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Fri, Nov 07, 2008
The New Paper
Is S'pore ready for a minority PM?

By Tan May Ping

OVERNIGHT, American voters put us to shame.

They voted in a black president, while Singaporeans will still baulk at accepting a non-Chinese prime minister, say some political top guns and many observers.

In the evolution of democratic politics, Americans just took a giant step forward.

Meanwhile, Singaporeans are still lumbering along like Third World tribes, dragging our baggage of racial hang-ups.

Of course, not all Americans are enlightened voters.

Half of the country's population, who are older and mostly white, are still living in the past and might well view President-elect Barack Obama as an 'uppity nigger'.

As one academic commentator noted: 'Today's radical Republican Party represents a large segment of the population that believes that abortions and same-sex marriages are immoral, God sent America to Iraq...'

So while Mr Obama was the favourite in polls, many expected whites to reveal their true colours when put to the test.

Well, they did the right thing by putting race in the background. Can they continue to do so as America attempts to heal itself after bruising campaigns?

And could Singaporeans do the right thing and ignore the skin colour of a future prime minister?

The leaders of the People's Action Party believe that Singaporeans do vote on racial lines, said Dr Gillian Koh, senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).

Dr Koh said: 'They feel that there are social faultlines that divide us, especially on race, so Singapore is no where near to being a de-racialised country.

'And that is the whole basis of the GRC system.'

The GRC or group representation constituency was introduced in 1988 to protect Parliament's multiracial composition.

The need for such a scheme shows clearly that we're still tribal folk, flocking together like birds of a feather.

But the immediate post-65 generation, said Dr Koh, would probably be more ready for other ideas as to who the PM can be.

'They were brought up to think One Singapore, One Nation, and would probably not be averse to the idea because of the political ideals of their time,' she added.

The young and the cosmopolitan are likely to be even more colour-blind, say some observers.

They will let the best man lead.

Political analyst Terence Chong from the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies said: 'Many Singaporeans, especially younger ones, are ready because the ideologies of multiculturalism and meritocracy have become part of the Singaporean myth.'

Singaporeans are very pragmatic, and will look for leaders with management ability and people-skills, IPS' Dr Koh said.

Citing an IPS post-2006 election survey, Dr Koh said respondents indicated they voted their members of parliament based on whether they thought they would be effective, fair and have a heart for the people in general.

Another survey last year by two academics at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) on race and religion also produced surprising results.

It found that over 91 per cent of all races polled said they would accept a prime minster of another race, while at least 92 per cent said they would vote an MP or a Singapore president of a different race.

Among the Chinese, 94 per cent did not mind if the PM was an Indian, and 91 per cent, if he was a Malay.

Referring to the topic of race as an old issue, Workers' Party's organising secretary Yaw Shin Leong said: 'If we truly believe in merit and capabilities, then so long as the person is Singaporean and can do a good job, there should be no reason why the person can't be given the top job.

'To say that certain ethnic groups are not suitable or ready for top office is regressive'.

All that debate might be purely academic given that the electoral system here is focused on political parties, not individual candidates.

The party which has the majority forms the government and chooses the prime minister.

Dr Koh said: 'I think we would need a fully functioning two-party system before we ever reach that scenario.'

The question of race and prime ministership was on then-PM Lee Kuan Yew's mind back in 1988.

He publicly said then that he would have considered then-National Development Minister S Dhanabalan for the PM's job if not for his Indian ethnicity.

Singapore, Mr Lee said, was not ready for an Indian prime minister.

Mr Dhanabalan himself did not think Chinese Singaporeans were ready to accept a non-Chinese PM. In a Straits Times report in November last year, he said that such cross-racial acceptance takes time.

Referring to the RSIS race survey, Mr Dhanabalan felt that the respondents probably gave 'politically correct' answers that did not reflect their real feelings.

He said then: 'I'm not quite convinced. It will take a bit more time. You look at the United States. How long, how many years were they a nation before a Catholic could be elected?

'Let's don't even talk about blacks. Now Barack Obama is the first one. Well, he may not even make it through the primary, right?

'So these are very deep feelings. I'm not saying it's not possible, but I think it will take some time.'

Fast forward a year later.

Mr Obama has done it, despite the widespread fears of voting along racial lines.

Commentators even spoke openly of the prospect of his assassination by a white supremacist group.

But, as in Malaysia's general election, many voters surprised even the experts by rejecting race to 'do the right thing'.

All this gives Singaporeans good reason to gaze in the mirror and ask ourselves how deep runs a tribal instinct and how far we want to evolve as a society.

 

This article was first published in The New Paper on Nov 07, 2008.


 

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