Open letter: The Elected Presidency in danger of becoming precinct of rich and powerful

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A 72-year-old Singaporean who has lived through the racial riots of the past writes an open letter on the Elected Presidency.

Dear Fellow Singaporeans

Comes September 2017 we may be going to the polls to elect our 8th President reserved for the Malay race only. Notwithstanding the constitutionaI amendments passed in Parliament I am not convinced of the wisdom and logic of changing our Presidential system to ensure that a member of the minority must always have a chance to become President via rotation.

As a Singaporean who lived through the time of our first President or the Yang di- Pertuan Negara appointed in 1959 in self governing Singapore to the 7th President elected in 2011 race was never an issue in my mind and in the minds of countless Singaporeans.

He can be Chinese, Malay, Indian or Eurasian elected or appointed it did not make any difference. What matters most is the President must serve the people. If he is honest sincere and capable he will be able to unify all Singaporeans regardless of race language class and religion.

As a 72 year old Singaporean it is my privilege to grow up colour blind even through the worst racial riots in 1951 1964 and 1965. I was a child of 6 when I first witnessed the horrors of the Maria Hertog riot from a cubicle window in Jalan Besar. Then came the 2nd and 3rd racial riot in 1964/65 when we were part of Malaysia. We were at the Cathay Cinema when racial riots broke out and we were told to go home.

But none of these riots change our generation’s perception that in multiracial Singapore race should not matter and should never be allowed to matter certainly not in the choice of a President whether he is black white brown or yellow.

It never occur to me that a Malay should not be the head of state in Chinese majority self governing Singapore in 1959. Neither did I have any reservation to a Eurasian President Dr. Benjamin Sheares a distinguished gynaecologist who served us well from 1971 to 1981.

Then came our third President Mr. Devan Nair an Indian MP who came from the ranks of the PAP. He unfortunately had to leave office after 4.5 years as a result of personal health problem.

Next came President Wee Kim Wee another appointive President who hailed from the Straits Time Press. He was a “baba” Chinese Singaporean who performed his role so well that he became known as the People’s President.

Another well loved President was Mr. Ong Teng Cheong the first elected President in Singapore history. He was our Deputy Prime Minister before he took office but completed only one term owing to differences in perception of the President’s role as a guardian of our reserve.

After him came the 2 term President S R Nathan a civil servant who was moderately popular with the people attending President’s Charity galas to raise funds for the people. Again race was not an issue even though the previous Indian President did not fare too well and had to leave office under a cloud.

Now we are nearing the end of the term of Mr Tony Tan an endorsed elected Chinese PresIdent who was a former DPM in the PAP government.

So all in all we have had 7 Presidents over 58 years. 1 Malay, 2 Indians, 1 Eurasian and 3 Chinese. Out of the seven 4 were appointed and 3 were elected. As far as the people are concerned it does not matter as long as they are men of integrity and perform the jobs well to serve the people.

Without going into the merits and demerits of the government’s rationale for amending the Constitution to allow for a reserved Presidential Election for only members from the Malay race my main objection is that such a change violates the Singapore Constitution and undermines the daily National Pledge recited by all school children every morning that:

“We the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion to build a democratic society based on justice and equality so as to achieve happiness prosperity and progress for our nation”.

If we have any regards at all to the history of our Presidencies one fact that stands out is the colour blind reality of the ordinary Singaporean. There was never any perceived notion that the Presidency must be rotated by race to ensure fairness to the minority. All the friends acquaintances and strangers I meet on the streets and in the parks in the last one year invariably dismiss race as a factor in their reckoning of what makes a good President.

The issue of the President holding the second key to the national reserve should also not be an issue for he is surrounded by the Council of Presidential Advisors whom he has to take advice from. So whether he is Malay Chinese Indian or others the key that he holds is a collective key held by a panel of advisors nominated by the government.

As for the financial qualifications required of a Presidential candidate it is most unlikely that the government would be able to headhunt for one who would meet all the stringent requirements.

In fact all our past Presidents never had the experience of running a $500 million company. Where then do they get the forte to disagree with the government on opening our national coffers.

However in raising the bars so high the government turns what should be a level playing field into a pole vault pitch ruling out the possibility of sourcing for a few good men who can genuinely understand the plight of the ordinary people and work for their welfare.

The office sadly is in danger of becoming the precinct of the rich and powerful.

In this day and age when governments all over the world are beginning to lose the trust of the people it is incumbent on the PAP leadership not to erode that trust further by imposing a albatross around the people’s neck.

Given the challenge from a former Presidential candidate Dr Tan Cheng Bok that the reckoning of the first elective President does not reside in Mr Wee Kim Wee’s term but rathet in Mr. Ong Teng Cheong’s it would be prudent for the government to pause before rushing to implement it’s Reserve Presidency – an area where angels may fear to tread.

It would also be doing itself a huge favour to hold a referendum to ascertain the wishes of Singaporeans whether race is indeed a factor in the choice of our Head of State. Afterall what is the hurry when more haste produces less speed and further undermines the trust of the people in the midst of a economic recession and a very uncertain world.

Patrick Low
4th April 2017