from prominent national groups and associations.
For example, during the 2011 presidential election, Tony Tan – formerly an established member of the PAP who served as a deputy prime minister – won by just 0.35% of the vote over Tan Cheng Bock, seen as a more independent, critical candidate despite also being a former PAP parliamentarian.
His whisker-thin victory was at the time described by The Economist as a “remarkable slap in the face for the government.”
Under the new changes, Tan Cheng Bock, an ethnic Chinese, will not be eligible to stand for this year’s election. His application challenging the constitutionality of the upcoming election was dismissed by the High Court in July, though the decision is pending an appeal.
Tan’s exclusion has led many to speculate that the system changes are more about the PAP’s desire to maintain control over as many levers of power in Singapore as possible than a lurch towards race-based equality and liberalism. Singapore’s indigenous population is around 76% Chinese, 15% Malay and 7% Indian, according to recent surveys.
“There are many reasons to suspect that the reserved election is more about political maneuvering than minority representation,” said Sudhir Vadaketh, author of ‘Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore’, a historical travelogue.
“But the strongest, for me, is the clear evidence that the PAP actually does not value minority representation at the political top,” he said.
The critical author noted that the government had previously argued that Singapore was not ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister, the country’s most powerful political post currently held by Lee Hsien Loong, son of deceased national founder Lee Kuan Yew.
“If we are to take the PAP at face value, voters are supposed to believe that Singapore cannot have a minority Prime Minister, because of race, but must have a minority President, because of race. It is an intellectually disingenuous and vacuous position,” he added.
The notion that Singapore’s tightly controlled democracy has been further undermined is also strengthened by the premier’s failure to call a by-election in Halimah Yacob’s constituency after her resignation.
Instead, another ethnic Malay Member of Parliament was appointed adviser to the grassroots organization of her former constituency, promising to work with the three other MPs in the area to serve the residents.
“[T]he voters here did not ask to be short changed with having MPs from other divisions having to be rotated among themselves to look after Marsiling division. We voted for four, and not three MPs to serve in the [area],” wrote Marsiling-Yew Tee resident Abdul Salim Harun on Facebook.
The changes come at a worrying time for political observers and civil society.
“It seems the government has interpreted its resounding electoral mandate in 2015 as support for increased suppression of criticism. Mainstream media journalists, civil society activists, academics and many more have told me they feel it,” said Vadaketh. “The changes to the presidential election can be viewed through that lens.”
Yet, in a wealthy island nation of 5.7 million people which has grown accustomed to uninterrupted PAP rule, it has become difficult for concerns over democratic process and political freedoms to gain currency among the wider populace.
Salim was left disappointed when he tried to get a petition urging for a by-election in his constituency off the ground. He went door-to-door, speaking to fellow residents, but found little support for his efforts. He only managed to collect about 30 signatures after covering two blocks of high-rise flats.
“Most of the residents we went to are happy with the status quo,” he told Asia Times. “They say they don’t mind not having an MP because the other MPs are taking care of them and as long as the PAP is the government, nothing will go wrong.”
“The government’s interpretation may indeed be right – the 70% of Singaporeans who voted for the PAP may actually feel that criticism, which has been rising because of the internet and social media, needs to be muzzled,” said Vadaketh. “Because they believe that unfettered authoritarian rule is what makes Singapore great.”