To unsuspecting outsiders, the camaraderie among Singapore’s multiracial population is just a happy, unplanned circumstance. But suggest that to the tiny island-state’s long-time rulers and you are likely to get a strong reaction.

The People’s Action Party (PAP), in power since 1959, never shies away from trumpeting that racial harmony in the majority-Chinese country is an outcome of its vigilant and almost paranoid management of ethnic sensitivities in all areas of life, from politics and housing to even death rites.

To keep a lid on potential race tensions, the ruling party utilises an extensive set of policy levers, including the threat of detention without trial for racial instigators, ethnic quotas in public housing estates, ‘national education’ classes in schools, and a bloc-voting system which ensures minority representation in parliament.

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Despite sharp initial resistance, the introduction of English as the main language of instruction and business from the early 1960s has also helped to forge a common identity in the country. Its resident population of 3.9 million is made up of 74.3 per cent Chinese, 13.3 per cent Malays, and 9.1 per cent Indians, with other groups including Eurasians making up the remaining 3.2 per cent.

The fixation with race was thrust into the spotlight this month when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced plans to move a rare constitutional amendment to enhance the chances of minorities being elected as the country’s president.

The position is largely ceremonial but has some veto powers on the appointment of key government positions and the use of the wealthy city state’s financial reserves.

Proposed changes, based on recommendations by a constitutional commission headed by the chief justice, include “reserve elections” if a person from a certain ethnic group is not elected as president for five terms, or 30 years. The new measures will also tighten the criteria for those seeking to qualify as presidential candidates and grants greater powers to the president’s council of appointed advisers.

The changes have sparked a debate about the PAP’s top-down, tightly-regulated race management policy.

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Scarred by bitter and bloody ethnic strife in the early years of its rule, the PAP is unapologetic about its single-minded approach, but critics charge that some of its measures conflate symbolism with substance.

The party is also accused of sometimes using the imperative of preserving racial peace as a way to circumvent democracy and shore up its political power.

Some observers This Week in Asia spoke to, for example, allege that the new changes which may reserve the presidency for minorities is an elaborate plan to block the candidacy of Tan Cheng Bock, an ethnic Chinese former PAP MP turned government critic who lost by a wafer-thin margin in the last contest in 2011 to Tony Tan, a former deputy prime minister. Online, some social media users have mockingly referred to the move as the “Tan Cheng Block”.

The government vehemently denies the accusations.

“The suggestion that the changes are directed at anyone specifically is factually false,” a government spokeswoman told This Week in Asia.

She said such insinuations overlooked “the fact that the changes were recommended by an independent constitutional commission”.

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She added: “The government is looking at strengthening the system, and is not looking at individuals”.

There is some public expectation that the “reserve election” clause will be triggered at next year’s presidential election. As the past president before the incumbent was an ethnic Indian, the next head of state could be from another ethnic minority group, the Malays.

But the government spokeswoman said “no decisions have yet been made on the next election”.

The country’s last head of state of Malay ethnicity was Yusof Ishak, who held the office from 1965 to 1970. Singapore’s banknotes depict the late president.

Observers who spoke to This Week in Asia said the two most likely Malays who met the new tighter qualifying criteria were Halimah Yacob, a PAP MP who is the Speaker of Parliament, and Abdullah Tarmugi, a former PAP cabinet minister.

Halimah did not respond to queries, while Abdullah declined to comment, citing his involvement in the constitutional commission.

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Maidin Packer, a former PAP stalwart, said the mooted changes signalled the party’s unflinching resolve to “achieve a superb, if not a model, multiracially harmonious society”.

Maidin, an ethnic Malay who held various political positions from 1988 to 2006, said the government did not want the country to slip back into a “mirror image of the old Malaysia, where the majority dictates and the rest would feel disadvantaged”.

Divisions over policies favouring Malaysia’s majority Malay race led to the bloody 1964 riot and the eventual termination of Singapore’s merger with its northern neighbour a year later.

Half a century later, the Singapore model has not been without impressive results. The annual Legatum Prosperity Index ranks the city state top out of 142 countries in the treatment of ethnic minorities.

The island has also not seen ethnic violence since 1969 – making it an oasis in Southeast Asia. Race tensions between Malaysia’s majority Malay community and the Chinese minority remain on a constant boil, with a small-scale race riot erupting as recently as last year.

In Indonesia, attacks on Buddhist temples in July were the worst racial disturbances since the 1998 anti-Chinese riots. US President Barack Obama, who has had to grapple with a surge in ethnic tension during his eight-year tenure, in August lauded Singapore for forging a nation that was “different parts united in a harmonious whole”.

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There is little doubt that the model has been relatively successful, but there are question marks on whether the fresh changes to the presidency will further entrench multiracialism at all. The elected presidency scheme was established in 1991. Earlier presidents were appointed by parliament.

The incumbent, Tony Tan, received the backing of premier Lee as well as the country’s key trade unions in the four-cornered 2011 fight.

In his first media interview since the government’s latest announcement, Tan Cheng Bock, the medical doctor who lost in 2011 by 0.35 percentage points to Tony Tan, said “race was never a factor in the elected presidency when the system was introduced 25 years ago”.

“The role of the president, as envisaged by Lee Kuan Yew, was to hold the second key to the reserves and to approve the appointment of key positions in the public sector,” Tan Cheng Bock told This Week in Asia, referring to Singapore’s late founding prime minister, the father of the current premier.

Tan said he believed “Singaporean voters are mature enough to vote objectively”. He added: “A minority race candidate can also be elected as president if he or she is a good candidate in the eyes of the electorate. There is no need to amend the constitution to ‘reserve’ certain presidential elections for them.”

