Race relations have come a long way since the dark ages of communal riots and racial tensions. For the past 50 years, meritocracy has been the cornerstone on which race relations were built upon.
Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was unapologetic in his approach to race in Singapore and so were the rest of our pioneer leaders. While Malaysia and Indonesia were still engaged in race politics, Singapore decided from the start that meritocracy was the only way to go.
It has been etched in our national ethos. We acknowledge these values in our Pledge when we recite the words “Regardless or race, language or religion”. Singapore has always drawn strength from its diversity and uncompromising meritocracy.
Unfortunately, meritocracy today is under threat, ironically from the same political party which was once its passionate proponent – The PAP. Somehow, the party which once championed the principle of equal opportunity for all races has decided that the best way to ensure minority representation in the Presidency is to simply reserve the entire election for a single race. To arbitrarily block other races from running for President flies in the face of everything our founding fathers stood for. Moreover, it opens up the Pandora’s Box of race based politics. If the 2017 Presidential Election can be reserved exclusively for Malay candidates, logic dictates it’s only fair the same rule apply to every other race. The notion that a candidate can be disqualified by virtue of his skin color – a trait he/she has no choice over, is regressive and un-meritocratic.
Beyond the issue of meritocracy, therein also lies the problem of public perception. Already, the changes to the Elected President have been met with considerable backlash – both online and offline.
What sort of message would the Government be sending to the Malay community – That the only way a Malay can ever be elected President is if other races are barred from running? Surely the Malay community would see this as nothing more than cheap tokenism and a return to the divisive race politics of the past.
If past General and By-Election results have told us one thing; it’s that Singaporeans do not vote along racial lines. If that were the case, minority candidates wouldn’t be able to hold their own against Chinese candidates in Chinese majority districts. Michael Palmer, Muralli Pillai, J.B. Jeyaratnam – All went up against Chinese candidates – and won.
While politicians in the United States have to worry about appealing to minority voters, the political debate in Singapore is largely centered on policy.
Race relations in Singapore aren’t perfect. But can we at least have the realism to acknowledge that we are far better off than most of the world? I too desire to see a Malay President, but reserving the election for only Malays is not the way to go. A Malay who gets elected based on his/her own merit against a field of diverse candidates is a far better reflection of our strength in diversity.
The true test of our meritocracy will lie in the ability & willingness of Singaporeans to look beyond race and vote for the candidate most qualified to lead the country. In the words espoused by Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr – To judge people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. This is a test we must face if we are to truly mature as a country.