The recent victory of Yingluck Shinawatra, who will become Thailand’s first female prime minister, has inspired some Singaporeans to ask whether it’s also time for the prosperous city state to elect its first female president. Singapore is set to choose its new president, a largely ceremonial position, next month.
There were prominent female candidates who performed well during Singapore’s general elections last May, and many voters today seem ready to ignore the gender issue and instead focus more on the leadership qualities and platform of individual candidates.
The success of the opposition in grabbing more seats in parliament this year reflected the aspiration of many citizens for governance reforms. With this in mind, maybe the selection of a female president is just the sign of change that Singapore needs today.
But electing a female president isn’t that easy as choosing a female member of parliament. After reviewing the minimum qualifications that a candidate must pass, it seems there will be some difficulty in finding eligible female nominees.
According to the elections department, a person can run for president if he or she is at least 45 years-old; a resident in Singapore for a total period of not less than 10 years; is not a member of any political party; and has held office for a period of not less than three years in a position of seniority and responsibility in the public or private sector as described below –
1. As Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker, Attorney-General, Chairman of the Public Service Commission, Auditor-General, Accountant-General or Permanent Secretary;
2. As chairman or chief executive officer of a statutory board to which Article 22A of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore applies;
3. As chairman of the board of directors or chief executive officer of a company incorporated or registered under the Companies Act (Cap. 50) with a paid-up capital of at least $100 million or its equivalent in foreign currency;
4. Or in any other similar or comparable position of seniority and responsibility in any other organization or department of equivalent size or complexity in the public or private sector which, in the opinion of the Presidential Elections Committee, has given him such experience and ability in administering and managing financial affairs as to enable him to carry out effectively the functions and duties of the office of President.
Women will have less of a chance of becoming president in Singapore today as long these criteria are enforced. It isn’t because there’s a dearth of women, but mainly because of the alarmingly low number of women in managerial positions in Singapore.
According to Grace Ke of the Association of Women for Action and Research, Singapore has had only one female minister in its history, and has never had a female chief justice, speaker, attorney general, Public Service Commission chairman or auditor general.
She added that only 12 of the 64 statutory boards in Singapore are currently headed by women, and cited a 2011 study that reveals that only 6.8 percent of board members for publicly-listed companies in Singapore are women. The study also showed that:
‘A whopping 61.9 per cent of all Singapore Exchange-listed companies in Singapore do not have a female director. Only 31.7 per cent have 1 female director. A measly 4.5 per cent have 2 female directors and less than 1 per cent has more than 3 female directors on their boards. Only 4 companies on the SGX Top 100 list have 3 or more female directors.’
Singapore may be ready to elect a female president, but there are legal obstacles that could make it difficult for women to run for the position. Maybe it’s time to revisit these election laws (which were drafted by men) and more importantly, promote more representation of women at all levels of government.