Singapore could have its first-ever elected Malay president next year, according to a proposed constitutional change.
As one of Asia's wealthiest economies, the island-nation is known for successful management of a peaceful multicultural society but race politics remain a hot-button topic in the Chinese-majority country. According to official statistics, 74 percent of the population is of Chinese ethnicity, while 13 percent are of Malay heritage and 9 percent of Indian.
In an effort to ensure racial equality in government, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong proposed a new model for presidential elections on Tuesday. The country is set to elect its next president some time in the first half of 2017.
"Presidential elections are generally open to candidates of all races but if we have not had a president from a particular community for five consecutive terms, then the next term will be reserved for candidates from that community. If one of them is elected, we will have a president from that community, " Lee declared in Parliament.
Singapore's first president, Yusof Ishak, who served from 1965-1970, was Malay but he was appointed to his post. Before laws were introduced in 1991 that changed the selection of the president to a public poll, leaders were chosen by Parliament.
Three of the four Presidents since 1991 have been of Chinese heritage, including current head of state Tony Tan Keng Yam, who announced on Tuesday that he would not seek a second term.
Under the new amendments, there will be at least one Chinese, one Malay, and one president who is either Indian or "other minority" within the course of six presidential terms, provided qualified candidates appear.
"So if a Malay candidate steps up to run, or more than one Malay candidate step up to run, who is qualified, Singapore will have a Malay president again," PM Lee said.
He acknowledged that some may knock this arrangement for going against the principle of meritocracy, but he said critics should consider two key points.
The candidate in a reserved election would be required to meet the same qualifying criteria, i.e."be as qualified as any other candidate who stands and wins in a non-reserved election," he said. Moreover, the new model would ensure a mix of different races over time, he added.
In Singapore, the president's role is largely symbolic, while the prime minister is considered the highest post in government.
In recent years, there has been a pronounced call for current Deputy PM (DPM) Tharman Shanmugaratnam to take over from Lee when the latter's term ends. Lee has said he intends to step down after the next general election, which must be held by January 15, 2021.
A poll commissioned by Yahoo Singapore in August showed nearly 69 percent of Singaporeans would support the 59-year-old ethnic Tamil as a candidate for prime minister but despite his strong popularity across all races, Shanmugaratnam has insisted he does not want the top job.
However, some believe the ruling People's Action Party, which Lee and Shanmugaratnam are both members of, simply isn't ready to allow an ethic minority leader to govern a Chinese-majority country.
" The DPM's categorical remark that he doesn't want to be PM is an attempt to take race out of the equation as public momentum builds up on an unclear political succession... The government keeps pressing the point that Singaporeans are not ready for a non-Chinese PM. But public sentiments, as reflected in [the August] survey point to another direction," veteran Singaporean journalist and long-time politics watcher P.N. Balji said in a October 3 editorial published on Yahoo Singapore.