Column: A Malay president next for Singapore

SOMETHING very exciting is brewing in Singapore. With the predominantly 76% of Chinese out of its 5.7 million population, the island republic is all set to usher in a Malay as its next president later this year.

The city state has not had a Malay president for almost 46 years since Yusof Ishak became its first head of state in 1965, after Singapore separated from Malaysia, and held the office till he died in 1970.

Long after his passing, Yusof, who was born in Perak and a prominent journalist who founded the Utusan Melayu, still casts a shadow over Singaporeans as his image appears on the nation's currency notes.

The incumbent Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam is the seventh president and other than Yusof, three other former presidents were Chinese, two were Indians and one was Eurasian.

In Nov last year, the Singapore Parliament passed a constitutional amendment to the elected presidency law that allows for an election to be reserved for members of a minority racial group, if there has been no president from that group for the five most recent presidential terms.

In an interview with Bernama, which I had with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at his office last Nov, he explained the rationale for the law on having a president from a minority community like the Malays, Indians and others.

"We decided to put it in the constitution that if after five terms we don't have a president from a particular minority community, that means either no Malay or Indian president or other minority president, then the next term the election will be reserved for candidates from that community.

"In our case, we have had five terms without a Malay elected president even if we look at the president before that, Yusof Ishak. So under the constitution and the law, which we have for the presidential election, the next election will be reserved for a Malay candidate.

"We worry that over the long-term if we do not have a system to ensure a minority becomes a president from time to time, then it's going to be difficult and we will have a long period that we don't have a minority as a president," he told me.

And last week, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing announced that the presidential election would be pushed back to Sept instead of Aug, which was the typical polling day in previously elections. The change was to avoid the campaigning period coinciding with National Day celebrations in August. The criteria for candidates eligible to contest are the same whether it is a reserved election or not.
They must have the experience either in the public or private sector with at least three years in the private sector as a CEO of a company, which has at least SG$500 million (RM1.56 billion) shareholders' equity. In the public sector, they must either be a minister or chief justice or be a speaker of Parliament.

Chan's announcement of the polling month has kicked off the election fever excitement especially among the Malay community, which makes up 15% of the Singapore population.

And although no one has formally offered to contest, it won't be long before someone breaks the ice, according to my Singapore friends.

Among the names bandied about in the grapevine are Parliament Speaker Dr Halimah Yaacob, ex-speaker and minister Abdullah Tarmugi and from the private sector, Poad Mattar, a prominent accountant and former CEO of a major accountancy firm.

Minister Chan, who spoke about the polling month in Parliament, added an equally exciting twist over a possible front-runner in the race when he inadvertently addressed the Speaker, Halimah Yaacob (pix), as "Madam President" in Parliament last week. He did this not once but twice, drawing laughter in the House.
Perhaps this is an indication of Halimah's popularity, something which my Singapore friends, who among them are veteran journalists and Malay politicans, could vouch.

Yang Razali Kassim, the ex-chairman of the Association of Muslim Professionals in Singapore told me that Singapore Malays welcomed this first reserved election notwithstanding reservations among sections of Singapore voters, including the Malays themselves.

"I see this as a path-breaker towards the next step: an elected prime minister from the minority community, including possibly a Malay, as a long-term goal. At least the psychological threshold has been breached, it's not something impossible to have a PM from the Indian, Malay or Eurasian community one day," he said.

Yang Razali, who is a Senior Fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, added: "This reserved election is crucial in that respect; it shapes the minds of Singaporean voters to move towards a new normal for national leadership."

During the interview with Prime Minister Lee, I asked him if in our life time, Singapore by the same token, could have its first non-Chinese PM? His response was equally stimulating: "It can happen in our life time.

If we look at America, Barack Obama became president and in that case it took 200 something years. It's a long process and it is possible and I hope one day it will happen in our life time."

It just shows that political maturity among Singaporeans has come of age befitting their status as a First World and developed nation.