x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 24 November 2017

Singapore gets first female president - but without a vote

Halimah Yacob, a former speaker of parliament from the Muslim Malay minority, did not have to face an election for the largely ceremonial post after authorities decided her rivals did not meet eligibility criteria

Singapore's new president-elect, Halimah Yacob (right), greets her supporters at the nomination centre in Singapore on September 13, 2017. Roslan Rahman / AFP
Singapore's new president-elect, Halimah Yacob (right), greets her supporters at the nomination centre in Singapore on September 13, 2017. Roslan Rahman / AFP

Singapore got its first female president on Wednesday, but the milestone was overshadowed by criticism that her selection was undemocratic after she was handed the job without a vote.

Halimah Yacob, a former speaker of parliament from the Muslim Malay minority, did not have to face an election for the largely ceremonial post after authorities decided her rivals did not meet eligibility criteria.

It was not the first time that the Singaporean government has disqualified presidential candidates, making an election unnecessary.

But there was already unease about the process as it was the first time that the presidency had been reserved for a particular race, in this case the Malay community. The decision to hand Ms Halimah the job without an election added to the anger.

Social media was abuzz with criticism as Ms Halimah, a bespectacled 63-year-old who wears a headscarf, was formally announced as president-elect, with Facebook user Pat Eng writing: "Elected without an election. What a joke."

"I will call her President Select from now on," said Joel Kong on the social media site, while some posts were marked with the hashtag #NotMyPresident - echoing the message used by upset Americans after the election of president Donald Trump.

Ms Halimah was a member of parliament for the ruling People's Action Party for nearly two decades before resigning to contest the presidency. She addressed the concerns about the selection process after being named president-elect.

"I'm a president for everyone. Although there's no election, my commitment to serve you remains the same," she said.

Ms Halimah added that she would "start working immediately" to bring the country together.

She also insisted her status as Singapore's first female president was "not just tokenism", in a speech to a cheering crowd while wearing orange, a colour supposed to symbolise unity.

"Every woman can aspire to the highest office in the land when you have the courage, determination and will to work hard," she said.

Singapore's head of state has limited powers, including vetoing senior official appointments. But an establishment figure has always held the role and there are rarely tensions with the government. The tightly-controlled city-state of 5 million people has been ruled by the same party, the People's Action Party, for decades.

Authorities decided to allow only candidates from the Malay community to put themselves forward for the presidency to foster harmony among the island's population - which is dominated by ethnic Chinese - and give more opportunities to minorities.

Ms Halimah is Singapore's first Malay president for almost five decades. The last was Yusof Ishak, president from 1965 to 1970, the first years of the city-state's independence.

But the decision to limit candidates to one ethnic group had caused concern, including among Malays, as it was seen as positive discrimination that ran counter to the city-state's traditional meritocratic principles.

Five people had originally put their names forward for the presidency and the government had scheduled an election for September 23.

Two were quickly eliminated as they were not Malay. The two others, Malay businessmen, were disqualified on Monday as their companies were smaller than required by strict new eligibility rules introduced last year.

Ms Halimah automatically qualified as she has held public office. She will be inaugurated in a ceremony on Thursday.