Why are Singaporeans upset about the Presidential Election walkover

On 11 September, news broke about the Singapore Presidential election walkover. For the entire my evening, my newsfeed was flooded with people expressing their anger regarding not being able to choose their next president.

Of the five individuals who had applied for certificates of eligibility, only Madam Halimah Yacob, former PAP Member and Speaker of Parliament, was declared eligible to run.

Since November 2016, the Singapore Presidential Election 2017 has been fraught with controversy since the government decided to change the criteria.

In 2016, The Workers’ Party MPs had argued against a racially reserved Presidential election, against the more stringent criteria for deciding on eligibility which include:

  • The 2017 elections would only be reserved for someone who is of the Malay race
  • An individual from the private sector seeking to run for office is required to have experience and ability comparable to that of a chief executive of a company with S$500 million in shareholders’ equity for his most recent 3-year period of service as chief executive. Previously, it was S$100 million.

Singapore Presidential Elections Hopefuls 2017I would like to clarify that it is not that people dislike Madam Halimah Yacob per se.

In fact, in the eyes of some Singaporeans, Halimah Yacob pretty much exemplifies the qualities they want to see in an ideal female leader. I would call it the “3 Ms” – 

  • Motherly: Being a wife of a happy marriage and being a Mother
  • Modest: Dressing conservatively.
  • Mild: Not being too aggressive, opinionated or confrontational

Madam Halimah Yacob’s fulfillment of this ideal has been a clear advantage for her. People seem to be proclaiming about how she is a great leader without being able to point out any specific policy she has proposed previously or merely citing her many years of being in a public service job.

That is the way politics work for the general populace, many people generally decide based on feelings and then look for facts to back up their viewpoints.

Instead of disliking Madam Halimah Yacob, I believe that the changes to the criteria of the Presidential Election and the subsequent walkover is the reason for unhappiness among many Singaporeans.

This situation has raised several questions in the mind of Singaporeans which I hope to explain in this post:

1. Why is it okay to have a minority race president but not prime minister?

In response to reserving the elections for one race, Singaporeans were told that it was because the Chinese majority would likely not elect a president on minority race.

However, two particular situations have proven otherwise.

First of all, most Singaporeans have expressed that they prefer Tharman to be a prime minister. In a survey of 900 Singaporeans, a whooping 55 percent picked DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam over other Chinese hopefuls including DPM Teo Chee Hean, and Ministers Heng Swee Keat, Chan Chun Sing, Ng Chee Meng, Ong Ye Kung, Lawrence Wong, and Tan Chuan-Jin. In fact, Tharman was a clear winner with 55 percent of respondents placing him as their first choice followed by DPM Teo at 17 percent.

Also, it wasn’t too long ago that a minority candidate won 1-1 against Singaporean Chinese candidate. At a recent Bukit Batok by-electons, Mr. Murali Pillai had won against Dr. Chee Soon Juan, garnering 61.2 percent of the votes.

Say if our leaders really believe in diversity, why are we not advocating have a Prime Minister from a minority race? 

Despite calls from the public for Tharman to be our next PM, the six candidates are middle-aged Chinese men, just like all the Prime Ministers we’ve had before that. Singaporeans are then told that the country is not ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister.

While unintentional, what kind of message are we really sending across if we tell people that it is okay if minorities are in a position of less power and influence such as the president but not the Prime Minister?

Another consequence of reserving the election for one race is that it may end up unintentionally reinforcing stereotypes instead.

As Md Suhalie points out in his post: “To run for a reserved election, and not earlier in an open election, affirms the stereotype that Malays aren’t good enough to compete with the rest… In my mind that the success of a Malay President will be seen as the success of a neo-meritocratic presidential election more so than that of the Malay community. After all, he/she did not get in on his/her own merits alone, but in large part because of special accommodations by the reserved system.”


 2. Why has our first elected president suddenly changed from Ong Teng Cheong to Wee Kim Wee?

All along, government websites and Goh Chok Tong having in the past declared Mr. Ong Teng Cheong as the first elected president.

However, the past six months there has been a complete review.

Instead, Mr. Wee Kim Wee, for the purposes of this PE, has been declared as the first elected president. This is despite the fact that no one has ever elected him!

MP for Aljunied GRC and The Workers’ Party Chariman, Ms. Sylvia Lim, asked if the schedule should start with President Ong Teng Cheong, who in 1993 became Singapore’s first elected President.

Quoting her speech in parliament:

“Is it because, if President Ong was the first one to be counted, we would have to go through this year’s elections as an open election, and risk a contest by Chinese or Indian candidates who may not be to the Government’s liking?”

She questioned if the decision to start with President Wee was an “arbitrary and deliberate” one by the Government to “achieve a desired outcome”.

Sylvia Lim attempted to seek clarification on this matter for the parliamentary sitting on 11 September and filed an adjournment motion “Counting from President Wee Kim Wee or President Ong Teng Cheong for Reserved Presidential Election – Policy Decision or Legal Question”. This was unsuccessful.

