It is upsetting to know what would have been a landmark in our history is now marred with the heavy hand of paternalism and an evident dose of contempt for the citizenry. Our first woman president, and first Malay president since President Yusof bin Ishak, ascended to the office in the midst of a debated reserved election, and to add oil to the fires, a walkover. An otherwise capable and sincere politician would now always be associated with accusations of a government that either treated the people with contempt or a government that was heavy handed in its paternalism. I cannot help but to read the news with a bitter after-taste, which worsened the more I reflected on the matter. It occurred to me that this was an election with no victors – not President Halimah, not the PAP, not racial harmony, and not Singaporeans.
Race and affirmative action
According to the Constitutional Commission, this was supposed to be an election that was meant to uphold our multi-racialism. Yet, it raised and highlighted more cracks in our conception of multi-racialism than it resolved. Right from the start, the question over how does one define ‘Malayness’, and the evident public confusion over whether Malay and Muslim are necessarily the same forms a logical blot on the process (e.g. will a Christian-Malay qualify as a Malay candidate?).
However, it only got worse when it raised further questions over the relevance of the Chinese-Malay-India-Others (CMIO) model at this stage of our nation-building. It emphasized the fact that President Halimah is a Singaporean-Malay, and not just simply a Singaporean. It also exposed the circular logic in the manner we define ‘race’ and the zeal involved in assigning racial categories to the individual. According to Prof. Kelvin Tan, a constitutional law expert at NUS, a person is defined as a certain race in the constitution if he identifies as that race and is accepted by others of that race as belonging to that race – this is circular, since those deciding to accept the person in question as a certain race must themselves to be proven to be of that race, and so to qualify they must themselves be accepted by others who also need to be accepted by others, ad infinitum.
If our national strategy to race-relations is to not rock the boat (which it arguably is – but it is a discussion for a different day), this election definitely rocked the boat.
If President Halimah was supposed to be an ‘affirmative action’ candidate, her election certainly opened a can of hostile and irresponsible personal attacks bordering on racism. The lack of a contest not only meant that her ability was questioned, but also the ability of the Malay community to put forward qualified candidates. These, ironically, only served to perpetuate certain negative stereotypes in the minds the very Singaporeans that this election was meant to prove wrong. The humble story of her long career to the Presidency is now drowned out by doubts over whether our scared cow of meritocracy was sacrificed.
If this election was, as some proposed, meant to keep Tan Cheng Bock out or to ensure that the holder of the office of President remains subservient to the PAP government in order to favour the leadership transition that is ongoing, it did little to maintain a calm political scene as the backlash of President Halimah’s ascension continued to hit home – with 2,000 attending a sit-in a Hong Lim Park on 17 September (compare it to the number who attended the CPF protests).
This new instability is evident when the narrative circulated on pro-PAP groups reads: you might not agree with the process, but President Halimah is a good person. This narrative demonstrates a growing acceptance among the PAP camp that the government, through its constitutional amendments, botched the process. The spin is now reactionary – the focus is now on limiting the damage. Instead of insisting on the integrity of the constitutional process, this message focuses on the good character of President Halimah. Rather than pushing the government’s agenda, the PAP appears to now be on the back-foot.
If this election was meant to reinforce the position of the elected presidency as an institution, this election does little to back that up. It politicises the very institution of the presidency in a manner that questions its legitimacy. When President Tony Tan was elected in 2011, despite holding a minority of the votes, there were no comparable backlash – there was no toxic #notmypresident. He won, albeit narrowly.
Furthermore, the conceptual problem of the Reserved Elected President was also exposed. In the words of President Halimah herself, “This is a reserved election, but I will not be a reserved president”. The presidency was supposed to be the singular embodiment of the people and the state. Yet the reserved election was designed to ensure that one group in particular was represented, creating a paradox of purpose.
There is also the problem of the double-standards regarding the approach towards the offices of the President and the Prime Minister. The very same government which said that we are not ready for a minority race Prime Minister has now secured the victory of a minority race President. Both are important offices which are meant to represent the people – why should they be treated any different? How are we ‘ready’ for one but not the other?
This is an election with no winners. I would even be hard-pressed to call it a pyrrhic victory.
Of course, I will admit that my opinions are limited by the access to information. One day, when the archives are available, we might have a clearer picture. Perhaps historians would look back at this moment and exonerate the decisions that were taken, or perhaps it would be one of those historical events that leaves generations scratching their heads as to what motivated this chain of events? Only time would tell.
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