Asia

Halimah’s election lauded as ‘true sign of S’pore’s meritocracy’ in region

Halimah’s election lauded as ‘true sign of S’pore’s meritocracy’ in region
Madam Halimah Yacob's presidency has been praised by Malaysians and Indonesians. Photo: Jason Quah/TODAY
Published: 7:19 PM, September 20, 2017
Updated: 11:19 PM, September 20, 2017

SINGAPORE — The election of Madam Halimah Yacob as Singapore’s President last week has been lauded by observers from Indonesia and Malaysia, who say the rise of an ethnic minority to the country’s highest office has enhanced Singapore’s reputation as a meritocratic state.

Indonesian labour activist-turned academic, Dr Surya Tjandra, told TODAY he and his friends were excited by her election, adding that many Indonesian union members have uploaded on their Facebook accounts pictures they had taken with her during regional union meetings and trainings by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Mdm Halimah was the first Singaporean elected to the ILO in 1999.

“They are mostly amazed at how a minority — a Muslim woman — can be in such a high position, especially compared with the fact that many Indonesians are misled by some Islamists that having minority backgrounds like being Chinese or non-Muslim are ‘foreigners’ and women cannot become leaders,” said Dr Tjandra, who is also a member of Partai Solidaritas Indonesia, a political party set up in 2014 to champion women’s rights and pluralism. 

“As such, I think it (the presidential election) is a great achievement for Singapore, which we in Indonesia can learn. That is a manifestation of a mature democratic society.” 

Mdm Halimah spent more than 30 years as a trade unionist, before entering politics in 2001 before becoming a junior minister a decade later.

In 2013, she became the first woman to be elected Speaker of Parliament and held that position until last month.

“There is no doubt she is qualified and I think that makes her election all the more meaningful. It is certainly not the case that she has been chosen simply because she is of a certain race, but because she is capable,” said Mr Zairil Khir Johari, a Member of Parliament from the Malaysian opposition Democratic Action Party.

“And I think in the Singaporean context, the meritocratic element is extremely important. It would not be accepted otherwise, and would in fact be self-defeating.” 

Even before she was declared the President-elect on Sept 13 after running unopposed in Singapore’s inaugural reserved polls, Mdm Halimah’s candidature served as a rallying point for Malaysia’s deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who urged members of the ruling United Malays National Organisation to pray for her.

“In Bangladesh, they have as prime minister Khaleda Zia, President of Indonesia Megawati Sukarnoputri. God willing, Speaker of Singapore Parliament Halimah Yacob will become President of Singapore. Together we pray,” he said on Aug 12.

Since then, her election has also been praised by other Malaysians and Indonesians. 

“As a highly diverse country, it is really appropriate that Singapore has a mechanism to ensure representation of all ethnicities at its top office despite all the debates,” said Jakarta resident Shinta Eka Puspasari, who works as an analyst.

“In addition to becoming a fine example of the guarantee for more or less equal political opportunity, the victory of the President is also encouraging for global efforts to promote gender equality particularly as it’s occurred in Asia where most societies still maintain patriarchal system.”

Professor Hikmahanto Juwana, an international law expert at the University of Indonesia, said Mdm Halimah has “good credentials” who made her mark as Singapore’s first Parliament Speaker and that her eligibility is not an issue of race, but “more of a question of who is eligible”.

“By merit, she has the right credentials and she deserve it. It serves as a positive message that Singapore is not gender bias and it should inspire other women to break the glass ceiling,” said Ms Anna Maria Samsuddin, a corporate communications manager from Malaysia.

Mdm Siti Mariah, of Malaysia’s opposition Islamic party Amanah, also took to Facebook to congratulate Mdm Halimah. 

She called Mdm Halimah’s achievement a testament to meritocracy, saying she is “an iconic image that emphasises harmony and stability” at a time when the world is still “struggling with regressive issues regarding women and Islamophobia.”

While acknowledging Mdm Halimah’s “outstanding” achievements and that she deserved the post, Johor assemblyman Tengku Putra Haron Aminurrashid Tengku Hamid Jumat however felt that it would be a better election if there were eligible candidates running against her.

He noted the unhappiness among some Singaporeans over the walkover, after Mdm Halimah emerged as the sole eligible candidate.

“Would she have been elected by the people of Singapore had it been an open race? That would have given more credence to her election,” he said.

His views were echoed by Ms Julia Yeow, an editor who felt that the walkover was “an injustice” to her achievements. She added that she found it “disconcerting and … ironic” that Mdm Halimah’s election followed constitutional changes that “contradicted the very principles of meritocracy and non-discrimination”.

Still, she said the fact that a member of an ethnic minority is appointed to one of the country’s highest post bodes well for the message Singapore intends to send out, namely one of colour-blindness and equal opportunities.

Changes to the elected presidency were made last year to tighten the criteria for aspiring candidates and to ensure Singapore has a minority President from time to time, starting with the Malay race. 

At the same time, observers also acknowledged it would be an uphill task for any ethnic minority in Malaysia and Indonesia to helm a top leadership post.

As Mr Zairil pointed out, the scenario of a non-Malay becoming a top leader in Malaysia is “highly unlikely” given the “current context of a highly ethnicised political environment” and that “rule by elite consensus continues to be the order of the day.”

Mr Mohd Hisomudin Bakar the executive director for Malaysian think-tank Ilham Centre, said while Mdm Halimah has smashed the glass ceiling in women’s participation in politics, the scenario is different in Malaysia.

“Racial politics are still ingrained and hard to get rid of because it gives an edge to some quarters to remain in power,” he said.

Ms Puspasari also said that an ethnic minority figure is unlikely to be elected as Indonesia’s top leader in the foreseeable future. She noted that nationalistic sentiments against foreigners, particularly those from China, are likely to be fanned ahead of 2018 regional elections and 2019 general elections. 

“The idea that president must be a Muslim, Javanese male (and, some said, preferably has military background) is still deeply embedded within the mind of the public and then utilised by those who believe it at political parties,” she said.