Democracy isn’t just about elections. It is also about power and the division of power. The President is a body that provides for a more democratic Singapore in more ways than one.
Far from being a mere “symbol”, the office of the President is also an anchor of ideals. The office represents Singaporeans to foreign dignitaries and the office creates for more separation of powers, for fairer Governance. With this, it has tremendous powers:
- Veto power on Bills
- Financial powers: approval of Budgets, loans, transactions etc.
By far, the requirements for the position had been practical. We are a practical nation after all. The candidate must have managed a company with a paid-up capital of S$100m for example. The office of the President is free of politics; which is why the office holder cannot belong to any political party. The President is also non-commercial; hence he cannot have interests in any private corporation.
Amongst these pragmatic considerations, it appears the writers of the constitution missed out one more feature: that is of race.
In hindsight, perhaps the lawmakers didn’t see it as an issue. We did after all have President Nathan for two seasons uncontested (and in between his term, Singapore was fighting a major global recession). But then came along 2011 and it was remarkable – the seat was contested by four fellas with the same surname.
Maybe it was just one isolated incident but if left unchecked, we would be like frogs boiled slowly to death – not being aware a problem existed until it is far too late.
All over the world the newspapers tell us of instances where race, religion and language are ripping nations apart. Once divided, it has hard to turn enemies back into friends. This didn’t happen today, it didn’t happen yesterday… people have always been like this.
In Singapore, we have had uncomfortable intervention in the engineering of our society. Race ratios in HDBs and establishing English as our dominant language for example. We’ve had a no-nonsense approach to any person who so much as attempts to stir up racial discontent, to chauvinists who let their ideas go public.
A big reason why our streets are so safe, a big reason why we can walk around without harassment and a big reason why we can have mosques, temples and churches side-by-side is precisely because we do not let feelings of doubt creep in.
If one day we wake up and happen to look at the portrait of the President and suddenly wonder “Hmm.. why has a Chinese/Malay/Indian/Eurasian fella been on this wall for so long?”, then it is too late.
In the perspective of racial harmony, I have no doubts that the changes to the Elected Presidency are necessary.
And there will never be a right time to make these changes. Like many things in life, now is the right time to do so. Now is the time to make these changes before we let these little things lead to one big mess.