By Marius Zaharia and Fathin Ungku
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore will restrict its presidential election next year to ethnic Malay candidates, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told parliament on Tuesday, during a debate on proposals to make sure ethnic minorities can become head of state.
The wealthy city state elects its president for a term of six years, but the largely ceremonial role is limited to vetoing the use of financial reserves or appointment of key civil servants.
While Singapore has had presidents from other ethnic groups, all three of its prime ministers have been ethnic Chinese, who form 74 percent of a population of about 5.5 million. Ethnic Malays account for 13 percent and ethnic Indians 9 percent.
The new rules say that if no president is selected from a particular ethnic group for five straight terms, the next term will be reserved for that group.
"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 said.
Parliament speaker Halimah Yacob is the favorite to become Singapore's next president, say political analysts.
Critics say the ethnic harmony argument is a disguised attempt by Lee's ruling party, the People's Action Party, to prevent the opposition from taking the post after a fiercely contested vote in 2011.
That is because other proposed changes limit qualifying candidates to holders of prominent public positions or chief executives of firms with shareholders' equity of at least S$500 million ($360 million).
This represents an increase from an earlier figure of S$100 million, which disqualifies Tan Cheng Bock, a former PAP parliamentarian with a track record of combating unpopular policies, who lost the last election to incumbent Tony Tan.
"Now we have this review, and the reason for it is plain for all to see - it is because Tan Cheng Bock almost snatched the office from Tony Tan in 2011," said Michael Barr, associate professor of international relations at Australia's Flinders University.
In a September interview with Channel 5 television, Lee dismissed criticism that the measures targeted individual candidates, saying, "We are looking at changes which are for the long term. These are changes which we are talking about for 30, 40, 50 years."
Even if the government raised the standards, there was no guarantee a "difficult" person would not become president, he added.
(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)