An upcoming presidential poll in Singapore reserved for ethnic Malays will see the multiracial Lion City elect its first head of state from the indigenous minority community in five decades, but a divisive debate on whether the contenders are “Malay enough” is threatening to overshadow the actual vote.

The September election for the ceremonial role had already proven to be a political lightning rod, with public opinion split over constitutional amendments last November that disqualify other ethnic groups, including the majority Chinese, from running this time round.

The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which said it pushed through the changes to broaden minority political representation, was forced to repel criticism that the new rules were against the city state’s vaunted meritocratic ethos.

The changes courted further controversy as the PAP was accused of tabling them to block the candidacy of Tan Cheng Bock, an ethnic Chinese ex-MP turned critic who lost to President Tony Tan Keng Yam by a razor thin margin in 2011. PAP leaders led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong vigorously dismissed those claims.

Now, weeks ahead of the election, Lee and his government are facing a fresh headache from a squabble within the Malay community on whether those who have stepped up to run in the polls are of Melayu Asli (Original Malay) stock.

Observers say the debate could hurt harmony within the Malay community, which makes up 13.4 per cent of the Lion City’s resident population of 3.93 million people.

The issue surfaced because of the mixed ethnic lineage of two people who have so far declared their interest in running in the reserved election. The 62-year-old marine sector executive Farid Khan Kaim Khan is listed as a Pakistani, while businessman Mohamed Salleh Marican, 67, is an Indian Muslim.

And Halimah Yacob, the PAP MP and parliamentary speaker widely seen as the establishment’s favoured candidate, also has part Indian lineage.

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She has yet to declare her candidacy, but a source with knowledge of her thinking told This Week in Asia that she would quit party politics to run for the position.

Elections are expected to be held in early September, soon after the five year term of Tan, an ex-PAP minister, ends on August 31.

The presidency – elected by universal suffrage since 1993 – is largely ceremonial but has some veto powers on the appointment of key bureaucrats and the use of the country’s deep financial reserves. Even though Premier Lee is the most powerful political leader, he is technically the president’s appointee.

‘Melayu Asli’

The September vote is reserved for Malays because the constitutional amendment provided for “reserved elections” if a person from one of the country’s major ethnic groups had not held the presidency for five terms, or 30 years. The last Malay who held office as Singapore’s head of state was Yusof Ishak, who served as the republic’s first president from 1965 until his death in 1970.

“In an ideal theoretical situation, a pure Malay or Melayu Asli is what would be expected for a presidency reserved for the Malays,” said Mustafa Izzuddin, a politics researcher at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “But in reality, since we have three potential candidates who have origins from the Indian subcontinent, it is more about whether these candidates consider themselves Malay and whether the community accepts them as Malays,” he said.

The constitutional amendment ratified last year stipulates a Malay as “any person, whether of the Malay race or otherwise, who considers himself to be a member of the Malay community and who is generally accepted as a member of the Malay community by that community”.

The Lion City’s constitution recognises ethnic Malays as the indigenous people of the island state.

Lawrence Ross, a researcher at Malaysia’s Academy of Malay Studies, said “the ‘real’ Malay is often more of a rhetorical concept than a practical one.”

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“Malays are hardly in agreement of who is truly asli, and to what asli actually refers. Is it one’s lineage? Language? Cultural practices? These all tend to vary greatly over the so-called ‘Malay world’,” Ross said.

Online, Farid Khan received the most brickbats for his presidential bid as a member of the Malay community. In a press conference announcing his candidacy, he described himself as a “Malay of Pakistani descent”. Salleh Marican meanwhile was lampooned by some for his poor command of the Malay language during a Facebook Live interview.

Halimah, the widely respected parliamentary speaker, was also not spared in the online fisticuffs over her “Malayness”.

A Wikipedia entry about her that included information about her lineage – her father is Indian Muslim – was edited more than 30 times, as users from opposing camps added and removed that detail.

Debate hurting multiculturalism

Some observers said the intra-Malay debate was antithetical to the raison d’etre of the reserved election scheme, which the PAP had touted as a way to enhance the country’s multiracialism.

The party often trumpets that the lasting ethnic peace in the country is an outcome of its vigilant and almost paranoid management of differences among the major racial groups.

Chong Ja Ian, a politics researcher at the National University of Singapore, said “some of the contention could have been prevented”.

He said the fluid nature of intra-ethnic identities had been discussed during feedback sessions and the parliamentary debate that preceded the constitutional amendments. “So, I would have expected there to be a more ready response by the current administration,” the researcher said.

A poll conducted by the independent firm Blackbox Research last October showed public opinion was split on whether the reserved election was necessary. Of those polled, 36 per cent of Chinese respondents found the changes “absolutely necessary” or “good to have”, compared with 56 per cent among the Malays, and 57 per cent among the Indians.

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The survey showed that Singaporeans “demonstrated only minor interest in changes to the elected presidency, and as would be expected, ethnic groups expressed different enthusiasm for the reserved election idea,” said David Black, the polling firm’s managing director.

Other experts, meanwhile, said the “Malayness” debate may eventually turn out to be purely academic because ethnicity is not the sole criteria determining the eligibility of the trio for the presidency.

The constitutional amendment requires nominees from the private sector to have managed a company worth at least S$500 million dollars (HK$2.9 billion) in shareholder equity, an increase from the previous figure of S$100 million dollars.

Farid Khan and Salleh Marican do not automatically meet this criteria. A special committee tasked with endorsing the eligibility of presidential candidates has the powers to waive this requirement. Halimah, parliamentary speaker since 2013, automatically qualifies, meeting criteria for nominees who hold key positions in government.

If all three are green-lighted for the polls, it would signify “the diversity of talent being produced by the Malay community in Singapore”, Mustafa said.