External developments give rise to 'compelling reason' for Elected Presidency changes: PM Lee

External developments give rise to 'compelling reason' for Elected Presidency changes: PM Lee
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the inauguration ceremony at the Istana on Thursday (Sept 14). Photo: Jason Quah/TODAY
Published: 5:18 PM, September 14, 2017
Updated: 7:30 PM, September 14, 2017

SINGAPORE — Ensuring that minorities enjoy equal rights amid rising ethnic nationalism, extremist terrorism and exclusivist ideologies around the world was “the compelling reason” for the Government to make constitutional changes to the Elected Presidency (EP) scheme, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Speaking at the swearing-in ceremony of the Republic’s eighth President Madam Halimah Yacob on Thursday (Sept 14), Mr Lee said Mdm Halimah’s rise to the office symbolised how Singapore will persevere with the dream of a multi-racial and multi-religious Singapore.

“This has become all the more urgent considering the trends in our region and the rest of the world,” said PM Lee.

“In an age when ethnic nationalism is rising, extremist terrorism sows distrust and fear, and exclusivist ideologies deepen communal and religious fault lines, here in Singapore we will resist this tide. Here, the majority will make extra efforts to ensure that minorities enjoy equal rights. That is something special, precious and fragile.”

PM Lee noted that this is also why the Government makes sure that Parliament always has representatives from all ethnic groups. Referring to the hiatus triggered mechanism to ensure minority representation in the highest office of the land — which was among the changes to the EP scheme passed into law last November — PM Lee said: “And now we will regularly have a Head of State, the symbol of the nation.”

Describing Mdm Halimah’s swearing-in a “significant moment in our history”, he pointed to how she is the first Malay to become Singapore’s President since the late Mr Yusof Ishak 47 years ago.  

“You are also the first Malay to be elected President since it became an elected office in 1991, and the first President elected since the major Constitutional changes last year. You are also our first female President,”  PM Lee added.

The swearing-in ceremony at the Istana also reaffirms the pledge that founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew made on Aug 9, 1965, PM Lee said.

In the first hours of the country’s independence, the late Mr Lee pledged that Singapore would not be a Malay nation, a Chinese nation or an Indian nation, and everybody would have his equal place regardless of language, culture and religion.

“When Mr Lee made this pledge, we had a Malay Head of State. President Yusof symbolised, visibly, that though we had been forced out of Malaysia primarily because we were a Chinese-majority city, independent Singapore would never in turn suppress its own non-Chinese minorities. We chose the nobler dream: A multi-racial, multi-religious Singapore,” PM Lee said.

Mdm Halimah has spent four decades — and counting — of her life in public service, in various capacities such as a unionist, a Minister of State and Speaker of Parliament. PM Lee reiterated that her wealth of experience in public service has prepared her for her new duties as President.

Yet, there is a “significant difference” between being President and her previous roles, he noted. “Hitherto, you have been fighting the good fight — in the unions, in the political arena, in the governing party. Now as President, you have to be non-partisan and above the political fray,” he said.

“As the President, you have to be the unifying figure of our nation and represent all Singaporeans. I am confident that you will adapt to this new role, and perform it with distinction.”