Singapore’s eighth presidential pick Halimah Yacob is a vote for diversity

By Fan Lei Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/17 22:48:40

Singapore created history on Thursday when the city-state inaugurated its first-ever lady president.

Halimah Yacob, 63, a former speaker of Parliament from the Malay Muslim minority, won the presidency in a walkover because there was no other eligible candidate. Halimah, a member of Parliament for the ruling People's Action Party for nearly two decades before resigning to contest the presidency, is the first Malay president of Singapore in 47 years.

The constitution requires presidential candidates to obtain Certificate of Eligibility for the right of nomination.

Singapore, which gained its independence from Malaysia in 1965, has had seven presidents, including three Chinese and four other ethnic minorities. The first president of Singapore, Yusof Ishak who held office from 1965 to 1970, was a Malay.

Singapore seeks to promote multiculturalism through its robust institutions and vibrant policies. The city-state amended its constitution on November 9, 2016, in a bid to give better electoral representation to its ethnic minorities.

Under the constitution change, an election is reserved for a particular ethnic group if no one from that ethnicity has been president for five successive terms, or 30 years. This time, it was Malay's turn to become Singapore's presidential candidate. The reform was pushed through amid criticism and allegations that it was aimed at suppressing the opposition party.

But, the constitution has clearly laid down eligibility norms such as that the entire qualifying tenure of the candidate's experience must fall within the 20-year period immediately preceding the Nomination Day and that private sector candidates must have served as senior executive for a minimum of three years of a company with at least S$500 million ($372 million) in shareholders' equity.

Halimah's experience as the House Speaker automatically qualified her under Singapore's nomination rules.

Singapore's president mostly performs ceremonial duties during the six-year term but wields veto power over the use of financial reserves and the appointment of key bureaucrats.

Contrary to the criticism that Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gambled popularity on nominating Halimah for her lack of experience for the ceremonial top job, her illustrious career graph shows the prime minister's unflinching faith in her abilities.

In 1978, she began working as a legal officer at the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) after graduating with a law degree from the National University of Singapore. She was associated with the NTUC for 33 years and also served as its deputy secretary-general from 2007 to 2011. She became the first Singaporean on the governing body of the International Labor Organization, where she sat from 1999 to 2011.

She was appointed minister of state in the then Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports from 2011 to 2012, after which she moved to the Ministry of Social and Family Development, prior to becoming the House Speaker in 2013. Her "people first" approach has stood her in good stead in public life.

Halimah exuded confidence about her new job. "Although this is a reserved election, I am not a reserved president. I shall work with and represent everyone," she said.

Prime Minister Lee also spoke highly of her. "The president is the apex of our political system and the symbol of our multi-racial, multi-religious nation. I am confident that Madam Halimah will fulfill her role with distinction."

In general, it is of both symbolic and realistic significance for Singapore, a multi-ethnic country, to let a Malay woman become head of state.

Singapore's political system, like that of most Commonwealth countries, is modeled on the British Westminster system of parliamentary democracy. The city-state embraced parliamentary democracy in 1991.

Singapore's model of democracy may have its fair share of critics, but the presidential vote is an endorsement of smooth transfer of power and the city-state's homegrown approach to diversity.

The author is a research fellow at the Center for Social Research at Shandong University of Political Science & Law and the Charhar Institute.


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