Should there be a reserved election for the Prime Minister?

The reserved election has led to negative sentiments amongst some Singaporeans. CAMPUS EYE/Sheryl Teo (SINGAPORE)

By Tan Jian Zhong

SINGAPORE, Oct 7 (Campus Eye) – This year’s presidential election was reserved for members of the Malay community, and this change has led to the question: should there also be a reserved election for the prime minister?

Dr Tan Ern Ser, associate professor from the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore (NUS) said this was a valid question, considering that the rationale was for minority representation in parliament.

“One could argue that logically speaking, there should be a reserved election or appointment for every key office in the country,” said Tan Ern Ser.

Professor Garry Rodan, Director of the Asia Research Centre and professor of politics and international studies at Murdoch University in Australia, agreed.

“Why would the goal of promoting broad racial representation be less important for a position that can exert a more pervasive influence over public policies,” said Rodan, who is researching on political regimes in Southeast Asia and has written several articles about politics in Singapore.


The reserved election for the country’s president this year is the second major change towards minority representation in the government after the introduction of Group Representation Constituencies (GRC) in 1988, a policy designed to ensure that at least one MP (member of parliament) in a GRC comes from the Malay, Indian, or a minority community of Singapore.

Some 20 months before the planned election, changes to the constitution were made to how the president would be elected. This included a system of reserving elections for an ethnic community if five terms were to pass without a president from that community.

As Singapore last had a Malay president 47 years ago – Yusof Ishak who served from 1965 to 1970 – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in November 2016 that Singapore’s next presidential election in September 2017 would be reserved for the Malay community.

However, the planned reserved election did not happen.

On September 11, the Presidential Election Committee (PEC) announced that only one candidate was issued both the Certificate of Community and Certificate of Eligibility.

Halimah Yacob was then declared to be the president of Singapore since the other two applicants, Salleh Marican and Farid Khan, did not meet the $500 million shareholders’ equity requirement for private sector candidates.

PM Lee said while many people felt that race did not matter to them, surveys showed a significant majority of Singaporeans did consider race to be a factor when casting votes and would not vote for a presidential candidate of another race.

“That puts the minority candidates at a disadvantage in an election,” said PM­ Lee.

According to Tan Ern Ser, Singapore’s president was previously chosen by parliament, and it was possible for the presidency to be first held by a Malay, then Eurasian, Indian, and Chinese under the old system.

After the Elected Presidency system was implemented, it became difficult to ensure that the presidency went to a minority Singaporean, hence the need for a reserved election.


However, Tan Ern Ser said that the government was not likely to support the idea of having a reserved election for the prime minister.

“Thus far our political system has stabilised with having a prime minister from the majority race, and the government will in turn, to the extent that there are suitably qualified candidates, ensure that the top presidency, judiciary, and legislative are held by minority Singaporeans,” said Tan Ern Ser.

Other experts had different thoughts.

Dr Woo Jun Jie, assistant professor from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) who specialises in Singapore politics, was against the idea of having a reserved election for the Prime Minister.

He said such an election will be difficult to implement in Singapore’s parliamentary system, where the prime minister is chosen by members of parliament (MPs) from the ruling party and not elected by voters, unlike the president.

“There is a greater need for multiracial representation in the presidency because the president played a symbolic role for the nation while the prime minister played an executive role,” said Woo.

“In contrast, it is the [ruling] party that should exercise multiracial representation through the Group Representation Constituencies (GRC), rather than the Prime Minister,” said Woo.

Dr Alan Chong, associate professor from the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies at NTU, also agreed that the logic of minority representation did not justify a reserved election for the prime minister.

“As a symbol of minority representation and the multiracial society of Singapore, this is the ceremonial role of the president and cannot be applied for the prime minister,” said Chong.


While the idea of a reserved election was implemented for the express purpose of unifying the nation with a presidential representative from a minority community, negative public sentiment has been rife on social media.

Dr Eugene Tan, associate professor from the School of Law at the Singapore Management University (SMU), said that it was difficult to determine if Singaporeans were truly unhappy without a credible survey published.

He said that while he did not think the reserved election divided the country, many Singaporeans were still not convinced that it was necessary.

“The government and the eighth president have their work cut out for them in convincing Singaporeans that the reserved election will strengthen Singapore’s multiracial society,” Eugene Tan added.

Woo shared a similar opinion.

“I think only time will tell if the reserved election has unified or divided Singapore, and this will hinge on the next president’s performance as a national unifier, as well as his or her ability to convince all voters that he or she will act in Singapore’s interests, regardless of ethnicity,” Woo said.

He added: “while people today accept that the GRC system ensures minority representation, it was initially not popular either.”

Eugene Tan thought that Singaporeans understood the rationale for a reserved presidential election but were merely unconvinced that this particular one should be reserved.

“There is a sense that the reserved election mechanism is a useful one, but that doesn’t mean having to use it immediately,” he added.

Chong added that unhappiness and opposing opinions are inevitable in politics.

“I don’t think any election will be gentlemanly … there will bound to be opposition,” he said.

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