On 30th August, the Parliament notified MPs that there were two other adjournment motions filed on 29th August, namely “Community Sentencing and Other Rehabilitative Options” by Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) and “The Future of National Service” by Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang).

After balloting, the topic by Mr Murali Pillai was picked and Sylvia Lim was not able to speak on her adjournment motion.


3. Is reserving the Presidential Election for one race meritocratic?

Since young, Singaporeans have been brought up to believe in the concept of ‘Meritocracy’, that as long as we had the capability and worked hard, we would be rewarded.

By reserving the election, it appears to go against that. As author, Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, describes elegantly in his post On Singapore’s presidential election 

Imagine you are playing a game, any game. Monopoly, Table Tennis, Fifa ’17.

Now imagine that game has been going on for twenty-four years. Different players qualify, different players compete, and ultimately one wins.

Now imagine if the hosts of the game have a preferred contestant each time. And for twenty-four years, the preferred choice has always won.

In the last contest, however, the runner-up lost by the skin of his teeth. Never before has the preferred contestant come so close to losing.

How do the hosts respond? For the first time in the history of the game, they change the rules. And in the new rules, guess what? That runner-up, a favourite to win this time, no longer qualifies.

This cuts to the core of why Singaporeans are upset. We have been sold on meritocracy and fairness our whole lives. And now, to fulfil a political agenda, those two core values have been eroded.

Alfian Sa’at also highlights some coincidental constant changes to the constitution and rules whenever an ‘outsider’ is winning or close to winning in the past decades:

  • After both JB Jeyaretnam and Chiam See Tong won seats in 1984, they introduced the GRC system in 1988.
  • After Low Thia Khiang won Hougang in 1991 and the SDP won 3 constituencies, they increased the size of GRCs from 3-4 to 5-6 in the 1997 GE.
  • After Tan Cheng Bock almost won the last presidential election in 2011, they have – once again – gone back to change the Constitution, to introduce the “Reserved Election” which allows them to bar all Chinese from such an election, including someone like Dr Tan.

4. With Halimah Yacob vacating her seat, why is there no by-election?

Pritam Singh cited the example of Halimah Yacob, the Speaker of the House, and asked if there would be a by-election in…

Posted by The Workers' Party on Wednesday, 8 February 2017


In response to the above question raised by The Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh in Parliament, we learnt that the Prime Minister will not call for a by-election in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC.

By law, our GRC system mandates that there should be one minority candidate per GRC to ensure representation. After Halimah Yacob vacated her seat to participate in the Presidential Election 2017, a by-election was not called.

Instead of having a by-election, a Grassroots Advisor, Mr. Shamsul Kamar, was appointed. He was the People’s Action Party’s branch chairman in the Kaki Bukit ward of Aljunied GRC.

In response to this appointment, NUS Student Yudhishthra Nathan raised two thought provoking questions:

  1. Does this mean that Government agencies will now accord Grassroots Advisors with as much recognition as elected MPs when residents attend Mt-the-People Sessions seeking help?
  2. Also, does this mean that these unelected Grassroots Advisors can take on other roles that presumably only MPs can undertake?

Quoting him: “If the answer is yes, it would be even worse, for this would be an admission that the Government can appoint a PAP member to be the Grassroots Advisor for Marsiling with inordinate power and authority, without a single vote having been cast for that person by Singaporeans living there.”


Photo Credit: The Online Citizen: https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2017/03/09/nine-reasons-why-the-parliament-refuses-to-stream-its-session-live-for-public-consumption/


With these questions raised, it is no wonder that Singaporeans are upset about the presidential election walkover and taking to social media to voice their frustrations about not having a choice.

But, what can complaining online achieve? Nothing really. We are still at least two years away from the next parliamentary general election. My guess is that many of the frustrations that some may feel right now is likely to be forgotten within the next few weeks.

Furthermore, in the minds of an average Singaporean, the achievements of the past and foundations built by the old guard is sufficient to give the mandate to those who never took part in those achievements.

What can then effect real change in the long term? Well, changes in our constitution would require two-thirds of the Parliament to vote for it. Since the General Elections 2015, 82 out of 89 seats are occupied by one party. Many have expressed that it is akin to handing someone a blank cheque to do whatever they want.

With only 6 MPs in parliament who have the right to vote, the Workers’ Party can raise all the important issues in parliament until the cows come home… but they won’t be taken as seriously.

So, if you don’t like the idea of power being too concentrated in the hands of one group of people and laws to be changed easily, then you may wish to consider politically plurality as the way forward. This point was brought up by author of Hard Choices, Sudhir Thomas who stated: “I’m happy with the PAP in power, but they really need to be cut down to size. We need some 20-30 opposition candidates in parliament (of 87 seats). That way, the PAP can still go about their day-to-day legislative business, with a simple majority, but they cannot suka suka make changes to the constitution—like this mind-numbingly stupid reserved presidency.”

Everyone has a different opinion on how many opposition members we need in Parliament but what majority of us can agree on is that there needs to be suffi to serve as a check and balance.

What do you think? If you feel that this post has resonated with you, feel free to share it with your peers.