Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is on the political defensive following last month’s controversial presidential poll that saw one of its stalwarts win in an uncontested race.

Halimah Yacob became the country’s first female head of state following sweeping constitutional changes made to ensure that an ethnic minority Malay would become the city-state’s eighth president.

Halimah’s rise to the largely ceremonial post was ushered by an uncontested poll that resulted in a walkover when a government-appointed committee disqualified two other candidates after they failed to meet newly enacted financial criteria required for eligibility.

Billed as a measure to broaden minority representation in government, the first presidential election reserved for candidates from the Malay community has been widely derided on social media for undermining democracy and the country’s highly vaunted meritocratic principles.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, his deputies and other top PAP ministers have stridently defended the constitutional changes as a way to ensure racial harmony and strengthen Singapore’s multiracial political system.

“People think we may be going backwards, towards racial politics. But actually the reality is the opposite,” said the premier while acknowledging that the one-candidate election was unpopular and costly to the PAP’s reputation.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks at a special sitting of parliament in Singapore July 3, 2017. Parliament House of Singapore/Handout via Reuters
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks at a special sitting of parliament in Singapore July 3, 2017. Parliament House of Singapore/Handout via Reuters

Lee pointed to rising ethnic nationalism, global terrorism and exclusivist ideologies as a “compelling reason” for the election changes.

Halimah, a trained lawyer, former union leader and hijab-wearing Muslim, enjoyed broad popularity and predictably favorable coverage in state-controlled media. She was widely seen as the frontrunner before the electoral changes, with many believing she likely would have won an open competitive election.

Mohammad Salleh Marican and Farid Khan, both independent candidates hailing from the private sector, were disqualified due to a new election rule that stipulated private sector nominees must have managed S$500 million (US$367 million) in shareholder equity, a fivefold increase from the previous requirement.

The government-appointed election committee had the discretion to waive the requirement if a candidate’s competence is warranted on other merits. Neither, in the end, were allowed to run.

Halimah automatically qualified as speaker of Singapore’s parliament, a public post which she held for more than three years despite having less financial experience than the two disqualified candidates, both of whom manage prominent homegrown businesses.

Past presidents, elected by universal suffrage since 1993, have had veto power on the appointment of key bureaucrats and oversight of the state’s extensive financial reserves, a key strategic asset in a city-state that lacks natural resources. The exact amount of those reserves is not officially disclosed to prevent market speculation.

People take photos with the skyline of the financial district of Singapore in the background April 14, 2014. REUTERS/Edgar Su
A skyline view of Singapore’s financial district. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su

The independent candidates’s disqualification was widely viewed as the PAP tilting the scales in its preferred candidate’s favor, charges it denies.

The ruling party has also been at pains to counter widely held perceptions that the election changes were manufactured to block the candidacy of Tan Cheng Bock, a former PAP insider-turned-government critic.

Tan contested the presidency at the last election in 2011, where he lost to PAP-backed Tony Tan Keng Yam by a razor-thin 0.34% margin. He was widely expected to run again prior to the new constitutional changes that made him ineligible to contest as an ethnic Chinese.

Hundreds gathered in a rare but well-attended silent protest at Hong Lim Park – the only place in Singapore where public demonstrations are allowed – against the PAP government’s handling of the election. Bock addressed the crowd and was met with raucous applause and cheers.

Tan congratulated Halimah on her victory but deemed her upcoming tenure as “the most controversial presidency in the history of Singapore” in a Facebook post.

“It is not President Halimah as a person that Singaporeans are unhappy about. It is about the way our government has conducted this whole walkover presidential election,” he wrote, predicting that the PAP would suffer at the next general election as a result.

TO GO WITH AFP STORY "Singapore-politics-vote,FOCUS" by Martin AbbugaoThis photo taken on August 25, 2011 shows presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock greeting the public before his rally speech in Singapore. Singaporeans will elect a new president on August 26 after an unusually heated campaign dominated by calls for a more competitive political system after 52 years of rule by the same party. Three months after a landmark parliamentary election eroded the dominance of the People's Action Party (PAP), anti-government sentiment is still running high in online forums that now shape political debate in the city-state. AFP PHOTO / SIMIN WANG / AFP PHOTO / SIMIN WANG
Presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock at a campaign rally in August 2011. Photo: AFP/Simin Wang

Meltwater, a global media monitoring house, found that 83% of social media users had a negative reaction to the election result, with only 17% positive. Singapore is one of the world’s most cyber-connected cities, with over 77% of the population active on social media.

“It seems to me that the top government leaders have been going into overdrive, trying hard to convince Singaporeans that the elected presidency is an integral pillar of Singapore’s commitment to multiracialism,” said Sylvia Lim, chairman of the opposition Workers’ Party, in parliament.

“The government now appears to be well-aware of the unhappiness on the ground caused by its maneuvers to install president Halimah.”

Others resented how the uncontested race perpetuated an unflattering stereotype that ethnic Malays are unable to succeed without state hand-outs and affirmative action policies. Singapore’s resident 3.9 million population, not including the expatriate population, consists of 74.3% ethnic Chinese, 13.3% ethnic Malays and 9.1% Indian, and 3.2% Eurasians and other groups, according to official census data.

Social media users questioned the three initial potential candidates self-professed ethnic origins from the Indian subcontinent, sparking the type of race-based mockery authorities have long suppressed and discouraged.

Others claimed the episode revealed the PAP – which views itself as a guardian of the city-state’s delicate multiethnic balance – as playing racial politics.

An interracial inter-religious harmony event organized by the Thye Hua Kwan society to raise awareness of religious and racial harmony in Singapore in a file photo. Photo: AFP
An interracial inter-religious harmony event organized by the Thye Hua Kwan society to raise awareness of religious and racial harmony in Singapore in a file photo. Photo: AFP

Singapore’s next general election must be held in April 2021, far enough in the future that the presidential election blowback will have dissipated. The PAP, which has ruled uninterrupted since 1959, enjoys wide public support for its economic management and technocratic legitimacy.

The PAP won nearly 70% of the popular vote at the 2015 general election, held shortly after the passing of national founder Lee Kuan Yew, the current premier’s father. The party now holds 82 out of 89 parliamentary seats.

Premier Lee has said he will step down after the next general election, upon which many suspect he will assume the overarching “mentor minister” role his father created and served. Still, the succession looms large over the PAP, which is now carefully grooming a fourth generation of technocrat ministers.

Though a majority of Singaporeans may be willing to overlook concerns about democratic processes provided the PAP continues to deliver on bread-and-butter issues, the manipulation of the presidential poll shows party stalwarts do not wholly trust voters to deliver the ballot box result they prefer.