SINGAPORE – 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 city-state this week.
Halimah Yacob, a former speaker of parliament, will be formally named to the mostly ceremonial post Wednesday, media reported, after other candidates fell short of the criteria set for contesting the election.
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.
Halimah’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.
The last Malay to hold the presidency was Yusof Ishak, whose image adorns the country’s bank notes.
Yusof was president between 1965 and 1970, the first years of Singapore’s independence following a short-lived union with neighboring Malaysia, but executive power lay with Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s first prime minister.
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, recognized 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.
“You put in a Malay officer who’s very religious and who has family ties in Malaysia in charge of a machine-gun unit, that’s a very tricky business,” the late Lee Kuan Yew was widely quoted as saying in 1999.
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.
Still, 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.
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.
Malays, who form just over 13 percent of Singapore’s 3.9 million citizens and permanent residents, also underperform on measures such as university and secondary school education.
Despite being the establishment candidate, Halimah 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.
Farid Khan, one of the unsuccessful candidates and the chairman of marine services firm Bourbon Offshore Asia, said more Malays now hold political office, and some are making their way in the corporate world, but “there is still room for improvement.”
The prospect 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.
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.”