One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Singapore’s first female President in almost fifty years, Ms Halimah Yacob was elected into power for a six-year term. This happened amid controversy because the election never even happened. Firstly, in a bid for more representation, the post was reserved for only ethnic Malays in a city-state with a majority population of Chinese. And secondly, her opponents were found ineligible according to the new, stricter criteria and she was appointed without having to contest at all.

Here’s the background. The ruling People Action’s Party (PAP) has enjoyed power in Singapore for the past 52 years. In a move towards liberal democracy, Singapore introduced an amendment in 2011 that allowed its citizens to elect a president for a six-year term. Even though the role of the president was largely a formality apart from a few limited powers, the president has always been a supporter of the PAP. Ms Halima has been a member of parliament for the PAP for almost twenty years now, so she won’t be an exception.

Interestingly, this year’s criteria didn’t allow many candidates to run. Apart from having to be ethnic Malay, the candidates also had to have “served in an extremely senior government job or to have run a profitable company with S$500m ($371m) in shareholder equity” The figure used to be S$100m in 2016 but it was increased this year.

Ms Yacob’s uncontested victory sparked public dissent and outrage on social media. People expressed criticism about the political process by which she was elected. They used the hashtag #NotMyPresident which was used when President Trump came to power in the USA. Many of the opposition leaders challenged the tightening of the eligibility criteria. The government’s attempt at inclusivity also only extended only to the ceremonial role of President. The more powerful position of Prime Minister has been held by Chinese individuals and 2 out of 3 have been from the same Lee family, which suggests that they should probably try harder at ‘inclusivity’.

An appointment that should have been an undoubted progression into a more democratic and equal future with greater representation has been mired in controversy because of the government’s decisions. Ms Yacob was the first female Speaker of Parliament in 2013 and is a known advocate for women’s rights. She has won in the four general elections she stood in and is quite competent. She would have had a good chance of winning even if the election had taken place.

By disqualifying the other two candidates, any legitimacy she might have gathered has been destroyed and her achievement has been diminished. Singaporeans have also been deprived of the chance to rightfully vote their first female president into power. Hopefully, she can still use her post to bring women into top leadership positions in the government and corporate companies, where their presence is almost non-existent. In her presidential speech, she also expressed hope for a future where Singapore will no longer have the need for reserved elections and the citizens will automatically choose people of all races for positions of power. Currently, even with a reservation, the other candidates had to be unceremoniously disqualified for their first female president to come into power and this vision seems quite far away.

Author: Gopika Kumaran


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