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Singapore Gets Its First Female President — Without Casting Any Votes

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On Sept. 14, Singapore will welcome Halimah Yacob as its first female president — though not a single vote was cast in the election.

Just 23 of the parliament’s 100 seats are currently held by women, so Yacob’s election should be a cause for celebration in the tiny island nation, which gained its independence just 52 years ago. 

However, Singaporeans have mixed feelings about her win because of the unusual circumstances leading up to the election which rendered Yacob the only candidate.

Singapore is a parliamentary democracy with both a president, who serves as head of state and has largely ceremonial powers, and a prime minister, who serves as the head of government.

Typically, the president is elected by a popular vote, while the prime minister is chosen by the party who wins the most seats in district elections — though that is not what happened in this year’s election.

Yacob, a former speaker of Parliament, was deemed the only candidate eligible to run for president this year by the Presidential Election Committee, which is in charge of ensuring that candidates meet the requirements laid out in Singapore’s constitution. These requirements include having held a public office for at least three years — or having served as the chief executive of a company with at least $371 million (SGD $500 million) in equity within the last three years — and not being a member of any political party at the time of nomination.

During this year’s election, candidates had to meet an additional requirement — they had to be ethnic Malays.

Singapore prides itself on its racial diversity — the current population is 74% Chinese, 13% Malay, and 9% Indian, according to CNN. Because of the violent race riots that occurred in the 1960s, when Singapore was still part of Malaysia, multiculturalism has been a fundamental principle of the former British colony ever since it gained its independence.

The country has several policies aimed at maintaining racial, cultural, and religious harmony, including racial quota policies for public housing and, more recently, presidential candidates.

Last year, the Singapore government passed an amendment to the constitution that allows elections to be “reserved” for candidates from a particular ethnic group, when no member of that ethnic group has served as president for five consecutive terms.

"Every citizen, Chinese, Malay, Indian or some other race, should know that someone of his community can become President, and in fact from time to time, does become President," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in support of the amendment.

Presidents in Singapore serve six-year terms, and the country’s last Malay president was actually its first president, Yusof bin Ishak, who was appointed, rather than elected to the office in 1965.

Given that Singapore ranks 97th out of 144 countries on gender equality in political empowerment, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, Yacob’s win should have been a major milestone.

Two other candidates attempted to enter the presidential race and were considered by the Presidential Election Commission, but were ultimately denied certificates of eligibility because neither man had headed a company with $371 million in shareholder equity within the last three years, according to Singapore’s Straits Times.

The commission’s failure to issue any other certificates of eligibility was criticized as undermining the democratic process and enabling the People’s Action Party, which has been Singapore’s ruling party since its independence, to effectively select the country’s next president.

Singaporeans have been quick to voice their concerns online, but their criticism has not been directed at Yacob, who many feel is a capable and qualified politician, according to the Straits Times. Instead their comments have focused on “the electoral process and the government, which is seen as exclusive and disenfranchising,” associate law professor at Singapore Management University Eugene Tan told the New York Times

“A contest would have added to her legitimacy,” Tan said, and though he believes the public will eventually welcome her, she currently faces an uphill battle because of the way in which she gained office.

“We, the people of Singapore, were robbed of the dignity of electing our first Malay, and first female President in the history of our country, which would have been a momentous occasion for minority rights and women’s rights in Singapore,” co-founder Rio Hoe wrote on his blog Consensus SG. “What would have otherwise been a democratic milestone is now besmirched with the ugly stain of an uncontested election.”

Regardless, Yacob remains optimistic. And many are celebrating. Singapore-based media company Mothershig.SG even created an emoji in honor of Yacob.

"Whether there is an election or no election, my passion and commitment to serve the people of Singapore remains the same," Yacob said on Monday, after she was declared the sole eligible candidate. 

"Although this is a reserved election, I am not a reserved president … My resolve to work hard, tirelessly and with great sincerity is even greater now."