Rody Duterte: Filipino Batman?

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has frequently been compared to Donald Trump. They are both anti-establishment, deliberately offensive, outrageously cavalier and completely undiplomatic politicians who excel in demagoguery. The main difference between them is that Duterte has allegedly ordered and carried out the killing of numerous criminals, while the only things that Trump has killed are his failed businesses and his dignity.

But perhaps an even better comparison is between Duterte and the Dark Knight.

The Duterte narrative reads like a Batman comic. In a crime-infested society, where the police force is toothless and politicians and judges are in the pockets of drug lords and crime cartels, one man has taken matters into his own hands. He seeks to restore peace and justice by circumventing the corrupt legal system and feckless bureaucracy… without any superpowers.

(Other Filipinos drew this analogy as well. This video was uploaded by YouTuber “Henry Oatmeal”.)

But how accurate is this narrative? As an outsider, I’ve inferred from the massive scale of the current War on Drugs that that the Philippines has been so paralysed by narcotics that the only feasible solution is Duterte’s shock therapy. The impression I’ve gotten is that the judicial system is completely ineffective and has disappointed so many Filipinos for so long that they look to Duterte’s extra-judicial tactics for justice. But I have put the cart before the horse by judging the magnitude of the problem from the response, rather than assessing the scale of the problem first.

According to statistics reported in this TIME article, the situation in the Philippines does not seem that severe. Although there are about 100 million people in the Philippines, the country had fewer cases of crimes involving physical injury in 2014 than the UK with a population of 64 million. That same year, the number of reported robbery cases in the Philippines was less than in Belgium, with a population that is 10% of the Philippines’. Between 2010 and 2015, police statistics show that the total number of murders in the country’s 15 largest cities was an average of 1202 per year, which is far less than the 3500 people who have been killed since the start of the War on Drugs on 1 July.

More importantly, statistics on drug use in the Philippines suggest that Duterte has exaggerated the scale of the problem. According to this article written by students from the University of the Philippines, President Duterte stated in his first State of the Nation Address that there are probably 3.7 million drug addicts now. But research by the Dangerous Drugs Board suggests that there were 1.7 million drug users in 2008 and 1.3 million in 2012, which is a huge improvement from the 6.7 million drug users reported in 2004. The data cited by the students also shows that drug raids and arrests increased from 2004 to 2014, which suggests that law enforcement agencies have been effective under previous presidential administrations.

Hence, in the eyes of Duterte’s critics, while drug use and drug-related crimes are certainly a challenge to social security and national development, a full-scale war is disproportionate and unwarranted.

But of course, valid questions can be raised about these statistics – for example, how many crimes are unreported in the Philippines? Also, for many Filipinos, statistics are irrelevant. What matters is how they feel about security – what their threshold of tolerance is, and how desperate they are to resolve these problems – and the judicial system, which is widely perceived as broken and corrupt according to Phelim Kine of Human Rights Watch. Judging from Duterte’s landslide victory, the near-universal trust that Filipinos place in Duterte, and the low trust in the courts, it seems that the Batman narrative has captured the imagination of the Filipino population.

In any case, there is no doubt that President Duterte sees himself as the hero of the hour. He obviously doesn’t believe that the country’s police and judicial system can restore law and order as they are now. That’s why he has ordered the police to shoot suspected drug pushers whether they resist arrest or not and encouraged citizens to kill drug addicts themselves. Forget about the presumption of innocence or the right to a fair trial – the President has promised to reward citizens who kill drug traffickers and pardon any officer accused of human rights abuses. To be fair, the media rarely highlights Project “TokHang” – the strategy of the police to visit individual homes and convince drug pushers and addicts to surrender and enter rehab. But this is little consolation for the families of drug suspects who have been killed by the police or vigilante groups without a fair trial.

Furthermore, he has bypassed official channels by announcing the names of 158 public officials who are allegedly involved in the drug trade and ordering them to surrender or face the consequences. His contempt for the judicial system and rule of law is clear in his mockery of it. In response to criticism of his support for extra-judicial killings, he said that he would “just bring a drug lord to a judge and kill him there”, and “that will no longer be extra-judicial”. He also boasted during his presidential campaign that he would pardon himself for mass murder.

