The Singaporean Presidential election has taken place, or at least Singapore has a new president. In a strange turn of events, the election was cancelled as there was only one candidate. Halimah Yacob has therefore been elected by acclamation.
Halimah Yacob: Progress only on the Surface
Taken from the headlines, one could not be blamed for thinking this is a huge victory for ethnic and gender equality in Singapore. Indeed, on some levels it is. Halimah Yacob is a woman of Malay descent, and the first woman ever to be president of Singapore and the first person from a Malay background since the 1970s. She wears a headscarf, displaying her Muslim faith proudly – a powerful symbol indeed.
However, while she may be the right president for the right time, the manner in which she was elected has drawn significant criticism from allies and opponents alike.
A Controversial Election
The Singaporean government decided to attempt to bridge the gap in Singaporean politics between different ethnic groups by only allowing citizens of Malay heritage apply for candidacy.
The idea to promote harmony between ethnic groups has largely backfired. It has turned a prominent candidate into a mere token for Singapore’s diverse and integrated society. Cherian George, a political commentator and academic, criticised the policy, stating that it had actually done the reverse of integrating and promoting democratic values amongst Singapore’s minorities:
The decision was made by the government for two reasons, firstly in the name of social progress. Secondly, and not openly stated, for political goals. Indeed, many ordinary citizens who have been denied their right to vote will see Halimah Yacob as a puppet by the government. Their clumsy attempt to keep Tan Chen Bock from running for office again as not gone unnoticed.
Unelected Into a Mostly Ceremonial Office – Will it Matter?
While the office of President is largely ceremonial, the office does come with some significant power. The President has the right to veto certain legislation. This includes changes impacting the country’s fiscal reserves and certain positions being filled. The most important role that the president plays is that of the head of state.
Ultimately, the Chinese majority in Singapore will dislike having a candidate representing progress forced upon them. Yet Halimah Yacob, by many accounts, has the ability to win over her country. It is exactly this that has angered and saddened many ordinary Singaporeans. She was handed a position for free that she could have won anyway, and deserved. It is the clumsy meddling by the government that has angered many, not their new president.