Reserved election 'affirms values of multiracialism & meritocracy'
That Singapore will soon have a Malay president after 47 years is, for presidential candidate Halimah Yacob, an affirmation of two core values Singaporeans hold dear: multiracialism and meritocracy.
"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 practise it," she told The Straits Times in an interview yesterday.
She said it demonstrates Singaporeans can "accept anyone of any colour, any creed, any religion, at any position in our society, so long as they feel that the person can contribute".
Her resignation from her posts as Speaker of Parliament, MP and member of the People's Action Party on Monday to contest the upcoming election has seen views opposed to changes to the presidency resurface, with some questioning the commitment to meritocracy.
Madam Halimah firmly refutes the view that the election, which will be reserved for Malay candidates, entails a trade-off between multiracialism and meritocracy.
It, in fact, ensures both founding ideals are preserved - giving fair access for all races to be represented at one time or other, in the highest office of the land, while requiring that each and every candidate meets the same stipulated criteria.
"All candidates have to qualify," Madam Halimah said, noting the Constitutional Commission reviewing the elected presidency last year had made clear its stand on this issue.
"If we weaken eligibility criteria for those taking part in a reserved election, yes, then we are compromising meritocracy for representation.
"We are not - the same criteria applies to everybody," she said.
Madam Halimah, 62, has been described by observers as the front runner for the election.
They noted she is the only aspirant who automatically qualifies to stand, having held the post of Parliament Speaker since 2013.
Two other presidential hopefuls, Bourbon Offshore Asia Pacific chairman Farid Khan, 62, and Second Chance Properties chief executive Salleh Marican, 67, do not automatically meet the financial threshold.
They have to convince the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) they have the experience and ability to effectively carry out the functions of the office if elected.
Asked about the prospect of a contested election in the interview at NTUC Centre, Madam Halimah said she will leave it to the PEC to decide, adding: "We always go into a contest preparing for a contest."
Halimah says she has not always toed official line
Having been a People's Action Party (PAP) MP for 16 years, Madam Halimah Yacob is aware that there are Singaporeans who question her ability to be non-partisan if she is elected president.
"I know people have that concern because of my past affiliation with the PAP," she told The Straits Times in an interview. "But I just want to say that the president has a duty first and foremost to Singapore and Singaporeans, and not to any party."
She also has the track record to prove her independence, noting that whether as a unionist or parliamentarian, she had not always toed the government line.
An occasion she remembered clearly was when she abstained from voting on amendments to the Human Organ Transplant Act in Parliament in 2007.
Changes tabled by then Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan would allow organ recipients to reimburse donors' expenses if they wished.
She was concerned that this would lead to poor people being persuaded to "sell" their organs.
The party whip was lifted, and she abstained, sending a strong signal of her misgivings.
She recalled: "I decided not to say yes. I didn't ask the Health Minister how he felt, but I can still remember the expression on his face."
She noted that former president Ong Teng Cheong was a PAP politician-turned-president, but few would describe him as "a president that really only toed the line of the Government".
A public disagreement surfaced between Mr Ong and the Government in 1994, when he questioned a proposed amendment to his powers without his consent.
He asked for a court ruling on the matter, and in 1995, a special tribunal of High Court judges backed the Government.
"So it's not so much a question about your affiliation, but it's a question of how you exercise the responsibilities given to you."
If elected, Madam Halimah said, she hopes to set the tone for society.
The president may not have executive powers but can help shape society through initiatives or speeches, she said.
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