Duterte’s iron-fisted approach was formed in the crucible of the smaller war on drugs and crime in Davao. According to this account, the city was like Gotham before Duterte was elected as Mayor. Through tough legislation, ruthless law enforcement, and the use of extra-judicial killings primarily carried out by the Davao Death Squad, Duterte managed to transform the city from a cesspool of crime to one of the safest urban areas in the Philippines. His crime-fighting tactics ranged from bloodthirsty (the death squad killed over 1400 people between 1998 and 2015) to absurd (he once forced a tourist to swallow his cigarette butt for contravening a smoking ban). But supporters say that Duterte’s style of governance was necessary in a city located in a rough neighbourhood plagued by secessionists, communist rebels and Islamist terror groups.

While President Duterte is not a billionaire playboy with a Kevlar suit, he has always governed using Batman’s weapon of choice: fear. He strikes fear in the hearts of drug addicts and mules – more than 700,000 people have surrendered to the police for drug rehab and amnesty. But his ruthlessness has also inspired hope in millions of Filipinos that they can live in safety and security.

This analogy to the Caped Crusader helps explain Duterte’s widespread appeal. His selfless refusal of cabinet positions and an award nomination has endeared him to his supporters. In stark contrast to the stereotypical power-hungry politician, he reluctantly agreed to run for office after his supporters begged him for months to do so. He is like Batman hiding in the shadows, selflessly shunning the spotlight. To his supporters, he is the hero that the Philippines both needs and deserves.

Like Bruce Wayne, Duterte believes that the only way to get rid of the scourge of lawlessness and corruption is for one brave soul to get his hands dirty. But there is no doubt that he has taken the Batman narrative to a dangerous extreme.

Of the 3500 Filipinos who have been killed in the War on Drugs, about 1300 were killed in police operations, while over 2200 were killed by vigilante groups. This means that more suspects have been killed by private citizens than by law enforcement officers. Moreover, since the police have been given carte blanche by the President, numerous stories of police abuse have emerged. There have been cases of mistaken identity in which innocent people were killed. There have been allegations of fabricated reports and the planting of guns, money and drugs in innocent people’s houses.

While Mr Duterte understands the political potency of naming villains and delivering swift “justice-on-demand”, he doesn’t seem to realise how easily this could spiral out of control. If vigilantism is allowed to increase unchecked, it may be used to target any suspected criminal for any felony without any need for evidence. In fact, it may even be used to settle personal grudges without any fear of real consequences. Mr Duterte is familiar with this – he shot a fellow student in law school and was merely expelled, although he was still allowed to graduate. The uptick in violence could fuel demand for more violence in response. Thus, violence begets more violence, and life inches closer and closer to a Hobbesian reality.

Duterte’s supporters would probably point out that the situation did not spin out of control in Davao. But Duterte is now the leader of a country fifty times the size of Davao, where the same dynamics do not apply. Yet, he continues to respond to criticism of his policies with invective-laced tirades, whether it is from fellow political leaders, human rights groups, state leaders and representatives, or international organisations. He has insulted President Obama and the US ambassador, threatened to pull out from the UN, and sworn at the EU. He has said that journalists are “not exempted from assassination”. In one of the most prominent displays of his cavalier attitude, he said he was unconcerned about the international community’s opinion of him because he is not president of the international community.

It can even be argued that Duterte’s siege mentality has contributed to his shift in foreign policy. Sensing greater support for his domestic policy from China than the US, he has decided to cosy up to the Chinese and alienate the Americans. Of course, there are other factors involved in this policy shift, which he has been advocating for many months. But the shift is probably facilitated by his disdain for the Americans who have criticised his domestic policy. In deciding to negotiate issues related to the South China Sea dispute directly with the Chinese, and unilaterally declaring the end of war games with the US, President Duterte is playing a risky diplomatic game.

