The Singaporean Presidential Election is looking set to get interesting. A day after the former head of the insurance arm of the National Trade Union Congress (yes, we have a union – it sells products to the workers) decided to enter the fray, the incumbent decided to drop a few hints about his wanting to stay on.
President SR Nathan, who has been President for the last 12-years, was in Mauritius when he dropped his hint. He mentioned that he has worked quietly despite what his critics had said and he mentioned that he was aware of his constitutional limits. So what exactly is going on here?
The last time Mr Nathan faced an election, he made some noises about how he was getting on and wanted to rest. Then he said that we had to “Ask God,” if he should run and then he ran and won an uncontested election.
So, has Mr Nathan decided that he likes being in the Istana after all? Well, in a way you can’t blame him. Mr Nathan receives some S$4 million a year in salary and since he spends time on State business, a good portion of that money has been his to keep.
We also have to except the possibility that Mr Nathan has done a fairly good job and the prospect of his Presidency being extended is unlikely to cause harm to Singapore. Unlike the other recently retired Octogenarian, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Nathan is not in the position to influence executive decisions and he’s been good at the ceremonial aspects of the job. He has shown genuine warmth for the people. He’s looked dignified when he’s supposed to and he says, he knows the limits of the job.
So, what’s the big deal about Mr Nathan running for a third term, especially if he’s been good at his job? One might argue that Mr Nathan who is turning 87 is getting on a bit and the prospects that he might die in office is very real. However, given that we have an aging population that feels left out by a society obsessed with youth, having a man who works till he dies is not a bad thing.
Let’s face it, we should not stop Mr Nathan from running again and we should be open to the possibility that he might actually be what we need – a dignified symbol of continuity in times of rapid change.
However, it would be a shame if Mr Nathan left things at that. He has an opportunity to provide moral leadership on one of the most pressing issues in society today – the question of the aged. Singapore as we have been constantly reminded is an aging society.
Despite our professed love of Asian Values – we have a shockingly horrible disregard for the elderly in our society. This “Asian” society of ours is the only place where young and educated people will pretend to fall asleep in their seats on the bus or subway rather than to give up their seats for old. That is unfortunately only a visible sign of how the old are regarded in Singapore. Age discrimination is rife in employment and social services. Grandparents have to work at McDonald’s counters because they don’t have enough money to survive.
While nobody expects Mr Nathan to create executive policies on the topic, Mr Nathan should spend his time leading a move to change our social perceptions of the old. Mr Nathan in his position of President is the ideal person to do this. As President he shows that Old People can still work without interfering with the day-to-day running of the lives of the young.
What are the things that Mr Nathan could do? For a start, he should throw the weight and prestige of the Presidency behind institutions that cater to the old. When an old folk’s home opens, he should rush to visit. When a corporation comes up with an aged empowerment program he should rush to give the CEO a plaque.
Then he needs to get creative in the way that Prince Charles has got creative championing his causes. In the UK, we have the Princes Trust, which has helped troubled teens down the productive path of entrepreneurship. Can’t we have something similar in Singapore?
Can you imagine if you had an organisation that helped “pensioners” fend for themselves? As the government has pointed out, many old people do want to work – if not for the money, and then it’s for the feeling of remaining useful. My late grandmother used to complain on a daily basis that one of the worst things about growing old was the feeling of being useless.
Mr Nathan would be an ideal champion of an organisation that helped old people to help themselves. He has the financial resources to start funding things on a personal basis. His time in the Presidency (assuming he does not run again) has provided him with a circle of influential people who could ensure the better ideas that such an organisation would provide can become real.
Now that Mr Lee has “retired,” we need another symbol for active aging and Mr Nathan is the ideal position to take over. Is there a better way for Mr Nathan to secure his legacy as a much loved President than to become the champion of the aged? He’s been given a generous pension – he has the chance to extend his pension – why shouldn’t he spend his remaining days by helping others keep their pensions?