As Singapore gears up to choose its 7th president (assuming that President Nathan decides to sit out the race), I cannot help but look at the list of presidential hopefuls and notice the telling absence of a potential candidate from the Malay/Muslim community.
The one and only time a Malay/Muslim held the office was upon the independence of Singapore in 1965, when Yusof Ishak was appointed President. He held the office until his passing in November 1970 and since then, the office of the President has been filled, in order of turn, by a Eurasian, an Indian, a Chinese, a Chinese and an Indian.
In the spirit of Singapore’s multiracialism, it would seem only logical that a Malay/Muslim Singaporean should be given the opportunity to fill this high office to be our head of state this time round. It seems to be the right thing to do, doesn’t it?
Should there be no candidate from the Malay/Muslim community on nomination day, by the time the next presidential election comes about in 2017, 52 years would have passed since a Malay/Muslim served as Singapore’s head of state.
But the current reality is that the Presidency is no longer an appointed position. Since 1991, the office of the President had evolved by way of a Constitutional amendment to become an elected office, where the president is chosen through a popular vote after having been first certified eligible to contest the post based on a set of rigorous criteria.
And since the presidency is now a contested post, the perceived arrangement of ethnic rotation for the post no longer applies. The onus thus rests with the community to ensure that there are suitably qualified candidates from the community.
We are after all a nation that holds to the principle of meritocracy and aspirants to this august office must rightly so submit themselves to be evaluated on the basis of merit against the requirements enshrined in Article 19(2) of the Constitution.
Going through the list of requirements, I could imagine a number of Malay/Muslim individuals from the public and private sector who could be suitable for nomination as a presidential hopeful but when I get to Article 19(2)(g), I suddenly see my list quickly reducing in number until I am left with a very short list. The “talent” pool in the Malay/Muslim community, as a consequence of circumstance, is rather limited, wouldn’t you agree?
This very short list includes former minister and Speaker of Parliament Mr Abdullah Tarmugi, former ministers Dr Ahmad Mattar and Mr Othman Wok and former Members of Parliament Dr Ahmad Magad (who is also a group managing director in a multinational company) and Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed (who was a Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and had been Chief Executive Officer of Mendaki and President of the Islamic Religious Council prior to entering politics).
While their credentials do seem to qualify them for nomination, age and possibly health for at least two of them (Mr Othman is 87 and Dr Ahmad Mattar is 72), and affiliation to the People’s Action Party (PAP) for all of them would present challenges to their candidacy. After all, didn’t the PAP come out quickly to state that Singaporeans may prefer a President who was not so closely linked to the party when Dr Tan Cheng Bock announced himself as a candidate for the presidential election?
Talk about shooting oneself in the foot! Because the very reasoning used in the attempt to derail Dr Tan’s candidacy applies just as well to all the potential Malay/Muslim candidates I have named and any other person who has been a member of the PAP.
Who else can the Malay/Muslim community come up with as a presidential hopeful? A name that comes to mind and one that comes across as being apolitical is Mr Ridzwan Dzafir, the former Director-General of the Trade Development Board. He has been credited as being one of Singapore’s most outstanding civil servants. However, Mr Ridzwan, who would be 84 this year, would probably not want to step into the fray, possibly on account of his health and age.
This leads me back to where I started, with no real candidate to suggest for the Malay/Muslim community’s “turn” at the presidency. I would gladly love to be proven wrong and would love for that person to put himself forward for the consideration of the people of Singapore in this presidential election.
Failing which, the Malay/Muslim community will have another six years to hope that someone of suitable quality and caliber will step forward as a presidential hopeful. Alternatively, the community can take the initiative to identify, actively cultivate and prepare a suitable person to contest the next presidential election in 2017.If you ask me, if the community hopes to see one of its own ascend to the highest office in the land, it should not just sit back and leave it to chance.
Afternote: A possible Malay/Muslim presidential hopeful had turned up at the Elections Department on Friday, 10 June to collect the Certificate of Eligibility forms. But just how serious a candidate is Mohamed Raffi Bashir Ahmed given that he is under police investigation for allegedly driving a van spray-painted with expletives into the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore premises.