Ms. Halimah Yacob, 63, former Speaker of Parliament, became the first woman and first Malay in 47 years to ascend to the Presidency of Singapore- highest office, after successfully filing her nomination papers on Sept 13 as the sole eligible candidate for this year’s reserved Presidential Election.

She will be officially sworn in as Singapore's eighth President on September 14 at 6pm, at the Istana, the Prime Minister's Office announced.

Returning Officer Ng Wai Choong declared Ms. Halimah as the President-elect at the People’s Association headquarters along King George’s Avenue to loud cheers by hundreds of Halimah’s supporters. The last Malay to hold the presidency ill he died in 1970 was Yusof Ishak, whose image adorns the country’s banknotes. Yusof Ishak was President between 1965 and 1970, the first years of Singapore’s independence following a short-lived union with neighbouring Malaysia, but executive power rests with Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s Prime Minister.

Aiming to strengthen a sense of inclusivity in the multicultural country, Singapore had decreed the presidency would be reserved for candidates from the Malay community this time. Ms. Yacob’s experience as house speaker automatically qualified her under the nomination rules. Of the four other applicants, two were not Malays and two were not given certificates of eligibility, the elections department said.

 First Malay President

This year’s Presidential Election was reserved for the Malays in a bid to ensure multiracial representation after Parliament passed into law changes to the Elected Presidency scheme last November. Apart from Halimah, two other hopefuls – chief executive of Second Chance Properties Mohamed Salleh Marican, 67, and chairman of marine services provider Bourbon Offshore Asia Pacific Farid Khan, 62 – had also filed application forms to contest as candidates. However, both men were determined ineligible by the Presidential Elections Committee as they did not meet one of the qualifying criteria, which requires that private-sector candidates must have served as the chief executive of a company for at least three years, with the company having at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity, on average, in the most recent three years.

While some members of the public have expressed happiness at Halimah’s ascension to the Presidency, others expressed disappointment that this was only made possible courtesy of a walkover. They want an election for full legitimacy.  However, others noted that Madam Halimah is fully qualified to become the President and will be able to perform her duties well, citing her track record of over 40 years in public service.

Malays make up about 13 percent of the population, and the government is dominated by ethnic Chinese, who make up about three-quarters. There are no Muslim Malays in the top echelons of Singapore’s army, and few among the senior ranks of its judiciary, but a member of its poorest ethnic minority is set to become the first woman President of the Southeast Asian city state this week.

The government initially narrowed the criteria last year to permit only a Malay to serve as the next president, on the ground that no Malay had held the post in the five preceding terms.

The Presidential Election Committee later tightened the criteria, including a requirement that any candidate from the private sector must have been a senior executive of a company with at least 500 million Singapore dollars in equity, or about $371 million.

Two other Malays were considered by the commission, including Mohamed Salleh Marican, chief executive of Second Chance Properties. He had said that if he was elected, he would begin an investigation into the allegations that Mr. Lee abused his power in his dispute with his siblings. Both potential candidates were rejected on the grounds that the companies they headed were not large enough.

 President Halimah

Ms. Halimah Yacob is Singapore's eighth president and its first woman head of state, in the country's first presidential election reserved for candidates from the Malay community.

The 63-year-old former Speaker of Parliament was the only presidential hopeful declared eligible to contest by the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) "Whether there is an election or not, my passion and commitment to serve the people of Singapore remain the same," she told reporters.

Halimah Yacob, who was born to an Indian Muslim father and Malay mother, puts minority representation on agenda.

The youngest of five children, Ms. Halimah had described her childhood as a "terrible struggle" following the death of her Indian-Muslim father and family sole breadwinner. Her mother, who died in 2015, had to single-handedly raise the family by selling food on a pushcart. Halimah had studied at the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School and Tanjong Katong Girls’ School, before applying successfully to read law at the then University of Singapore.

Starting out as a lawyer, Halimah, 62, had spent over three decades in the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). Before she became Speaker of Parliament in 2013, she had served as Minister of State at the then-Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.

She collected her certificate of eligibility at the Elections Department in the afternoon, shortly after witnessing the election of her successor as Speaker in Parliament.

