A non-chinese Prime Minister in Singapore? Let’s look at the cold hard facts.

12 Nov

The recent debate on whether Singaporeans will endorse a non-chinese Prime Minister has been highly amusing, if not, blindingly obvious. Yet, the debates generated on this topic skirts the core of the biasedness of Singapore’s political system.

Serville Zervant in an Online Citizen article, ‘Minority PM: Singapore boleh in 1955 but not in 2008′, suggests that the likely reason is political apathy. He notes, ‘I have noticed that the average Singaporeans gets depressed when politcal issues are discussed. They are more interested in entertainment, recreation, making more money and buying more products. Even the ruling PAP is having problems finding good candidates… No economic achievement can sustain itself without parallel political achievements’.

On the other hand, Balji pointed out that there are three obstacles to a non-Chinese Prime Minister. According to him, they are Singapore’s ‘one-party politics, stability and  demographics’.

Mohd Haireez chastised the current Prime Minister for not being idealistic and supportive enough in publicly endorsing a future non-Chinese future political leader.

All these comments unfortunately, do not look deep enough at why the system has consistently failed to produce a minority leader, even within the ruling party.

Firstly, the Prime Minister of Singapore is elected not by the citizens but rather by the members of the ruling political party. Therefore, all these debates on whether Singaporeans are racially biased or otherwise, or whether they will transcend their racist sentiments to elect a non-Chinese PM cannot be determined based on the current electoral system, somewhat making all these discussion a moot point or academic.

Secondly, Singapore is not a meritocratic system nor is it colour blind. Such racism has in fact been built into its political institutions by PAP. Barr noted how the ruling elites creates this myth of racial equality and harmony:

‘Non-Chinese might be largely excluded from the highest levels of the administrative elite, but just below these rarefied heights there plenty of positions open to intelligent and hardworking non-Chinese—certainly enough to ensure that non-Chinese communities have much to gain by enthusiastically buying into the system, even after the glass ceilings and racial barriers are taken into account. There are many grievances and resentments in these levels of society but the grievances are muted and balanced by an appreciation of the relative comforts and prosperity they enjoy. For most, any tendency to complain is subdued also by knowledge that it could be worse, and the widespread assumption among members of minority communities that it will be if they seriously pursue their grievances. As long as the Singapore system continues to deal such people a satisfactory hand, if not a fair one, it should be able to cope with some quiet rumblings in the ranks’ (2006).

The writer supported his arguments documenting the workings of the SAP school programs; as well as detailing how prestigious government scholarships are in fact driven by ‘systemic biases’ which ‘perpetuate regime regeneration based on gender, class and race’. These could be seen from the few governmental scholarships awarded, especially towards Malays with the Singapore Armed Forces Overseas Scholarship and Singapore Armed Forces Merit Scholarship. The reason for such a phenomena is due to the government’s distrust of Malays to defend the country given they may be racially affiliated with their counterparts in Malaysia and Indonesia. In fact, the current Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, is ‘a vocal defender of this policy’ (Barr 2006).

Therefore, let us be very clear what this debate is about. It is not about whether Singaporeans want a non-Chinese PM. The current electoral system does not allow them to physically vote for one. More importantly, the entrenched institutional biases prevents any non-Chinese to rise through the ranks even if he or she is as equally qualified amongst his or her peers within the ruling party clique.

– Works Cited –
Barr, M 2006, ‘The charade of meritocracy’, Far Eastern Economic Review’, October 2006.


One Response to “A non-chinese Prime Minister in Singapore? Let’s look at the cold hard facts.”

  1. Kai Xiong November 12, 2008 at 3:31 pm #

    Lovely, straight to the point.

    It boggles the mind that few writers bother looking into institutional biases as causes for certain social phenomena.

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