All in all, Duterte’s powerful and colourful personality is a game-changer for the Philippines. His supporters hail him as a hero like Batman. His critics probably liken him to the Joker, with his loose-cannon mouth and his penchant for crude humour. In the long run, however, President Duterte must depart from his heroic style of governance and focus more on restoring the rule of law, strengthening the nation’s judicial system, and spurring economic growth. If he does not, he will only be targeting the symptoms and not the root of the country’s problems. Furthermore, unfettered vigilantism may lead to increased lawlessness despite his tough stance on crime. Even if crime rates do fall and rapid economic development takes place over the next six years, these gains may be reversed after he leaves office if he does not build strong institutions.

In Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne realises that he is vulnerable as a man but immortal as a symbol. If President Duterte wants to achieve the same immortal legacy, he must focus on building trustworthy, functional and responsive state institutions that can outlast his presidency.

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Overcoming the Politics of Hate: Comparing Rwanda and Singapore

Few countries have been torn apart by the same ruinous hatred that devastated Rwanda during the genocide of the Tutsis in 1994. In just 3 months, 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally massacred. But since the end of the genocide, Rwanda has made tremendous progress under the iron-fisted leadership of President Paul Kagame. While the traumatic scars of the catastrophe have not faded away completely, hatred between Hutus and Tutsis has been replaced by peaceful tolerance and a unified resolve to never let ethnic differences fuel such bloodletting again.

This miraculous recovery is underpinned by rapid socio-economic development. Faced with a wrecked economy and debilitating poverty after the genocide, Kagame looked to Singapore to emulate its turbo-charged development from Third World to First. [i] [ii] Having learnt from Singapore’s experience, Kagame’s government cracked down on corruption; invested heavily in housing, education and healthcare; attracted foreign investors with developed infrastructure and minimal red tape; and cleaned up the capital city. As a result, Rwanda has achieved an average real GDP growth of 8% per annum since 2001 and is one of the safest and least corrupt countries in Africa.[iii]

While much has been written about Rwanda’s emulation of Singapore’s development trajectory, not much attention has been given to the similar social policies that both countries have adopted to manage relations between their diverse ethnic groups. Like Rwanda, Singapore is a multi-ethnic country. The Chinese constitute the majority while Malays and Indians are significant minority populations. The city-state is also home to people of different religions, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and others. While Singapore has never experienced genocide, it has suffered the turbulence of racial riots between Chinese and Malays.[iv] But today, “racial harmony” is the bedrock of Singapore’s stability and progress. This article examines the similarities and differences in the laws, policies and initiatives that Rwanda and Singapore have adopted to overcome the politics of hate.

Building a Unifying National Identity

Both Rwanda and Singapore have focused on building national identities that unify their diverse ethnic groups. However, each country has taken a separate route – Rwanda has adopted the assimilationist model, while Singapore has adopted the multiculturalist model.

In a bid to turn Rwandan society into an integrated “melting pot”, Kagame’s government has embarked on the ambitious task of ridding the country of ethnic classification altogether. Citizens are encouraged to think of themselves only as Rwandans, and not as Hutus and Tutsis. Kagame’s goal is to erase the same ethnic categories that fuelled the catastrophic genocide of 1994. In line with this policy, the ethnic identity of Rwandan citizens was excluded from national IDs in 1996. As NYT journalist Jeffry Gettleman discovered, many Rwandans refuse to reveal their ethnic identity, choosing to identify solely as Rwandans.[v]

On the contrary, there are many Rwandans for whom ethnic identity is important because the events of 1994 have made them irreversibly distrustful of members of the outgroup.[vi] Also, some Rwandans suspect that Kagame’s decision to play down ethnicity is a ruse to mask the fact that Tutsis wield a significant amount of political and economic power despite making up only 15% of the population. If they are not allowed to talk about ethnicity, it is hard to discuss the disproportionate power that Tutsis hold.[vii]

Singapore, on the other hand, has kept and even institutionalised the ethnic identities of its citizens. According to Singapore’s multiculturalist vision, Singaporeans do not discard their ethnic identity but render it secondary to their national identity. Rather than trying to achieve the impossible task of erasing citizens’ attachment to primordial identities, the government has chosen the path of open and honest discussion about ethnic identities and differences (within certain limits) while emphasising the overarching national identity that unites all Singaporeans “regardless of race, language or religion”, as quoted from Singapore’s National Pledge.

