How Did Singapore Elect its First Female President?

Halimah Yacob became the first female president of Singapore. Photograph: Wallace Woon/EPA

Exotic beaches and sunny weather are the first images that pop into one’s mind when it comes to Southeast Asia. But this description doesn’t fit this nation. While most countries in the region are famous for the flourishing tourism, Singapore has focused on something else — its own people.

Fifty two years ago, the little island nation of Singapore gained its independence from Malaysia and with it — a lot of struggles. Many believed that the city-state would not last for long due to the limited natural resources and land. However, Singaporeans proved that they can manage on their own, and today they are living in one of the richest states in the region. Singapore has become a global financial and trade center, as well as the greenest city in Asia.

And for those 52 years the country has been ruled by one and the same party — the People’s Action Party (PAP). The party has been one of the major reasons why Singapore is still an illiberal democracy in the face of the international community. However, changes in the constitution and the parliamentary seats were made multiple times to assure the representation of all ethnicities.

One controversial change in the presidential amendments was made in April 2017. Before the new presidential campaign was supposed to start, the government decided that candidates are only eligible to be elected if they’ve been a senior executive of a company with an average of $500 million in shareholders’ equity for the most recent three years in office.

Fast forward five months and Singapore has its first female president — Halima Yacob. On the one hand, her election is considered a milestone for gender equality in Singapore’s politics, but on the other — there was no election at all. Due to the changes in the amendments in April, Yacob became the only qualified candidate, with no opposition whatsoever.

“She is Muslim and a woman, but she rises. Symbolically, she says something. Within a global political context it says we have a woman leader, a woman president,” says Robert Philips, professor of political science in AUBG.

The PAP has been criticized ever since Yacob assumed the presidency. First of all because of the non-democratic way of electing her, but also because of a decision to reserve the presidency for a particular minority — the Malay. The government has claimed that this has been done for better representation of all ethnic groups on the island. Yacob and the two other candidates who wanted to run for the position were all Malay.

“Singapore has made it part of its national defense strategy and part of its character that it’s a multi-ethnic society. And so this is a signal to an important constituent part that is typically not as represented. It’s speaking to the Malay population and saying you’re part of this society as well,” says Phillips.

Although legal, the lack of democratic elections has caused a reaction on social media. Some have criticized the unfair elections bringing back the hashtag “Not My President” used for Donald Trump in the US presidential elections in 2016. While others have praised the new president by creating her own emoji.

Even though there are many mixed emotions about the elections, the first female president of Singapore is now a fact. Yacob has made history not only as the first female president, but also as the second Malay head of state in the history of Singapore.

‘’As a strong supporter of liberal democracy I would like people to have free and fair elections. At the same time, one has to appreciate what Singapore has been able to create. It works. I don’t know if it can be exported to other places, but it works for Singapore,” concludes Phillips.

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Maria Mileva is a student at the American University in Bulgaria. She studies journalism and political science and has an interest in Asian politics.

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