It has been a few days now since Singapore’s parliament passed an amendment to the Constitution with changes to criteria for Singapore’s presidency.
Under the new laws, Singapore’s next president after five consecutive terms of majority-race presidents will be reserved for members of a minority race if someone from that race has not been President.
The next president is set to be a Malay candidate in an election called 47 years after the last Malay president, Yusof Ishak, ended his term.
While some argue this as a move of equality, it also has been largely criticised by a cross-section of society (and even Malays themselves) as tokenism and a nod to race-based politics that have plagued countries such as Malaysia.
But that has not stopped names of future candidates from emerging, with names such as Halimah Yaacob and Abdullah Tarmugi cited as top names from the public sector.
Halimah’s election also proves problematic: her father is Indian-Muslim, and her “Malayness” will be put to the test if a new provision kicks in where the government can set up a committee to decide if a person will belong to a particular race or committee.
Finding someone from the private sector though, will be tough.
Under the new bill, candidates from the private sector had to be from the most senior executive positions in their companies and have S$500 million in shareholders’ equity, on top of the current S$100 million in paid-up capital.
The move disqualifies former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock, who lost in the previous election with 0.35% of the vote to Tony Tan Keng Yam.
Despite vociferous criticism that the new changes were made to allegedly block out Tan Cheng Bock, how much could the public push if the government was going to go ahead for the vote with the majority-party whip?
To amend the constitution, a two-thirds majority is required of which the People’s Action Party comfortably secures with a 77-6 vote. The six who opposed were Parliament members from the Workers’ Party, which called for a new Senate to take over the President’s duty of guarding our national reserves. Their position paper can be read here.
While the opposition said the new rules mean new candidates will only come from the “super elite”, law minister K Shanmugam criticised the Senate as a move of eight presidents that could come from the super-elite as well.
The Workers’ Party also called for a national referendum on the matter to let the public decide. But, was it all too late?
The Middle Ground’s Bertha Henson agreed to the referendum if it means Singaporeans would have no choice but to be engaged in the matter.
But for Singaporeans who watched a constitutional amendment happen in front of their own eyes, little could be done to remind the powers that be that their election to top office was dependent on the mandate of the people.
So, what now? What now for an electorate that could not have their say in something as big as this?
A few options emerge:
#1: Find a private-sector candidate from the Malay community
The Straits Times, much like the times when prime minister leadership succession was tabled as a discussion topic, had picked five presidential candidates as top names. There was a small mention of one candidate from the private sector: Po’ad Mattar.
If we truly want to ensure a fair election from the private sector, a name must emerge and it is the responsibility of not just the Malay community but members of other communities to galvanise and support someone from the private sector who will put up a just fight in a democratic election process.
Already, groups like Suara Melayu Singapura (Voice of the Malays Singapore) and leaders such as economist Nizam Idris and editor Ilyas Sholihyn have put forth their arguments for a more fair election process.
#2: Use your vote (or wallet) to decide your mandate
94-percent of the electorate turned up in the previous election to vote. While the numbers are not big, more than 100,000 voters did not cast their vote.
The mandate of the next president is determined by your vote, and if the president does not receive an overwhelming mandate or voter turnout, it speaks volumes of the popularity the candidate has by the electorate.
Funding lobby groups who are making their voices heard also helps in ensuring the mandate of the people are heard. While lobby groups on race are hard to find, other lobby groups on democracy are sprouting in places such as the Community Action Network. There are other routes to a fair democratic process and if the next vote is too far off, the next best option would be to support groups that are making the electorate’s voices heard.
We seem to forget that it was the voice of 4,000 at Hong Lim Park that made the government change the wording of the population white paper.
#3: Engage your MP
If you have elected your Member of Parliament into office, he or she has the civic duty to represent your voice. Engaging him or her with continued letters, Meet-the-People’s sessions or emails (if you’re the busy sort) will be key to ensuring your voice is represented in Parliament.
And indeed, judging by the questions that go into the hundreds put forth by ministers in Parliament, questions that are being surfaced by members of Parliament are bread-and-butter thoughts of the everyday man. The Order Paper containing these questions, can be seen a day before the Parliament sitting and can be viewed on the Parliament website.
Doing these three simple steps ensures that the voice of the people are heard, and organising mass action is key to an active democracy. The government has shown time and again that it does respond more and more to voices from the electorate and if we continue to stay engaged, we won’t be dismissed as a hapless electorate that has to wait until the next election to make our voice heard.
The presidency bill can be viewed here.
Featured image: Jorge Cancela via CC BY 2.0