Ms. Halimah was a Member of Parliament and a leader of the People’s Action Party before giving up her seat last month to run for president. “I can only say that I promise to do the best that I can to serve the people of Singapore, and that doesn’t change whether there is an election or no election,” she told reporters Monday after she was certified as the only eligible candidate. Her campaign slogan — “Do Good, Do Together” — was widely panned as ungrammatical.

World’s attention is focused on Ms. Halimah as she will take her oath of office on Thursday, which will mark the start of her six-year term.

Despite being the establishment candidate, Ms. Yacob wears a hijab, which is banned in state schools and public sector jobs that require uniforms. But she has seldom spoken publicly on the issue and there is little sign of change in official attitudes.

 Mixed reactions

 There were three candidates for the presidency poll and they were issued certificates by the Community Committee confirming that they belong to the Malay community. After scrutiny, the PEC found only Ms. Ms. Halimah was eleigible candidate and  informed the other two - marine services firm chairman Farid Khan, 61, and property company chief executive Salleh Marican, 67 - that they did not qualify to contest. Neither had helmed a company with $500 million in shareholder equity for the most recent three years, a key threshold required for candidates relying on their private-sector experience. In rejecting his application, the six-member panel said it was unable to satisfy itself that he had "the experience and ability" comparable to a chief executive of a company of that size and complexity.

The PEC noted the shareholders' equity of Salleh's company, Second Chance, averaged about $258 million, a sum "considerably below the minimum" required under the Constitution.  Farid declined to disclose his company's financials, but its value is believed to be much lower. He declined to show his letter from the PEC to the media. Both said they were disappointed not to be given the go-ahead - but thanked their families and supporters for their support over the past few months, and said they would continue to serve Singaporeans.

 Under the law, the decision of the PEC - chaired by Public Service Commission chairman Eddie Teo - is final and not subject to appeal or review in any court. The uncontested election drew mixed reactions from observers, who welcomed Madam Halimah making history as the country's first woman president and the first Malay head of state in 47 years.

Institute of Policy Studies deputy director Gillian Koh said: "Madam Halimah is a double minority - not only is she a Malay-Muslim individual, but a female." But Dr Koh felt "the statement of our acceptance of diversity would have been all the more powerful if there had been an open contest".

However, political science professor Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore questioned the value of having a contest for a contest's sake: "Being elected through a walkover does not undermine or delegitimize the winner."

 For Lee, whose son, Lee Hsien Loong, is now Prime Minister, the answer to social cohesion lay in creating a culture of meritocracy, rather than adopting policies of positive discrimination to boost the chances of advancement for Singapore’s Malay and Indian minorities.

 Singapore

 Singapore officially the Republic of Singapore, is also referred to as the "Lion City", the "Garden City" or the "Little Red Dot", is a sovereign city-state in Southeast Asia. Singapore, an island city-state off southern Malaysia, is a global financial center with a tropical climate and multicultural population. Its colonial core centers on the Padang, a cricket field since the 1830s and now flanked by grand buildings such as City Hall, with its 18 Corinthian columns. In Singapore's circa-1820 Chinatown stands the red-and-gold Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, said to house one of Buddha's teeth.

 It lies one degree (137 km) north of the equator, just south of the Malay Peninsula across the Straits of Johor, with Indonesia's Riau Islands to the south. Singapore's territory consists of one main island along with 62 other islets. Since independence, extensive land reclamation has increased its total size by 23% (130 km2) and its greening policy has covered the densely populated island with tropical flora, parks and gardens.

 Singapore is a global commerce, finance and transport hub. Its standings include: the most "technology-ready" nation (WEF), top International-meetings city (UIA), city with "best investment potential" (BERI), second-most competitive country, third-largest foreign exchange market, third-largest financial centre, third-largest oil refining and trading centre and the second-busiest container port. The country has also been identified as a tax haven.

Singapore ranks 5th on the UN Human Development Index and the 3rd highest GDP per capita. It is ranked highly in education, healthcare, life expectancy, quality of life, personal safety and housing. Although income inequality is high, 90% of homes are owner-occupied. 38% of Singapore's 5.6 million residents are permanent residents and other foreign nationals. There are four official languages: English (common and first language), Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, though almost all Singaporeans are bilingual.

