Mere months separate the country from its first reserved Presidential Elections. With this momentous marker in the country’s history fast approaching, The Sessions invited an illustrious panel to sound off on the issue, particularly how the new ruling will go on to impact the way that the Malay community views itself as a heterogeneous entity, and the political landscape of Singapore at large. As a platform for intellectual discourse within the programme, as well as for the sharing of varying opinions, The Sessions was extremely fortunate, on 3 April 2017, to be able to welcome Dr Gillian Koh (Deputy Director of the Institute for Policy Studies), Mr Azmoon Ahmad (Nominated Member of Parliament), Mr Nizam Ismail (Co-Founder of RHTaylor Law) and Professor Kevin Tan (Faculty of Law, Constitutional Law Specialist) to USP. It proved to be an extremely lively evening, with panelists and audience alike taking turns to both critique and defend the new amendment, and even dabble in the odd conspiracy theories.
The evening began with an invitation from the moderator for the evening, USP alum Goh Wei Leong (BIZ + USP, Class of 2016), to reflect on what we already knew about the Reserved Presidency. After a short beat of stillness, Wei Leong drew these reflections from the crowd in one-word answers, and these were added to a word cloud on a whiteboard. Words like “messy” and “confusing” were offered. References to people like Tan Cheng Bock and Ong Teng Cheong were also made, given the related news earlier that day. The word cloud would prove salient for the discussion that followed this initial sharing.
Each of the four panellists then took the floor to give their personal take on the new ruling. Some chose to draw on their expertise, and commented on the stringent requirements that have been introduced and how they would limit competition. Whilst another shared results from recent studies, with these indicating that fewer than half of all Singaporeans truly understood the role and function of the President. The panelists’ sharing also helped to distill certain questions. Was the Malay community consulted enough on their views of the new amendment? And, would such policies – reminiscent of affirmative action – have a negative impact on the way the Malay community viewed itself in the long term? In their experiences, the panelists shared that the responses they had found were mixed. Some in the community were resigned to the fact that a Malay President would never be elected on his/her own merit - for voting along racial lines remains a significant issue, and this new ruling is thus welcome. Yet others disagreed, citing concerns that it would be discouraging, and that the administration might not be listening. Such was the wealth of personal views, information and perspectives that the four panellists shared, and the experience was an exceptionally eye-opening one for Singaporeans and exchange students alike.
After this initial sharing, the participants were given the opportunity to share their own views, takeaways and questions, giving rise to lively debate. Disagreements over the finer points of the amendments were raised, and old conspiracy theories were resurrected. Issues regarding parity were raised too (e.g., why should a private sector candidate be held to standards that existing public servants are not). The willingness of the participants and panellists to engage with any and all points made for a varied conversation, one that extended well past the intended duration of the session.
The evening’s questions may have not been satisfactorily capped off – between the lines of official statements, there can only be speculation. What I found most heartening about the entire affair, amidst the residual uncertainty, was that there seemed to be a deep-seated interest and concern for the state of the country’s policies. It is all too easy to allow apathy to take over: Elected President? So what. Not my problem. Or so goes the belief. But to have been a part of such a vibrant discourse confirms that the cogs of civic engagement remain turning among students in Singapore as was epitomised by USP students.