History took another step forward Tuesday with the official naming of the first female president of Singapore, Halimah Yacob. Though largely ceremonial, Yacob's presidency has cast a fascinating spotlight onto Singapore's unusual presidential process.
According to The Straits Times, a Singaporean English language outlet, Singapore's government mandated last year that the post of president would next be held by a person of Malay descent, an ethnic minority in the country since its separation from Malaysia. The rule is part of a larger bid to equalize ethnic representation in government, so that no Singaporean will go more than five presidential terms without their ethnicity embodied in the head of state. The last Malay president, Yusof Ishak, whose image appears on Singaporean paper bills, was in office nearly 50 years ago.
Several other Malay Singaporeans applied to be on the ballot for president, but the nation's Presidential Elections Committee has stringent requirements for public or private sector service in order for a candidate to be deemed qualified to run. In order for corporate leaders to qualify, they must have run a company worth S$500 million (about $371 million) in stockholders equity — both of the Malay citizens who applied on their corporate records fell short of that benchmark. Thanks to her extensive government service, Yacob was the only Malay applicant to qualify, granting her the election automatically.
Nearly 75 percent of the country's population is ethnically Chinese, followed by Malays representing 13.4 percent of the population, Indians at 9.1 percent, and other ethnicities at 3.2 percent. Most Malay and Indian Singaporeans attest to "Chinese privilege" in Singapore — nearly 65 percent of ethnic minority respondents to a 2016 poll said that being a member of the majority race gives Chinese Singaporeans an advantage. At the same time, nearly half of all Chinese Singaporeans said that it would be unacceptable to have a Malay president, underscoring the need for Malay representation in government.
The presidency in Singapore is largely ceremonial — the prime minister is the head of the government — which allows for the position to be used as a special representational office. Yacob was the only applicant for the position who met all of the qualifications for the reserved election, as they are referred to in the country, but took to heart the inclusive intention of the election.
Yacob said in a speech after formally winning the election:
Although this is a reserved election, I'm not a reserved president. I'm a president for everyone. ... I promise to do the best that I can to serve the people of Singapore, and that doesn't change whether there is an election or no election. My passion and commitment to serve the people of Singapore remain the same.
This type of selectivity in elected office may seem counterintuitive to Western audiences, but the Singaporean people reportedly support the idea of the reserved election as a means to the end goal of true multicultural inclusion. Singaporean Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said at a forum regarding the election that his country does not take a "laissez-faire" approach to multiculturalism, and has no problem intervening to promote race relations.
However, a common refrain in interviews regarding the election is a wish for an actual election. "On the one hand, I am very happy for Madam Halimah, as she would make a very good president," said Zaqy Mohamad, a member of Parliament, in an interview with The Straits Times. "But many Singaporeans were hoping for a contest because they felt they had a democratic right to vote."
Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Norshahril Saat acknowledged to the newspaper that "a section of Singapore will be upset by the news," but said that "there are certain standards to meet and it is good to disqualify those who did not meet them."
Other nations may have a unique lesson to learn from Singapore as it moves forward with its commitment to diversity in politics. The Singaporean people generally have a very meritocratic society, but this proactive take on race relations may demonstrate a new practical implementation of representation.