Singapore is a unitary multiparty parliamentary republic, with a Westminster system of unicameral parliamentary government. The People's Action Party has won every election since self-government in 1959. The dominance of the PAP, coupled with a low level of press freedom and restrictions on civil liberties and political rights, has led to Singapore being classified by some as a semi-authoritarian regime. One of the five founding members of ASEAN, Singapore is also the host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Secretariat and a member of the East Asia Summit, Non-Aligned Movement and the Commonwealth of Nations.

Singapore is a parliamentary republic with a Westminster system of unicameral parliamentary government representing constituencies. The country's constitution establishes a representative democracy as the political system Executive power rests with the Cabinet of Singapore, led by the Prime Minister and, to a much lesser extent, the President.[54]The President is elected through a popular vote, and has veto powers over a specific set of executive decisions, such as the use of the national reserves and the appointment of judges, but otherwise occupies a largely ceremonial post

The Parliament serves as the legislative branch of the government

Singapore's foreign policy is aimed at maintaining security in Southeast Asia and surrounding territories. An underlying principle is political and economic stability in the region.[97] It has diplomatic relations with more than 180 sovereign states. As one of the five founding members of ASEAN,[99] it is a strong supporter of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and the ASEAN Investment Area, because Singapore's economy is closely linked to that of the region as a whole.

 The separation of Singapore from Malaysia gave ethnic Malays a clear majority in Malaysia, while ethnic Chinese formed the majority in independent Singapore. Leaders of both countries, however, recognised that peace and prosperity depended on preserving harmony between the two groups. But living in a Muslim-dominated neighborhood, with Malaysia and Indonesia next door, Singapore’s leaders have long worried about the risk of conflicted loyalties among Malays.

President

The President of the Republic of Singapore is Singapore's head of state. In a Westminster parliamentary system, as which Singapore governs itself, the prime minister is the head of the government while the president is largely ceremonial, broadly analogous to the Sovereign of the United Kingdom. A Constitutional Commission recommended changes to guarantee minority representation in the highest office in the land as well as to tighten eligibility criteria in keeping with the economy's growth.

The President is the head of state of Singapore. The executive authority of the nation is vested in the President and exercisable by him or her or by the Cabinet or any minister authorised by the Cabinet. However, it is the Cabinet that has the general direction and control of the Government, and in most cases the President exercises powers in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or a minister acting under the Cabinet's general authority. The President only exercises limited powers in his or her personal discretion to block attempts by the government of the day to draw down past reserves it did not accumulate, to approve changes to key appointments, and to exercise oversight over the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau and decisions of the Executive under the Internal Security Act and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.. As a component of the legislature together with Parliament, the President is also jointly vested with the legislative power of Singapore.  The President usually opens each Parliamentary session with an address drafted by the Cabinet setting out the Government's agenda for the session, and may address Parliament and send messages to it

The Constitution confers on the President certain executive functions to block attempts by the government of the day to draw down past reserves that it did not accumulate. Thus, a guarantee may only be given or a loan raised by the Government if the President concurs, and his or her approval is also needed for budgets of specified statutory boards and Government companies that draw on their past reserves.

 Before 1993, the President of Singapore was chosen by Parliament. Following constitutional amendments in 1991, the Presidency became a popularly elected office with certain custodial powers, particularly over government expenditure of the nation's past financial reserves and key appointments to public offices. In November 2016, further amendments provide for "reserved elections" for a particular racial group (Chinese, Malay and Indian/other minority) – if that community has not been represented for five presidential terms.

 The President has been called "Singapore's No. 1 diplomat" Ambassadors and high commissioners accredited to Singapore present their credentials to him, and he is called upon by visiting foreign leaders. In addition, he or she contributes to the nation's external relations by undertaking overseas trips on Cabinet's advice. Presidents have also used the office to champion charitable causes.