Hence, Singapore’s society is perceived through the lens of the “Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others” (CMIO) system, which has become a ubiquitous element of the Singaporean experience.[viii] The four national languages of Singapore are Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English, and the festivals of each major ethnic and religious group are national holidays. Singapore’s parliamentary electoral system ensures that the minority Malay and Indian groups are always represented in Parliament. The Government is contemplating the idea of an “electoral safeguard” to ensure that Singapore has minority Elected Presidents from time to time. Most visibly, “race” remains a category on the Singaporean national ID, which a UN Special Rapporteur has criticised for contributing to racially based policies and discrimination.[ix] In response to such criticism, a Singaporean cabinet minister claimed that ethnic identities “are not going to go away soon”, so Singaporeans should recognise them and “work on them to achieve a higher ideal”.[x] That higher ideal is a fair and meritocratic society where individual progress depends on ability and industriousness, not on ethnic background.

Inculcating a Duty to Serve the Nation

As part of their efforts to develop strong national identities that transcend narrower ethnic identities, both Rwanda and Singapore have emphasised the importance of every citizen’s duty to serve the nation. Through community service, individuals learn to place the needs of the nation before the needs of their immediate community. Community service also provides a platform for cross-ethnic interaction as citizens unite to achieve a common goal.

In Rwanda, the primary form of community service is a nation-wide initiative called umuganda, which means “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome”.[xi] This draws on the Rwandan tradition of calling upon family, friends and neighbours to help complete a difficult task. During Umuganda Saturday, which is the last Saturday of every month, Rwandans between the age of 18 and 65 are expected to engage in some form of community service.[xii] This includes infrastructure development like the building of schools and medical centres, and environmental protection like the rehabilitation of wetlands.[xiii] This mandatory community work is used as a tool to inculcate a sense of shared responsibility, and has provided opportunities for productive collaboration between Hutus and Tutsis.

Similarly, Singaporean students are expected to engage in a variety of Community Involvement Projects and Service Learning Projects throughout their schooling years. These programmes aim to teach students to care for the needs of every Singaporean regardless of ethnic background. After school, all male citizens are drafted into the military, police force or civil defence force for two years of National Service (NS). NS plays a significant role in uniting Singaporeans of different ethnicities as strong cross-cultural camaraderie is forged in the crucible of physically demanding exercises. Through NS, Singaporeans unite to defend the nation from external threats and internal discord.

Legislation Against Hate Speech

The governments of Rwanda and Singapore recognise the danger of irresponsible speech in their multi-ethnic societies. Derogatory language could upset the hard-fought social harmony that both countries have achieved. As such, both countries have enacted laws that set the boundaries of acceptable discourse.

The Rwandan government is understandably wary of speech that could rekindle ethnic tension. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda highlighted the role of the media in stoking the flames of ethnic violence in 1994. For example, the popular radio station Radio télévision libre des mille collines (RTLM) broadcast statements calling for the extermination of Tutsis, and the newspaper Kangura ran multiple articles that aimed to incite violence against Tutsis.[xiv] In recognition of the catastrophic effects of irresponsible public statements, the government has taken a strong stance against any speech or publication that could potentially spark ethnic conflict and plunge the country into internecine violence again.

