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.



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