The first President elected by the majority of the people was Ong Teng Cheong, who served from 1 September 1993 to 31 August 1999. The office of President was created in 1965 after Singapore became a republic upon its secession from the Federation of Malaysia that year. It replaced the office of Yang di-Pertuan Negara, which had been created when Singapore attained self-government in 1959. The last Yang di-Pertuan Negara, Yusof Ishak, became the first President. After his death he was replaced by Benjamin Sheares, who served until his death in 1981, when he was succeeded by Chengara Veetil Devan Nair. Owing to personal problems, Nair stepped down in 1985 and was replaced by Wee Kim Wee, who served as President until 1993.

In January 1991, the Constitution   was amended to provide for the popular election of the President, a major constitutional and political change in Singapore's history. Under the revision, the President is empowered to veto the use of the country's past reserves and key civil service appointments. He or she can also examine the administration's enforcement of the Internal Security Act and Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, and authorize corruption investigations The first popularly elected President was Ong Teng Cheong, a former cabinet minister. He served as President from 1 September 1993 to 31 August 1999.

Discrimination

There are serious elements of discrimination in Singapore against minorities in all walks of life. A government report published in 2013 found Malays felt they were sometimes discriminated against and had limited prospects in some institutions, such as the armed forces.

Malays, who form just over 13 per cent of Singapore’s 3.9 million citizens and permanent residents, also underperform on measures such as university and secondary school education.

The election of a Malay President is by itself unlikely to resolve concerns over under-representation, but analysts and advocates say it could help foster trust among communities.

Singapore’s economic success and education policies have helped swell the ranks of middle-class Malays, but the last census in 2010 showed they lagged other ethnic groups on socio-economic measures such as household incomes and home ownership.

Farid Khan, one of the unsuccessful candidates and the chairman of marine services firm Bourbon Offshore Asia, told Reuters more Malays now hold political office, and some are making their way in the corporate world, but “there is still room for improvement.”

Yet the reserved election has also injured some pride. “It cheapens the credibility of a Malay person that it requires a token election for us to be President,” said Malay comedian and television personality Hirzi Zulkiflie. “Some people intending to run are very capable.” 

Observation

A popular public figure, Ms. Halimah was widely expected to win the presidential election but rejection of other two candidates made the poll fairly easier. West like many anti-Islamic insiders might not like the Muslim woman is elected to presidency in Asia.

Singaporeans are used to predictable elections, with the same party winning every parliamentary poll in the carefully managed country's 52-year history, last time with a landslide. It's partly due to loyalty to the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), but also because the government tightly controls the media and political freedoms. As the head of state, the president plays a largely ceremonial role and doesn't hold much power, apart from having say in the use of Singapore's hefty financial reserves.

Ms Halimah, who is Muslim, is only the second president to come from the Malay ethnic minority. It's a move that should be celebrated by Singapore, which prides itself on its multiculturalism and diversity. That's because this election was only open to Malay candidates - the first time the government has reserved an election for a particular race. Otherwise a Muslim cannot t hope to be the elected president, especially in the present era of Islamophobia.

The government, which lauds its careful maintenance of national racial harmony, argued it was necessary to ensure minorities could have a chance at becoming president in Chinese-majority Singapore, which has always had an ethnically Chinese prime minister. But some Malays saw the move as positive discrimination that went against Singapore's golden rule of meritocracy, which is that the best person gets the job, regardless of background. It also stirred up questions about Malay racial purity, after people realized Ms Halimah was half-Indian, and many have mocked her ethnicity. Singapore's government has often clamped down on such unhealthy discussions, fearing it would hurt racial harmony.

After getting elected as the first ever female President Ms. Halimah said she is the president of entire Singapore as she is committed to Singapore and Singaporeans. She asked people to forget the differences and instead work on the similarities among them to make the nation achieve greater goals.

Ms. Halimah with a genuinely positive mindset has a long way to go forward to strengthen secular democracy, Singapore too!

Prolific writer, Independent Analyst; Columnist contributing articles to many  newspapers and journals on world politics; Expert on Mideast affairs, Chronicler of foreign occupations & freedom movements (Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Xinjiang, Chechnya, etc.)  Chancellor-Founder of Center for International Affairs (CIA); Commentator on world affairs & sport fixings, Former university teacher; Author of eBooks/books

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