SINGAPORE named its first female President on Monday following a controversial election campaign that ended without a single vote being cast after all other contenders were disqualified. The move has split public opinion and raised questions over the ruling party’s dominance in the notoriously strict state.
Halimah Yacob is set to be Singapore’s first Malay president in more than 47 years, after the Elections Department named her as the only individual qualified for the inaugural reserved Presidential Election.
The two other presidential hopefuls, Mohamed Salleh Marican and Farid Khan, had their applications to stand for the election turned down as both did not meet a requirement for private-sector candidates to helm companies with at least S$500 million (US$372 million) in shareholders’ equity.
In the interests of cultural unity and equal racial representation, the presidential race was reserved only for candidates of ethnic Malay heritage. This mechanism to safeguard representation of minority racial groups was adopted last year after the country’s Constitutional Commission proposed a hiatus-triggered model.
In the new system, if a member of any racial group has not occupied the president’s office after five continuous terms, the next presidential election will be reserved for a candidate from that racial group.
Singaporeans were set to go to the polls at the end of next week but will no longer get the chance due to Halimah’s victory by default. The move has split opinion in the city state.
While some are happy to see Halimah victorious, others have voiced concern over her close affiliation to the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) – of whom she was a loyal member until recently (In Singapore, the president cannot be part of a political party at the time of their nomination) – the lack of a popular vote, and questions of her race.
While the role of president is largely ceremonial, with the Prime Minister being head of government, they do have the power to veto some of the government’s decisions, such as fiscal matters and key appointments in the public service.
Halimah will start her term on Thursday amid a sea of controversy over the election-that-never-was. Here’s what you need to know about the lady of the moment and the debate surrounding her nomination.
Who is Halimah Yacob?
Growing from meagre beginnings as the daughter of a single-mother who ran a food stall to support her family, the 63-year-old spent her early years cleaning, washing, clearing tables and serving customers, according to the bio on her official website.
After being kicked out of school for missing too many classes, Halimah decided to “stop wallowing in self-pity” and move on. And that’s exactly what she did, graduating from Tanjong Katong Girls’ School and earning a law degree from the University of Singapore. She subsequently went on to be conferred a Master of Laws at the National University of Singapore.
Her career since has been one of breaking barriers.
On the urging of then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong, Halimah entered politics in 2001 with a successful bid for Member of Parliament (MP) for the Jurong Constituency, becoming the first female Malay MP in 45 years.
She was the first Singaporean to be elected to the governing body of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) where she served as a member between 1999 and 2011.
Following her departure from the ILO, she was given the portfolio of Minister of State for the then-Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.
Her latest role as president is not the first glass-ceiling she has broken. In 2013, she became the first woman to be elected the Speaker of the House.
Throughout her public life, Halimah has continued to advocate for women’s rights, champion the causes of workers and unions, and raise awareness of issues affecting senior citizens. She has also served as patron to associations such as mental health group Club HEAL and PPIS (Singapore Muslim Women’s Association).
The public reaction
Public opinion on Halimah’s nomination has been split. With many lauding the milestone of a first female president, others have accused the PAP of engineering her succession for political gain and have also raised issues of her race as she is reported to have had an Indian father.
Playwright Alfian Sa’at accused the government of “rigging the system” and labelled the establishment a “sham democracy”, pointing out that while the elected president is intended to provide a check on the government, “all 4 Elected Presidents so far are either ex-PAP ministers … or from the Government’s ranks.”
Many have labelled the whole election process a charade, with popular opinion believing that PAP changed the ground rules by mandating that the next president must be Malay. Some see this as an attempt to prevent former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock from challenging the position after he very nearly beat PAP stalwart Tony Tan in 2011.
The hashtag #NotMyPresident started trending in Singapore following the announcement of Halimah’s victory.
— Martin Archie (@generalmartin) September 11, 2017
But there were some citizens who rejoiced in their first female president.
Analysts think the move could strengthen the position of the opposition who can now use Halimah’s election against the ruling PAP.
“The only beneficiaries from this reserved presidential election are Halimah Yacob and her team, as well as Singapore’s opposition, which now has a new line of attack against the PAP. The rest of Singapore has suffered,” Sudhir Vadaketh, a Singapore author and commentator, told CNN.
Leader of the opposition, Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan called it a “sad day for Singapore”, echoing concerns that the election criteria had been revised to pave the way for the walkover.
A statement released by the SDP was damning in its evaluation.
“The rule of law has been mercilessly mocked and denigrated,” the statement read. “The contempt the PAP has shown for our constitution and our flag which symbolises the ideals of democracy, unity and progress must be roundly condemned.
“It is bad enough that the PAP has manipulated the system to get one if its own to become the president. That it has dangerously played the race card and divided the people to achieve this must be of grave concern to all Singaporeans.”