In 2002, the Rwandan parliament passed a law criminalising “sectarianism”, which is “any speech, written statement or action that divides people, that is likely to spark conflicts among people, or that causes an uprising which might degenerate into strife among people”.[xv] In 2008, a law was enacted against all speech containing elements of “genocide ideology”, which involves propounding the act of genocide and denying or minimising the Rwandan genocide. These laws aim to restrict speech that could normalise ethnic hatred, dehumanise entire segments of society or promote “division (which) makes domination possible”.[xvi]

Similarly, Singapore has enacted laws against hate speech that could sow discord in society. Both the Sedition Act and Section 298 of the Penal Code criminalise speech that promotes hatred and ill-will between religious and racial groups. The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act allows the Minister of Home Affairs to issue a restraining order against a religious leader who promotes enmity between religious groups. In extreme cases, the Internal Security Act (ISA) allows for preventive detention and the prohibition of publications in response to acts or speech that promote hatred and hostility between ethnic and religious groups.

These laws have been enacted in Rwanda and Singapore in order to restrict speech that could promote hatred. However, such legislation has also been criticised for violating their citizens’ freedom of expression. International advocacy groups like Amnesty International have accused Kagame’s government of abusing the laws against “sectarianism” and “genocide ideology” to suppress dissenting political views and legitimate debate.[xvii] These groups often highlight the arrest of Victoire Ingabire, the former head of the opposition United Democratic Force Party, who had suggested that Tutsis should be prosecuted for war crimes and Hutu victims should also be commemorated. Critics also point out that the laws are arbitrary – for example, the law against “sectarianism” proscribes even the act of “laughing at one’s misfortune”.[xviii]

Similarly, Singapore has also been accused of excessive restrictions on freedom of expression. Besides the controversy surrounding the government’s power to detain individuals without trial under the ISA, there have been several cases in which the punishment seemed disproportionate to the crime. In 2015, Singaporean blogger Amos Yee was tried and convicted as an adult under Section 298 of the Penal Code for comments that were deemed to be insulting to Christians, even though he was only 16 at the time.[xix] In the same year, a Filipino nurse was convicted of sedition for a Facebook post that was deemed to promote hostility between Singaporeans and Filipinos.[xx] He was jailed for 4 months, which some believed was a disproportionate response to a harmless and even comical post.

Conclusion

More parallels can be drawn between Singapore and Rwanda, but this presents a snapshot of the policies that have been adopted by both countries to promote tolerance and social harmony. However, while Rwanda has managed to preserve its social stability, the politics of hate has not disappeared – it has merely undergone a transformation. Under Kagame’s illiberal rule, the cleavage of hatred is no longer between Hutus and Tutsis, but between government loyalists and opponents.

Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) is perceived as Rwanda’s saviour because it ended the genocide. Kagame has utilised the heroic reputation of the party to accuse political opponents of siding with the genocidaires, since they refuse to side with the party that rebuilt Rwanda from the ashes of the genocide.[xxi] Hence, Kagame’s authoritarian rule extends beyond the banning of opposition parties, the clamping down on dissident media, and the dubious 93% electoral win that he achieved in 2010. His Manichean viewpoint has fuelled the persecution and even execution of political dissidents. As a result, dozens of political dissidents have fled for their lives. In 2010, an assassination attempt was made on veteran opposition leader Kayumba Nyamwasa. In 2011, UK intelligence suggested that there was a plot to murder a Rwandan dissident in London, Rene Claudel Mugenzi.[xxii]

Rwanda has come a long way since the turmoil of the 1990s. By learning from Singapore’s experience, it has achieved rapid economic development. The government has also successfully rebuilt Rwanda’s social capital. However, questions linger about the sustainability of Kagame’s autocratic rule. While some argue that Kagame’s rule is still necessary for Rwanda[xxiii], the time may come when Rwandans are more certain about the strength of their social fabric and demand greater political liberalisation. When that time comes, let’s hope that Rwandans of opposing political affiliations do not engage in the politics of hate once again.


