The New President — Managing Optics?

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IN DECEMBER 1965, the Constitution (Amendment) Bill was presented in Parliament that included a transitional provision to allow the then Yang di-Pertuan Negara (Head of State), Inche Yusof bin Ishak, to become Singapore’s first President, as if he had been duly elected. The Bill stated that a President would be elected for a four-year term, and will not be liable to any court proceedings.

Singapore had just separated from Malaya and after Inche Ishak was officially installed as President, his public comments based on what The Straits Times reported then were often centred on how Singaporeans must continue to work together in close cooperation, in the spirit of mutual tolerance and respect for each other’s religion, culture and customs.

The Song Remains The Same

Fast forward more than 50 years, and the message from President-elect Halimah Yacob is encapsulated in a catchy (for various reasons) slogan, but basically the same thrust — Do Good, Do Together.

History does repeat itself but it also suggests that Singapore has been curiously treading water on the racial and religious divide in spite of the country’s economic progress.

The more recent Constitutional adjustments made by the government that paved the way for Madam Halimah’s ascension to the Presidency were not too different from those made in the wake of Singapore’s independence all those years ago. Without racial and religious harmony, it is arguable if Singapore could have made such rampant progress. That perception no doubt exists today as well.

However, you have to wonder why the government took this rather drastic step of having a presidential race reserved for Malays, seemingly arbitrarily setting a S$500 million shareholder equity floor for candidates from the private sector. This ultimately ruled out the other two candidates in the race, Farid Khan and Salleh Marican, both of whom helm sizeable companies.

Is running a S$250 million company any different from running a S$500 million company?

A Signal To The World?

It should be noted that, while in the 1960s, potential instability for Singapore simmered from within, globalization and the interconnectedness of countries today suggest that sources of potential instability for Singapore going forward could come from outside the country. In other words, geopolitical considerations may have driven the government’s push to get Madam Halimah in as President.

Having a Malay President reminds everyone that Singapore is a multi-ethnic, multi-racial country. Its closest neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, are Muslim majority countries. Perhaps it is a portent that the already-strong bilateral ties between Singapore and each of these countries will go up a further few notches.

Also, imagine when Madam Halimah travels around the world as Singapore’s head of state. Other countries may be impressed that a Muslim lady is the point person for Singapore, underscoring the multi-racial and multi-ethnic complexion of the city state.

The controversy surrounding her rise to the Presidency will be meaningless to them, and in these days of short attention spans, will be forgotten anyway.


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It is clear that the government gambled on its political capital with this move, but there has to be more to it than meets the eye. You would think that Occam’s Razor, a line of reasoning that states that the simplest answer is often correct, does not apply here.

Behind The Scenes

The broad view is that the government pushed on Madam Halimah to prevent Dr Tan Cheng Bock from winning the presidential race. That seems too simple a reason. The answers to any questions that Dr Tan may have had on Singapore’s reserves could always be delayed with political speak and obfuscation. We have seen it before.

Ordinary Singaporeans like us are not privy to what goes on behind the scenes in geopolitics. The ascension of Madam Halimah is more likely to be just a chess move in the bigger picture. With Muslim extremist terrorist plots allegedly hatching in this part of the world, uncertainty over the sovereignty of islands on the South China Sea, the role of Singapore as premier port facing possible erosion from China’s Belt And Road framework, the Singapore government likely needs to batten down the hatches to negotiate the turbulence.

Ultimately, for a government that is fanatical about advancing the economy, the answer to the question of why it did what it did lies in how the move will affect the economy. The ascension of Madam Halimah could mark the start of economy-related changes that Singaporeans least expect.


Thus It Was Unboxed by One-Five-Four Analytics presents alternative angles to current events. Reach us at [email protected]


Main Image: Tang Yan Song / Shutterstock.com

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