What’s up with the Singaporean presidential race issue?

TL;DR – We are not race blind… yet.

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The race for Singapore’s next president has sort of started. The application to be a candidate for the next presidential election has opened. But this process would be different from the previous one. The next president election will be the first time only candidates from the Malay community will be eligible to contest.

Contentious change

The reason for having reserved elections is to ensure that the presidency is not only accessible, but is seen to be accessible to all the major racial communities in Singapore. But not everyone agrees with that change. The more prominent opposition to the change include human rights lawyer, M Ravi.

Mr Ravi has filed a constitutional challenge against the changes to the elected presidency.

His challenge is based on two grounds. First, he argues that elements of the elected presidency deprive citizens of their right to stand for public office. Second, he argues that the elected presidency discriminates on the grounds of ethnicity.

But it’s not just people like Mr Ravi, who is well-known to oppose things that the government comes up with. Even former PAP MP, Ms Irene Ng, also stated her discomfort with the changes. She said this in a Facebook post:

“I  have mixed feelings about the upcoming reserved Presidential election – while I understand the arguments for it, voters should be educated to vote for candidates regardless of their race, language or religion. I will be glad if this is the first and also the last. As an interim measure, it may be useful. In the not-so long term, we will elect a minority President based on merit without it being reserved for any communal group. Only then will we know that we have realised a Singaporean Singapore.”

Questions about meritocracy too

Ms Irene Ng brought up an important point – merit. Having to reserve an election just so that members from a certain ethnic community can be elected as President makes one wonder why members of that community can’t be elected in a straight fight against someone from another ethnic community.  It also makes one wonder whether we are redefining what meritocracy in Singapore is.

And if even Singaporeans think that way, then you can be certain that people in other countries will make an issue out of it. Especially if those people have a certain inclination to divide Singaporeans. Take for example an editorial by the Utusan Malaysia newspaper. It made several baseless claims that in Singapore:

  • “Meritocracy was always being used as an excuse to discriminate against Malays”
  • “Meritocracy was also open to manipulation”
  • “Malays became weaker and marginalised from the corridors of power”

Singapore’s High Commissioner to Malaysia, Mr Vanu Gopala Menon, has written a letter to the newspaper, slamming the editorial. Mr Menon’s letter was put up on Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. In the letter, Mr Menon said:

“Singapore’s meritocratic system has never been ‘manipulated’ or ‘used as an excuse to discriminate’ against Singapore’s Malay community, or any other community.”

Mr Menon also pointed out that all Singaporeans have access to equal opportunities, regardless of race, language, or religion, and our policies are tailored to that end. He also highlighted:

“Singapore’s Malay community has made significant social and economic progress over the past five decades, not because of privileges, but because of the community’s efforts in a fair and just society. Malay students have also excelled and topped national examinations.”

Most importantly Mr Menon emphasised that:

“We strictly prohibit our people, including the media, from using the issues of race, language, and religion to divide our society”

Yet race still remains an issue

Notwithstanding what Mr Menon, or anyone in the government for that matter, has said, race is still a sensitive issue. Recently, we saw it again when local actor Shrey Bhargava wrote about his experience when auditioning for a role in Ah Boys to Men 4.

The problem with that isn’t that the movie tried to use a stereotype for comic effect. The main problem was that it suggested that a Singaporean Indian should be more like an Indian from India. And comments like “Prata man”, “Ah pu nene”, “Go back to India” in response to this incident is evidence that Singapore does have a problem with racial stereotyping and casual racism.

If that’s not enough, someone actually made a police report against Shrey. Thankfully, the police, after questioning him, concluded that Shrey didn’t commit any offence. And when Shrey showed the police the hate messages and abusive comments he has received, the police advised him to contact them if the threats worsened.

The whole incident shows that race is still a sensitive issue in multi-racial Singapore. Will the changes in the presidential election improve the situation or make it worse? We don’t know. But we do hope that the next president, whoever he or she is, will be able to unite Singaporeans and bring us closer to the ideal of “regardless of race, language or religion”.



Author: Jake Koh

Recovering sushi addict, I’m a man of mystery and power, whose power is exceeded only by his mystery.


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