[i] “Africa’s Singapore Dream”, Foreign Policy, 2 Apr 2015, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/04/02/africas-singapore-dream-rwanda-kagame-lee-kuan-yew/

[ii] “Africa’s Singapore?”, The Economist, 25 Feb 2012, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.economist.com/node/21548263

[iii] “Rwanda: Overview”, The World Bank, last updated on 11 Apr 2016, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/rwanda/overview

[iv] “Communal riots of 1964”, Singapore Infopedia, last updated on 18 Sep 2014, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_45_2005-01-06.html

[v] “The Global Elite’s Favourite Strongman”, New York Times, 4 Sep 2013, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/magazine/paul-kagame-rwanda.html?_r=0

[vi] Tirrell, L. (2015). ‘Listen to what you say’: Rwanda’s postgenocide language policies. New England Journal of Public Policy, 27(1): 1-24.

[vii] “The Global Elite’s Favourite Strongman”, New York Times, 4 Sep 2013, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/magazine/paul-kagame-rwanda.html?_r=0

[viii] Chua, B.H. (2003). Multiculturalism in Singapore: An instrument of social control. Race & Class, 44(3): 58-77.

[ix] Gomez, J. (2010). Politics and ethnicity: Framing racial discrimination in Singapore. The Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies, 28(2): 103-117.

[x] “Battle against extremism: Singapore takes a ‘different approach’ on race, religion”, The Straits Times, 31 Jul 2016, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/singapore-takes-a-different-approach-on-race-religion

[xi] “Umuganda”, Rwandapedia, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.rwandapedia.rw/explore/umuganda

[xii] Tirrell, L. (2015). ‘Listen to what you say’: Rwanda’s postgenocide language policies. New England Journal of Public Policy, 27(1): 1-24.

[xiii] “Umuganda”, Rwandapedia, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.rwandapedia.rw/explore/umuganda

[xiv] Allen, J.M., & Norris, G.H. (2011). Is genocide different? Dealing with hate speech in a post-genocide society. Journal of International Law and International Relations, 7: 146-174.

[xv] Law No. 47/2001 on 18/12/2001 on Prevention, Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Discrimination and Sectarianism

[xvi] Tirrell, L. (2015). ‘Listen to what you say’: Rwanda’s postgenocide language policies. New England Journal of Public Policy, 27(1): 1-24.

[xvii] Amnesty International (2010). Safer to Stay Silent: The Chilling Effect of Rwanda’s Laws on ‘Genocide Ideology’ and ‘Sectarianism’. London: Amnesty International. Retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/AFR47/005/2010/en/

[xviii] Allen, J.M., & Norris, G.H. (2011). Is genocide different? Dealing with hate speech in a post-genocide society. Journal of International Law and International Relations, 7: 146-174.

[xix] “Singapore: Amos Yee sentence a dark day for freedom of expression”, Amnesty International, 6 July 2015, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/07/singapore-amos-yee-sentence-a-dark-day-for-freedom-of-expression/

[xx] “Singapore jails Filipino nurse for ‘seditious’ posts”, AFP News, 21 Sep 2015, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: https://sg.news.yahoo.com/singapore-jails-filipino-nurse-seditious-posts-095932941.html

[xxi] Bekken, N. (March, 2011). Rwanda’s hidden divisions: From the ethnicity of Habyarimana to the politics of Kagame. The Beyond Intractability Project, The Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado. Retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.beyondintractability.org/casestudy/bekken-rwandas-hidden-divisions

[xxii] “The Global Elite’s Favourite Strongman”, New York Times, 4 Sep 2013, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/magazine/paul-kagame-rwanda.html?_r=0

[xxiii] Stubbs, T. “Why Kagame’s bid to serve a third term makes sense for Rwanda”, The Conversation, 27 Jan 2016, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://theconversation.com/why-kagames-bid-to-serve-a-third-term-makes-sense-for-rwanda-53354

On Racial Voting and Meritocracy

Screenshot 2016-09-02 00.23.58

Screenshot from the Channel NewsAsia televised panel discussion: Race, Politics and Economy

 

On Monday (29 Aug), Channel NewsAsia aired a panel discussion on “Race, Politics and Economy” with Acting Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung. Although it was touted as a frank, “no holds barred” discussion between 8 Singaporeans and the Minister, it felt more like a bland and predictable Q&A session. The conversation was quite lopsided as well, with Mr Ong giving lengthy answers and occasionally assuming the role of the moderator. I could not help but feel that the broadcast was meant to function as a debut for the young Minister rather than a forum for discussion about the dynamics of Singapore’s changing political and economic landscape.

