Halimah Yacob
Halimah Yacob Source: YouTube

Singapore's Former Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob, a Muslim hijabi, is making history as she is set to become the country's first woman president. 

While many are excited for Singapore's first woman head of state, the decision has also come with a fair share of controversy. While elections are normally held for the position, Yacob ended up being the only candidate meeting strict new election requirements, making her win by default.

"I can only say that I promise to do the best that I can to serve the people of Singapore and that doesn't change whether there is an election or no election," Yacob said this week, according to Channel News Asia.

Electoral changes lead to Yacob's default appointment

New electoral rules were implemented for the presidential election, with the aim of ensuring better representation of the island nation's three main ethnic groups: Chinese, Indian and Malay. The new rules required the presidential candidates to certify that they are ethnically Malay.

Five candidates submitted applications, three of whom – including Yacob – certified they were Malay. The other two candidates were removed by default.

Another change requires candidates hailing from the private sector to certify that they lead a company managing at least $370 million in shareholders' equity. This rule disqualified the other two Malay candidates. 

As Yacob previously served in a high government position, the private sector requirement did not apply to her.

Sudhir Vadaketh, a Singapore author and commentator, told CNN that many are unhappy about the changes and the result.

"All Singaporeans are unhappy that meritocracy and electoral fairness, core Singaporean values, have been eroded to fulfill perceived political goals," Vadaketh said.

Do electoral changes ensure diverse leadership?

Ethnically, Singapore is 74 percent Chinese, 13 percent Malay, 9 percent Indian and 3.2 percent are classified as "other." Religiously, the country is 33 percent Buddhist, 19 percent Christian, 18.5 percent non-religious and 14 percent Muslim, with other religions making up less than 6 percent of the population.

The electoral rule requiring the candidate to be Malay was instituted to ensure that a member of the ethnic group would have the chance to serve as president. 

"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," Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore's prime minister, said last November before the new rule was introduced, according to Reuters.

The country has not had a Malay president since its first head of state, President Yusof Ishak. He served from 1965 to 1970. 

"It shows we don't only talk about multi-racialism, but we talk about it in the context of meritocracy or opportunities for everyone, and we actually practice it," Yacob said, in reference to the electoral requirements.

Singapore's president holds mainly ceremonial powers but still has the right to veto some of the government's decisions. 

While Yacob may be making history as the first Muslim woman head of state in her country, she is definitely not the first in the world. Indonesia, Mauritius, Senegal, and Kosovo have all had Muslim women serve as president.