The unofficial race to Istana is descending into a competition of who is "more Malay"

Reserved elections will give us a minority President and also heightened race consciousness.

Chan Cheow Pong | July 22, 2017, 08:24 AM

The upcoming reserved election in September for a Malay candidate to become the next Elected President (EP) is meant to ensure minority representation at the highest office in Singapore.

If there were any hopes that race will not be a factor in this election, they are well proven to be misplaced, given how the race to Istana is fast descending into a contest of who is "more Malay".

Looking at the background of the three potential candidates, it is perhaps understandable why there's considerable interest with respect to this issue:

  1. Salleh Marican, Second Chance Properties CEO. He has Indian heritage, and struggles to speak Malay.
  2. Farid Khan, chairman of marine service provider Bourbon Offshore Asia Pacific. His race is indicated as “Pakistani” on his identity card.
  3. Halimah Yacob, Speaker of Parliament. Her father was Indian-Muslim.

But what is a Malay, anyway?

Enter Straits Times Political Editor Zakir Hussain.

His opinion piece published on Jul 20, tracing the history behind how Malay was defined as an ethnic group, was a timely lecture educational take on the topic.

Explaining why "Doubts about presidential hopefuls not being Malay enough are off track", he said:

"Singapore's Malay community has long held an expansive view of race — and been open to newcomers and others keen to identify with it.

It is a signal of confidence and courage — and nothing could be further from that than questioning whether someone who identifies as Malay and is accepted as Malay is 'pure Malay' or 'Malay enough'."

So long as a person identifies as Malay and is generally accepted as such by the community, his Malayness should not be questioned."


So who will decide?

Notwithstanding Zakir's take on the issue, the discussions on the ground about "Malayness" are unlikely to count for much in the first place.

Eventually the decision on whether a candidate belongs to the Malay community will be taken by a committee.

The Community Committee, which will assess whether a Presidential candidate belongs to a specified racial group, is headed by Timothy James de Souza, a member of the Presidential Council of Minority Rights.

The Malay community sub-committee, overseen by him, is the one that issues the Malay Community Certificate to these candidates. Members of this sub-committee include:

  1. Imram Mohamed, Association of Muslim Professionals's former chairman, who heads the sub-committee
  2. Fatimah Azimullah, Singapore Muslim Women's Association's immediate past president
  3. Alami Musa, Inter-religious relations scholar
  4. Yatiman Yusof, former Senior Parliamentary Secretary
  5. Zulkifli Baharudin, Non-resident ambassador to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan

It will likely be based on a similar approach to the Parliamentary Elections Act, that forms the basis of vetting candidates contesting in a Group Representation Constituency (GRC), which define a person belonging to the Malay community 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".

Now, where did we read that before? *insert thinking emoji*

Whatever the case, as this is the first reserved EP election, ascertaining the race of a candidate could be more than a formality in the eyes of the electorate — in particular among the Malays.

How to choose a Malay President?

The focus on the issue could well be a case of "don't know how to choose" a President. Especially when the qualifying criteria has also been tightened, resulting in the relative lack of differentiation among potential candidates.

For the majority of Singaporeans who are apathetic about this election Chinese, this is unlikely to be an issue. Come September, we will still have a Malay President, whoever it may be.

For Malay Singaporeans, though the discussion on "Malayness" may be deemed "off-track", it is unlikely that they will stop caring about the issue.

Will the upcoming election unite or divide Malays Singaporeans? In the words of former PAP member of Parliament Irene Ng, one of the takeaways of the upcoming Presidential Election could well be heightened race consciousness.

Then again, given the uncertainty surrounding the qualifications of two aspiring male candidates, much will still depend on whether there is an election in the first place.

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