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Singapore votes for stability

Asia Times - September 1, 2011

Megawati Wijaya, Singapore Former deputy prime minister Tony Tan was elected as Singapore's seventh president in a closely fought four-cornered election on Saturday. Garnering a majority vote of 35% of the total votes, many see Tan's weak mandate as a sign that the political grip of the long-ruling People's Action Party (PAP) is loosening amid growing calls for change in the increasingly divided political landscape.

Tan won 35.19% of the 2.1 million valid votes cast, edging over his closest rival, medical doctor and long-term member of parliament Tan Cheng Bock, by just 7,269 votes a mere 0.34% margin, with the votes having to be recounted to ensure accuracy.

An investment adviser who fought under the opposition banner in May's general election, Tan Jee Say, won 25.04% of the total votes. Coming in last was former chief executive of insurer NTUC Income, Tan Kin Lian, who garnered 4.91% of the votes.

Tony Tan becomes only the second president winning office in a contested election in Singapore's history, after Ong Teng Cheong won in 1993. Current president S R Nathan was uncontested in the elections in 1999 and 2005.

The president in Singapore serves as a largely ceremonial head of state. He has to act according to the advice of the cabinet, but holds certain veto powers over key government appointments, detention and investigations, as well as the second key to safeguard reserves. He has been called "Singapore's No 1 diplomat" as ambassadors and high commissioners accredited to Singapore present their credentials to him.

The president's election is usually a non-event in the country's relatively mild political landscape, but this year's poll received much more attention because of its unique timing, just three months after the watershed election in May in which the PAP won 60.1% of the votes, its lowest percentage ever, although it still won 81 of the 87 seats in parliament.

Many saw the presidential election as a referendum to confirm support for the PAP government or to check the size of the PAP's core support. Unlike in the past, the PAP government no longer openly endorses any candidate. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, however, singled out Tan as "eminently qualified" and "a very good candidate", and it was widely accepted that Tan was the preferred candidate of the establishment. Tan's victory could therefore cement the position of the PAP as the preferred hand for running the country.

The 71-year-old Tan has over 27 years of experience in parliament, having served in various ministries, including security and defense, education and finance. He also served as deputy prime minister under Goh Chok Tong.

As a part of the PAP's inner circle, he was until recently the executive director and deputy chairman of Singapore's main sovereign fund, the Government of Singapore Investment Corp, and chairman of state-owned Singapore Press Holdings. The island state's first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, openly said in the late 1980s that Tan was his first choice to succeed him as prime minister, but Tan declined.

The road to presidency was not easy, though. His campaign met much cynicism and confrontation, especially from the anti-establishment online community. Immediately after he announced his candidacy, allegations arose online about his son, Patrick Tan, whose compulsory two-year military national service was deferred by 12 years while his father was minister of defense. Tan was jeered and booed in some quarters while delivering his nomination-day speech.

"There is this momentum effect from the general election," said Bridget Welsh, a political science professor at the Singapore Management University. "For somebody with his credentials and support from the unions, we would have expected a more comfortable margin for Tony Tan. But he won with an extremely narrow margin, a sign that people are speaking up against the Lee Kuan Yew elite-type of old PAP."

In the May election, PAP campaigns bore the brunt of many people's rising dissent and angst over the cost of living, a high influx of foreign workers and soaring property and rental prices.

Although presidential runner-up Tan Cheng Bock is also from the PAP, his support base is distinctly different from Tan's, which contributed to his high support, Welsh said. "Tan Cheng Bock has his supporters from the grassroots and [a wider range of] sectors of society [which] shows that people prefer a PAP that is more accessible, more connected and more consultative," she said.

Independence of PAP

Probably aware of the growing disenchantment in some sectors with the ruling party as seen in the May elections all four presidential candidates tried to distance themselves from the government of the day by emphasizing their independence from the PAP.

Tony Tan and Tan Cheng Bock had a harder time proving their independence, having been long-time PAP members. On many occasions, they reminded the public how they had spoken up against their PAP colleagues. Tan Cheng Bock said he had spoken against the scheme that allows a limited number of people to enter parliament without fighting an election.

