Just returned from helping to cover a Meet-the-People session for one of our MPs busy during the 7th month and parliament sitting. I have been waiting to write this after hearing that awfully sad news that there will be a walkover for the reserved Elected Presidency because only one has been qualified to run for the office.
ISA against political detainees, Marxist conspiracy, law suits that bankrupts political opponents, GRC system, upgrading of HDB estates for votes, and frequent manipulation of electoral boundaries. These were things that irked me as I became more politically aware growing up in post independence Singapore. I had admired the economic transformation of Singapore by the first generation of leaders. When I started work, started travelling around the world and read more widely, I had felt that the tight controls imposed by the ruling PAP would be harmful for Singapore in the long run. When I entered politics, finding that there were things like AIM with the huge capacity to trip up the opposition taking over town councils through the control of data irked me even further. Today, the reserved election for the Elected President (EP) has just been added to the list.
We have built a first world country but we have a very third world democracy.
This is not Singapore’s first election for president. We had an unenthusiastic opponent against the establishment’s choice of Mr Ong Teng Cheong in 1993. Nevertheless, the unenthusiastic Mr Chua Kim Yeow polled a decent 41.3% of the votes. Then there was Mr S.R. Nathan who had two terms as President through walkovers. In 2011, there was a keenly contested PE with 4 candidates. Mr Tony Tan became president with barely 35% of the popular votes and won Dr Tan Cheng Bock by a razor thin margin of just 0.35%.
This year, just months before the PE was to be held, parliament rammed through amendments to the Presidential Election Act that saw this election being a reserved one for Malays and the criteria for financial management being raised very substantially. In one stroke, Dr Tan Cheng Bock is disqualified from contesting this PE. No, I do not buy the argument that we need a reserve election for Malays to be elected. We have never ever had a Malay or anyone from the minority race lose to a Chinese candidate in a PE in the past. Neither had the government attempted to put forth any Malay candidate for presidency in the 47 years since President Yusof Ishak, until now. Yet the government concluded that there must be circumstances that the presidential election has to be reserved for minorities and it has to be this year.
Two enthusiastic and successful Malay businessmen stepped forward. Both are self-made businessmen with rags to riches stories. They did not inherit their wealth nor were parachuted like army generals into companies with huge shareholders’ equity. First generation successful business people tend to be prudent and have good financial judgement to be where they are. Unfortunately, they fell short of the technical qualification on this financial expertise part. They would both have qualified under the old rules which were valid up till the beginning of this year.
Ironically, the post of Speaker of Parliament qualifies a person for the post of President. Parliament employs few staff and operates on a very small annual budget, smaller than that of many of our SME companies. It is definitely a very respected post, but certainly not one that requires one to be financially savvy which our laws say is required for the President to safeguard our huge (but undisclosed) reserves. Yes, our reserves are so huge and secret that even our first Elected President Mr Ong (sorry, I do not consider President Wee to be our first EP) could not get the government to reveal to him what reserves he was safeguarding.
It is unfortunate that Mdm Halimah Yacob will not be going through an election. In an already very controversial election reserved only for Malays, it would have restored some of the lost moral authority by her winning against credible opponents through popular votes. She is after all, a veteran in elections and has won handsomely in the four general elections she stood in. Her opponents, if allowed through, are businessmen novice to the process of campaigning and without any campaigning machinery to back them.
Alas, the contest was not to be.
Perhaps Presidents are not meant to go through elections. We did well with Presidents elected by Parliament in the past. If anything, PE 1993 and especially PE 2011 show how vulnerable this post could be for the establishment’s favoured candidate. After all, the President has few executive powers. His/her powers were further crippled in the amendments to our laws this year for a Council appointed by the government to over-rule the president. Singaporeans could be more ready to vote against the establishment than they would in a General Election.
Perhaps we need to wait for another election, this time an open one before we can find out more about how Singaporeans think about choosing their President. Or perhaps, rules can be amended again by then.