It’s 5 am on polling day. I slept past midnight and woke up before 5 am. The first thing I did was to look through my Facebook reading posts by Friends to gauge the voting sentiments for today. The mood is still quite the same. There is vocal support for both the Palm Tree and Heart camps and relatively muted on the other two. However, we all know that the silent majority decides at the ballot box.
This is strange. I am not involved in this PE. I am not taking part in this election, unlike in GE where I slept late and woke up early for obvious reasons. I am not counting nor polling agent for any candidate. My Party is not involved. Some of my active volunteers during GE are actively helping in two different camps. They actively try to solicit support from people they know. I wish them well.
PE is not supposed to be a political campaign. Constitutionally, the president is not another seat of executive power. There are limited powers. Yet there is unprecedented interest in this election. The ruling party obviously has a preferred choice with praise of the qualities of one candidate by none other than the Prime Minister himself. Three quarters of the trade unions and various associations (some whom I have not heard of before) and business federations have thrown their support behind that same candidate. I fail to see why their members would feel obligated to vote for their leaders’ choice. I suppose it is to signal who the government’s endorsed candidate is without the government having to officially endorse that candidate.
So quite obviously, the ruling party is anxious to have its candidate selected. After all, there was a rather muted contest in the first PE in 1993 and a famine thereafter with two walkovers. It wasn’t that there were no interested parties in 1999 and 2005, but only 1 made it through the rather strict PEC vetting.
GE2011 was a watershed. There were contests in all but the Tanjong Pagar GRC, which itself was not contested due to a technical problem by the opposing team rather than a lack of interest. People were talking politics in the coffeeshop, in office and in cyberspace like never before. The quality of alternative candidates was much higher than before. The result was also unprecedented. History was made when a GRC finally fell to the alternative camp. Singapore went from a miserly two elected opposition members of parliament to a more respectable six. It is still a long way from a functioning democratic parliament but nevertheless a positive progress.
Now, four candidates have made it through the strict PEC requirements. It showed that there is now sufficient courage by capable people to step forward as alternates to what the ruling party desires. I applaud all who have stepped forward, even if I cannot agree with the platform that some have contested on. They are winners in my eyes for stepping forward. And who is my choice? I can only say that the two past presidents I most admire are Mr Wee Kim Wee for his genuine love for the people and Mr Ong Teng Cheong for his courage to stand up where it mattered seriously to him and to the country. I will go for someone whom I feel has the qualities of both.
I had long sought a decent contest for the PE and was dismayed at the weak challenge by Mr Chua Kim Yeow and the non-contest in the other two PEs. I wrote to ST Forum in 1993 to urge Mr Chua to give a more spirited fight, which he eventually did on the 11th hour. I gave him my vote. Nevertheless, Mr Ong Teng Cheong won my heart later for his determined challenge for what he felt should be right for the office. I wrote again to ST Forum in 2005 to urge the PEC to be more flexible in their evaluation to allow a contest. That did not mean I would have supported the alternative candidates but I wanted to have my choice.
The calls for contest also did not mean I supported the idea of an election for the president. I see nothing wrong with the old system of selecting dignified people for a ceremonial post. The reason for an elected president is clear for all to see. It was initiated after a poor GE showing by the ruling party in 1991 to check a ‘rogue’ government that may be elected by the people. Since the post had been created, it was then best to have it contested to let the true choice of the people be represented. And if the result turned out to be undesirable for the ruling party, it may then feel compelled to review the scheme again. Hence, I am certain they are keenly watching this contest closely to see the outcome.
The selection and campaigning process itself has already done much to change our political landscape in a non-political election. The strict PEC requirements meant only an elite group of perhaps 300 people could qualify to contest, most of them with past links to the establishment. The fact that four had qualified is a big surprise to many. It shows a growing desire by capable people to challenge the establishment, whether in this PE or in the GE or in other matters of governance. The establishment has long lamented that we are politically apathetic and that it was difficult to get good people to step forward to hold public office. I think that will be no more. However, the ruling party will not have the monopoly of talent anymore. There will be more reasonable contests in future elections.
Voters are no longer passive like in past elections. In GE2011 and now in PE2011, more people are interested in the process. In the “cowboy towns” of the cyberworld (a term by PM Lee), people have dug deep to research about candidates and their past. Some on the “lunatic fringes” (a term by a new Minister) may perhaps have been too enthusiastic. It is an unstoppable process unless we kill the Internet and move ourselves back to the stone age of not-so-long-ago where only the mainstream media is what we had to live on.
I was surprised at the sheer number of people volunteering for the alternative parties in GE2011. It was more than I could personally cope with to get them organised given the short campaigning time. Some are highly qualified lawyers, doctors, bankers, professionals, business people and even civil servants (surprise, surprise). Some have continued in PE2011 to help the different candidates.
I am excited in this PE and watching the outcome because Singapore has reached a new political landscape. It is hard to imagine going back to the muted elections we had in the past. If we cannot move backwards, the only reasonable thing going forward is to define a new political playing field where we will progress together for the common good of Singapore. People want to hear alternative voices. For there to be alternative voices, there must be enough good people stepping forward to fill the roles. It is happening now.
Where there’s change, there may be some discomfort during the adjustment. We might as well learn to adjust now. The process has started and Singapore is the winner.
It is now 7 am. It’s almost time to get ready to cast my vote. Meanwhile, thanks again to all the four Tans for stepping forward. Whatever the outcome, let’s respect voters’ decision and move on to define the new political landscape together.