Tony Tan, meanwhile, told how as education minister he had opposed a scheme in which the government would give education and housing priorities, tax rebates and other benefits to mothers with a university degree, as well as their children; the parliamentary debate that ensued resulted in the plan being abolished.

Tan Kin Lian and Tan Jee Say had an easier time in stating their independence; the former has never run for any election for any party, while the latter has never been a member of PAP. Tan Kin Lian said he wanted to be the "voice of the people", regardless of their political association, while Tan Jee Say said he wanted to be a "check and balance" for the PAP government.

Analysts said they were rather surprised by the 25% of votes garnered by newcomer Tan Jee Say, who first came to prominence in April when introduced as a candidate under the Singapore Democratic Party's opposition banner in the May elections.

"It is a clear sign that Singaporeans want a more plural political system, ie one in which no party is predominant," said Reuben Wong, assistant professor, Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS). "This democratic transition has already happened in many Asian countries that used to have dominant one-party systems [such as in] Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea and Indonesia. Malaysia and Singapore are likely next," he said.

Stability over change

The timing of the election may be an advantage for Tan, said analysts. The global economy faces uncertain times and Singapore is on the brink of a technical recession after recording negative growth in the June quarter. In such circumstances, conservative and pragmatic Singaporeans choose stability over change, and Tony Tan with his wide experience in the financial sector had an edge over his rivals.

Businessman Lee Choon Hong attested to this. He voted for the opposition in the May elections, but on Saturday he "put his money" on Tony Tan.

"I choose people who are good. Among all the candidates this time, Tony Tan is the best. He's very knowledgeable and will be able to solve economic problems. He's also from the government, so he can work very well with the prime minister in [times of trouble]," he said.

Two days before the election, Tony Tan's campaign received support from the business community. The Singapore Business Federation expressed the hope that Singaporeans would send a strong message for "stability and economic rationality" when voting because the result would affect businessmen's decisions on whether to invest or expand operations in Singapore.

Singapore retailers also put their weight behind Tony Tan, saying he was the best person to ensure a stable business environment, so "we would like to encourage everyone to vote for Tony Tan", the 300-member Singapore Retailers Association's president Jannie Chan told local media.

Three out of four unions linked to the labor movement in Singapore also endorsed Tan. Lim Swee Say, the secretary general of the National Trades Union Congress, said unions wanted a president who could boost Singapore's international standing to bring in foreign investment. They said they preferred a candidate with a track record of contributing to job-creation and who had shown the ability to work constructively with the government.

Tony Tan talked in great detail about the economic problems in the United States and Europe, warning repeatedly about "dark clouds" on the horizon. He asked voters to choose a president who was "tested, trusted, true" to ensure "confidence for the future".

Singapore's choice of stability over change becomes clear when the votes for Tony Tan and Tan Cheng Bock are added together to reach 70%.

Despite the largely ceremonial role of the president, many people have expressed concern over the weak mandate earned by Tony Tan. Even the state-owned Straits Times reminded readers that "close to two-thirds [of voters] rebuffed him".

"This was an intensely fought four-way contest. [Even after the campaign period], there was no clear choice of a candidate who could achieve 50% of the votes in a one-round, first-past-the-post system," said academic Wong from NUS.

The opposition Reform Party has floated the idea of amending the constitution to allow for a run-off election, that is, a second round of voting where one candidate fails to gain an overall majority in the first round.

"The people have spoken and a clear majority has said that they want another president other than the current winner," Reform Party secretary general Kenneth Jeyaretnam said.

"Unlike the government, which only needs a bare majority of seats in parliament, the president should unite Singaporeans of all political persuasions and views. To do this, he needs to be elected by a clear majority of votes cast and not just on an almost statistically insignificant difference between him and the runner-up," Jeyaretnam said.

Prime Minister Lee has appealed for unity following the intense campaigning. "Now that the election is over, we should all come together again as Singaporeans, to tackle the challenges that Singapore faces, and take our nation forward," Lee said.

Tony Tan said after his victory was announced that his priority was to unite an electorate that is polarized in its political views.

"The president is the president for all Singaporeans, not only for those who have voted for me," he said. "I pledge to work my utmost for each and every Singaporean, whatever be their political affiliation."

[Megawati Wijaya is a Singapore-based journalist. She may be contacted at megawati.wijaya@gmail.com.]

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