SINGAPORE: The predominantly Chinese republic here may have a non-Chinese prime minister one day but that is unlikely to happen any time soon, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Saturday, four days after Americans elected their first black president.

Lee said race was still a factor that determines voters' preferences here, although he noted that attitudes have shifted.

He was replying to a question from Association of Muslim Professionals board member Yang Razali Kassim at a dialogue with 350 Malay grassroots and community leaders at the Grassroots Club.

Yang Razali asked if, in the light of Barack Obama's win, Singapore was ready for a prime minister of a minority race, and specifically from the Malay-Muslim community.

Lee said in reply: "It's possible. It depends on how people vote, on who has the confidence of the population."

"Will it happen soon? I don't think so, because you have to win votes. And these sentiments -- who votes for whom, and what makes him identify with that person -- these are sentiments which will not disappear completely for a long time, even if people do not talk about it, even if people wish they did not feel it."

However, he also acknowledged that attitudes towards race have shifted in the last two to three decades.

"Attitudes have shifted because English provides more of a common ground, because the new generation is better educated and they can see that there are successful people of all races," he said.

"But to reach a position where everybody is totally race-blind and religion-blind, I think that's very difficult. You will not find it in any country in the world."

Grassroots volunteer Muhammad Nabil Noor Mohamed, 20, said Lee's assessment is realistic, but he also believes that people of his generation can see beyond race and religion "to assess a leader on his ability and his merit."

Last year, a survey of 1,824 Singaporeans' views on inter-racial ties by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies found that 94% of Chinese polled said they would not mind an Indian as prime minister, and 91% said they would not mind a Malay in the top post.

Lee prefaced his remarks on Singapore by noting that Obama's election victory marked a "historic change" for America.

But the win did not mean race was no longer an issue there, he said. He pointed out that after 20 years of Bush and Clinton presidencies, Americans wanted a change.

"People were tired, they wanted something different, and Mr Obama represented something different," he said.

"He was an effective, charismatic candidate and able to mobilise young people and enthuse them, inspire them."

Obama won 52% of the popular vote against opponent John McCain's 46%, but a closer look at how ethnic groups voted showed that race remained a factor, Lee said.

Just 43% of whites voted for Obama, compared with 60-65% of Latinos and Asians

and 95% of blacks.

"To say that's socio-economic, nothing to do with race, I don't think so," Lee said.

"The factor is still there, but there are other factors which are important and in this case they all added up, enough for Mr Obama to score a good majority and become president," he added. -- ANN/ The Straits Times,Singapore - 9-Nov-2008

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