Singapore’s parliamentary speaker Halimah Yacob is the front runner to be elected president in next year’s election, observers say, after the government confirmed plans to reserve the contest for ethnic Malays as part of a move to broaden minority representation in the ceremonial role.

“By the operation of the hiatus-triggered model, the next [presidential] election due next year will be a reserved election for Malay candidates,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told lawmakers in parliament on Tuesday afternoon.

The so-called “hiatus-triggered model” was mooted in September by a constitutional commission headed by the chief justice and convened by Lee following concerns that an ethnic Malay has not held the presidency in the majority-Chinese country since 1970.

Some Singaporeans said the move was an elaborate plan to block Tan Cheng Bock, an ethnic Chinese government critic, from contesting the election. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has vehemently denied this charge.

Under the new framework, the government has the prerogative to declare reserve elections if a person from a certain ethnic group is not elected president for five terms, or 30 years.

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Political observers said Halimah Yacob, 62, a senior member of the PAP who is the Speaker of Parliament, would probably have the tacit backing of the government to step down and announce her candidacy for the position.

Election rules do not allow the ruling party to openly endorse its preferred candidate for the presidency, which has some veto powers on the appointment of key government positions and the use of the wealthy city state’s financial reserves.

“Halimah is the best option for the government…not only will she be the first Malay president (since 1970), but she will also be the country’s first female president,” said P.N. Balji, the former chief editor of Singapore’s Today newspaper.

“There is a sense of real respect for her on the ground… and there is little doubt she has the guts and gumption to stand up against the government if it is found to be doing things it should not be doing,” he said.

Legal-trained Halimah spent over three decades as a unionist with the country’s powerful National Trades Union Congress, and became a PAP MP in 2001.

She became a junior minister in 2011, and was appointed speaker in 2013 after the incumbent quit politics over an extramarital affair. The mother of five is the member of parliament for the northern district of Marsiling.

She has so far not commented on whether she is planning to run for the presidency, which is the only office in the land elected by universal suffrage.

Eugene Tan, a longtime Singapore politics observer, said Halimah was “certainly well positioned” because of the narrow field of candidates arising out of the restriction that only Malay candidates qualify for next year’s election.

There are only a small number of Malay candidates like Halimah who qualify for the presidency’s strict criteria. Public officials must have held senior positions – including elected public office – while private sector nominees must have managed at least S$500 million (HK$2.8 billion) in shareholder equity.

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“Her background in the labour movement, and being a double minority – Malay and woman -- will resonate across gender, race and age groups,” said Tan, an associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University.

“For the more religious sections of Singapore’s Muslim community, the fact that she wears the tudung [headscarve] will also go down well,” Eugene Tan said.

Singapore’s 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.

Tan Cheng Bock, the ethnic Chinese former PAP MP turned government critic who lost by a wafer thin margin in the last contest to the incumbent Tony Tan, a former deputy prime minister, told This Week in Asia he would “respond in due time” to the government’s announcement.

Despite Halimah’s appeal, other Singapore politics experts said the ruling party could choose to field alternative Malay candidates.

“As much as Halimah is as good a choice as any from the Malay community, the establishment may well opt for a safer choice in Abdullah Tarmugi,” said Mustafa Izzuddin, a researcher at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, referring to a former PAP cabinet minister.

“That Abdullah Tarmugi was born to a Malay father and a Chinese mother, and that his wife is also Chinese may well be an advantage because of that projection of a multicultural identity,” Mustafa said.

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Tan, the law professor, said Singaporeans were likely to accept the government’s choice for the elected presidency after initial cynicism about the reserve election scheme.

PAP critics had painted it as the latest of a slew of legal measures enacted by the ruling party to shore up its power and curb dissent.

Others have said that the move to reserve the ceremonial presidency for minorities was tokenism by the PAP because leaders have said the city-state is unlikely to have a non-Chinese prime minister any time soon.

The country’s Westminster model makes the premier its most powerful person in politics.

“I think there is a reservoir of trust that the government is well-placed to decide how to go about keeping the institution of the elected presidency fit for purpose,” Tan said.