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Asked if he felt the government was blocking his candidacy, Tan said “it would be a sad day for Singapore if a constitutional change is made because of an individual”.

Other critics are less oblique. Tan Jee Say, a former top civil servant who garnered 25 per cent of the vote in the 2011 presidential contest, said “these changes would certainly not have come about if not for Tan Cheng Bock who came within a whisker of the presidency”.

And Chee Soon Juan, the secretary-general of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party and one of the PAP’s most strident adversaries, said the changes were a “flimsy excuse” to disqualify Tan.

“The move has nothing to do with ensuring minorities have political representation. Anyone who thinks that this is the case is naive and knows little about politics in Singapore,” he said.

Pollsters, however, say the government has reason to be concerned about minorities facing electoral hurdles half a century after the multiracial nation was forged out of the ambers of race riots.

A scientific poll by state broadcaster Channel NewsAsia and the government-linked Institute of Policy Studies think tank showed a majority of Singaporeans preferred a prime minister or president who was from their own ethnic group.

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Independent pollster David Black, whose firm Blackbox Research was involved in the survey and which also conducted its own poll on the subject, said “minority representation is something felt more acutely among the non-Chinese in Singapore”.

“The government seems to have grappled with the best way to address this issue and obviously feels the time-based ‘reserve election’ mechanism is a good middle course to take,” said Black.

“It appears to be a typically pragmatic Singaporean response to an issue that has the potential to generate heat if left untethered,” he said.

A presidency with increased minority representation, however, will not address a far bigger and awkward reality looming in the years ahead in Singapore politics – the question of whether the country, which touts multiracialism as its central ethos, can ever have a non-Chinese prime minister.

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All three of the country’s prime ministers to date have been Chinese men. The three cabinet ministers seen as Lee’s potential successors – Heng Swee Keat, Chan Chun Sing and Ong Ye Kung – are also ethnic Chinese.

The highly respected Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, an ethnic Indian, has said he is not interested in the top job. Lee last year told Time magazine that “chances are better” of a non-Chinese prime minister emerging in future generations.

Political observer Eugene Tan said the mooted changes to increase the representation of minorities in the presidency would give rise to greater expectations for a minority prime minister as well.

He said conspiracy theories over the PAP’s real intentions for the changes to the presidency were unlikely to go away quickly.

“I personally don’t believe the measures are targeted at Tan Cheng Bock’s aspirations... but the haste with which they seem to be proceeding with the changes lends itself to conspiracy theories,” said Tan, a law professor at the Singapore Management University who made submissions to the constitutional commission.

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Despite the flak it has received, the PAP is unlikely to be detracted from its activist approach to maintaining race relations. In a forum with Malay union leaders on Thursday, information minister Yaacob Ibrahim said it was vital the presidency was held by a member of each of the country’s major ethnicities from time to time.

“This shows that we continue to preserve the multiracial nature of Singapore, and I think Singaporeans accept the idea,” he was quoted as saying.

He also allayed fears that few Malays might qualify as candidates following the tightened criteria, saying the “problem will be solved over time” as more people from the minority community become successful.

Under the planned changes, prospective candidates from the private sector must have helmed a company with a paid up capital of at least S$500 million, up from the current S$100 million. Senior public officials qualify if they have held office for three years.

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A date has not been set yet on when the planned changes will be deliberated in parliament – and how they might be modified – but there is little doubt the law will be amended. The PAP holds 83 out of 89 seats in the legislature.

Online, Singaporeans disconcerted by the proposed changes have offered a range of alternative ideas.
Ismail Kassim, a retired political journalist from the Straits Times newspaper, said the government could “salvage the situation” by making sure the new rules come into effect only after next year’s presidential election. The subsequent contest is slated for 2023.

“The minority community that has not yet produced [a president] for the last 47 years will not mind waiting a little longer,” Ismail wrote on Facebook, referring to the Malay community.

“In this way, your protestations that they are not aimed against any individual will instantly become more credible,” he added.

The Singapore government’s response ON WHETHER PROPOSED MOVES ARE TO BLOCK CERTAIN INDIVIDUALS OR CRITICS:

The facts speaks for themselves:

1. The proposals were made by a constitutional commission headed by the chief justice. The commission received more than 100 written representations, including from political parties, academics, many others. The commission also held public hearings, which were extensively reported.

The government has largely accepted the commission’s proposals, though there were areas where the government has disagreed. The government’s views have been set out in a white paper.

2. The proposals are supported by a large majority of Singaporeans. A recent survey by Blackbox, (a private research company), showed that:

a) More than 70 per cent of respondents felt there should be “tighter criteria on presidential nominees coming from the private sector to ensure only top executives who have led major companies can qualify”.

b) More than 70 per cent of respondents felt there should be a mechanism to ensure that minorities be given a greater opportunity to become president.

3. The government has directly answered the question as to whether the proposed changes are meant to prevent Dr Tan Cheng Bock from running.The government has made it clear that the changes are not directed at anyone. As stated above, the changes were recommended by a constitutional commission, headed by the chief justice.

Thus, the suggestion specifically is factually false. The suggestion overlooks the above facts, and the fact that the changes were recommended by an independent constitutional commission. The government is looking at strengthening the system, and is not looking at individuals.

4. With regards to reserved elections for specific races, if you need more information, you can contact us. No decision has yet been made on the next election, for reasons which have been made public.

5. We reserve the right to make public our exchange on this issue as well as the above responses to the question that you have posed on this matter. And we will take seriously any suggestion that the changes were directed by the government, for the purposes as set out in your question.