Tuesday, January 24, 2006

*More fun with Public Law readings*
- Wherein meritocracy in a multi-racial society

This time, something that Constitutional Law expert Kevin Tan wrote Kevin Tan & Lam Peng Er, Managing Political Change in Singapore: The Elected Presidency (Routledge, 1997) 52 at 68-69 caught my eye. He said (firstly):

"The office of the head of state has often been seen in the past as a unifying component in the Westminster constitutional set-up. The role of the ceremonial head of state, no matter how trivial and formal, is an important one. Loyalty is owed to the state as epitomized by the President, and it is he who provides the rallying point for all nationalist sentiment. This function is particularly so in multi-racial, multi-religious Singapore"

I personally think that this may be too sweeping an assertion and a generalisation to be accurate. I think that one of the legacies of the colonial era and the subsequent independent fight is that the state is embodied in a ideal, it's presence as an entity is felt. I do not think it is embodied in the Presidency as the head of state. The chasm between the state as an entity and the president as its head is too wide to be bridged. No person or mortal can hope to embody the state and I think there is this residue ditochomy still inherent in our makeup. All this notwithstanding that we pledged alliegence to the President and to defend the Constitution when serving National Service.

If so, then one need not have the President as head of state to rally around. One already has Singapore to channel our nationalist fevours towards. I think that Mr Tan may be right when in theory when he conflated the Head of State with the State (because that is technically what he/she is) but in reality, I think the Presidency is a much much more prosaic position. By way of negative argumentation, the fact the Mr Wee was 'identified' as a 'People's President' goes someway in showing how remote he is from our lives and identity.

Anyway, Mr Tan in his next paragraph goes on to describe the multi-racial makeup of our various Presidents, despite Singapore being a predominant ethnic Chinese country. And then he says, "Under the new scheme, the key function of the president is obliterated. No longer will the currency of race be exploited to unite the nation. The symbol of multi-racial Singapore is not lost. (footnote omitted in readings here). Neither will the president be seen as the benevolent, elder statesman or father figure who soothes the nation over in difficult times and patches up family quarrels, bring diverse factions together for the common good."

When I first read this, I have to confess that I wondered for a while if there was a printing error and some idealistic poetry text got accidentally inserted into the article. My other though does not bear reprinting here. I honestly have great difficulties swallowing this, it's all too mawkish and unrealistic.

Firstly, if the Presidency is indeed elected, then it is just as arguable the people just like when they elect the government are investing their personal desires and aspirations in the person, which in turn would actually strengthen their link to him.

Secondly, casting my mind back to the SilkAir crash, it seemed to me that the most prominent figure at the televised funeral was not the President but the then SM. Not to mention it might be worth watching the old National Day Parades to see who gets the most cheers.

But all this fluff aside, there is a deeper question of how one reconciles Kevin Tan's version of multi-racialism with the governmental practice of meritocracy. Because the manner in which he sets it out seems to be the most fundamental clash of equality of opportunity (meritocracy, I'm simplifying it here) with equality of result (multi-racialism in terms of every race getting a turn at the Presidency). I would think that quite a number would have the sentiment that the minorities Presidents were effective a sop thrown to the minority groups. I think Mr Nathan is credible because he was qualified enough to be a candidate and was elected into power. It is harder I would think on a theoretical level to think him having gotten there as a result of his race which Kevin Tan's approach of a merry-go-round would advocate.

However, I think it is more than possible to argue that equality of results may have its role to play see e.g. the GRC electoral system. It can act as a virtuous cycle to encourage minorities of whatever form to enter parliament and it can ensure that certain such voices will be heard.

My personal bias is that of equality of opportunity. I believe that people should have the inherent right to excel and I just as firmly believe that such excelling should be the result of inherent ability as opposed to pure luck (like being born to a richer household) which is why I advocate money being channelled into the vicinity of education, training and health because these more than anything other public service/welfare sector help to engender a level playing field.


p.s. Look out for ChewLin's piece coming soon


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