During the programme, Mr Ong reiterated the Government’s position that the Elected Presidency needs to be modified to ensure that Singaporeans of all races have a chance to be elected to the Presidency. He kept mum about the exact changes that the Government will propose in Parliament in the coming weeks, but he did mention the word “safeguard” several times, which I cannot imagine to be anything other than a form of positive discrimination – although I admit that my imagination may be limited in this respect. We will have to wait and see what the Government proposes in its White Paper, which is also likely to include changes to the Council of Presidential Advisers and the qualifying threshold for presidential candidates (which I have written about before).

Most of Mr Ong’s comments about the Elected Presidency echoed what PM Lee said during the National Day Rally in August and the parliamentary debate on the President’s Address in January this year. However, he did make two new remarks, both of which I found quite unsettling.

The first is that Singapore is unable to elect a minority president because, as revealed by a recent CNA-IPS survey, Singaporeans are still inclined to vote along racial lines. As Mr Ong said, “human nature is like that, we are more comfortable with somebody of our own race… I think that’s really the issue”.

From the outset, I am wary about the CNA-IPS survey because of the way “acceptability” of other races was measured. In the survey, a series of questions was asked to respondents about whether they found people from certain groups “acceptable” to marry into the family, invite for a meal, tutor their children, and to be the PM or President of Singapore. As explained on Slide 38 of the survey report, for each question, respondents were instructed to choose as many groups as they found acceptable from 7 options, which included Singaporean Chinese, Singaporean Malay, Singaporean Indian, etc. So for the question on the President, if respondents chose only 3 out of 7 options, it was then interpreted that the other 4 groups of people were “unacceptable” as President.

I wonder if the results would have been different if respondents were asked to label each group as “acceptable” or “unacceptable”. Or maybe I’m just trying too hard to defend Singapore’s reputation as a harmonious nation. I just find it hard to believe that only 53% of Chinese respondents would “accept” a Malay PM, and only 60% would “accept” an Indian PM. Or that only 66-68% of Chinese respondents would “accept” Malay or Indian as guests for dinner. But even if my scepticism about the survey results is naïve and overly optimistic, I’m not convinced that racial voting is “really the issue”.

The issue is that in the only two Presidential Elections in Singapore’s history (not counting Mr SR Nathan’s walkovers in 1999 and 2005), there were no minority candidates at all! Now based on the results of the CNA-IPS survey, it could be true that racial voting could prevent a minority president from being elected in the future, but this ignores the elephant in the room – that there have been no minority candidates for Singaporeans to elect. Before focusing on how voters would respond to minority candidates, the first step is to encourage more minority candidates to step forward in the first place.

The second remark was even more shocking. Mr Ong said that a president’s merit should be judged after the end of his term, “not before he is elected”. He said this in response to the concerns of some panelists that introducing safeguards might result in less qualified presidents. In other words, we should reserve our judgement of a president’s competence and suitability till his job is done.

However, this is a blatant contradiction of Singapore’s cherished principle of meritocracy! The whole basis of meritocracy is that a person is chosen for the job based on his skills, talents, intellect and competence. But if voters are not supposed to judge a candidate’s merit before he has been elected, on what other basis should voters choose candidates for public office? I’m surprised that none of the panelists called Mr Ong out on this.

The issue of minority representation in the Istana is not an easy one to tackle. Affirmative action policies will be criticised as anti-meritocratic and tokenistic. But inaction may also lead to minority underrepresentation in the Istana over the next few decades, which undermines the President’s role as a symbol of unity for the nation. Moreover, the issue of underrepresentation in the Istana is just one aspect of the broader issue of racial inequality, which requires solutions beyond amending the Elected Presidency. I hope that Singaporeans understand the complexity of these issues and navigate the upcoming public discussion on the Elected Presidency with sensitivity and wisdom.