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Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam speaks with journalists at the World Economic Forum on Africa 2017 meeting in Durban, South Africa, May 5, 2017. REUTERS/Rogan Ward


SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has said he understands people's concerns about this month's uncontested presidential election, which was reserved for members of the minority Malay community.

"It is encouraging that people feel about this, and they want the race to matter less in the future," he said during a forum at the Nanyang Technological University on Wednesday, the Straits Times newspaper reported.

Shanmugaratnam, who is also the coordinating minister for economic and social policies, is the first member of the cabinet to comment on the disquiet.

Hundreds of Singaporeans held a silent protest on Saturday against the election, in which applications from four candidates were rejected. Political protests are rare in the wealthy city-state, which has been ruled by the People's Action Party since independence in 1965.

Aiming to strengthen a sense of inclusivity, Singapore had decreed the presidency, a largely ceremonial six-year post, would be reserved for Malays this time. About three-quarters of the country's people are ethnic Chinese.

Halimah Yacob, a former speaker of parliament, was elected unopposed as the country's first woman president.

Shanmugaratnam, who is from the ethnic Indian minority, said most Singaporeans, including himself, would have preferred an open contest, the Today newspaper reported.

But he added: "The reality of the matter, not just in Singapore but anywhere else, including most mature democracies, is that everything else being equal, race, ethnicity and religion matter."

He said, like Yacob, he looked forward to the time when there was no need for reserved elections.

Shanmugaratnam has rejected suggestions that he could be a future prime minister. A survey last year by market research consultancy Blackbox showed that 69 percent of respondents would support him as a candidate to be prime minister.

All three of Singapore's prime ministers to date have been of Chinese origin.

(Reporting by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Michael Perry)

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