Singapore’s liberals are going to be very upset with me, but of all the Presidential candidates running for Singapore’s highest office, Dr Tony Tan is easily the most qualified. The man has that distinguished, dignified (though he admittedly looks better in the media than in the flesh) look that makes him perfect for the largely ceremonial post.
His experiences as the head of Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC), Deputy Prime Minister and most recently Chairman of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) have given him the experience of dealing with large sums of money and the bureaucratic machinery that the President is expected to be able to handle.
As a Minister, Dr Tan was regarded as one of the “good guys.” He was close enough to the top but also had a reputation for having an independent mind. Even passionate “anti-PAP” voters like my mother who advised us “Vote for anyone EXCEPT the PAP,” take the position of “Vote for TONY.”
So, when you add up all these factors, the Presidential Race is Dr Tan’s to lose. His performance is almost flawless – when the other candidates blab on about how independent minded they’ll be, Dr Tan has rightly pointed out that he’s running for an office that exist rather than an office that he wishes he had. What could sound more reasonable than that?
Well, unfortunately for Dr Tan, he may well lose an election that was his for the taking. The reason boils down to a “Question of Service.” Nobody is questioning Dr Tan’s unquestionable service to the nation – instead the world is questioning the service of his son, Dr Patrick Tan.
The story is simple. When Dr Tan Senior was Defence Minister in the middle 1990s, his son Patrick enlisted for National Service. He disrupted his service to go abroad for studies (which is acceptable and done). When he returned from his studies, he mysteriously ended up being posted into some obscure unit to study – soil (How did he get that posting?). Somehow, the younger Dr Tan not only found a way to get a cushy job during his full time service – there’s even the question of how much reservist time he actually served.
This doesn’t bode well for Dr Tony Tan. Suddenly his record for decent service is looking less decent. As far as most of us are concerned, it can’t be a coincidence that Dr Patrick Tan’s National Service ended up in “cushy” land when his father was Defence Minister. How is it that none of his sons served a day of their National Service in a combat unit? What does this mean? Simply put – in a theoretical war situation, none of the Tan boys will be on the front line.
To be fair to Dr Tony Tan and his son’s, this is part of the system – it’s called the “White Horse” system. Children of prominent figures in society are marked out before they enter National Service. The official reasoning given by a former Minister of State for Defence was, “So that people will NOT give them special treatment.” Poor old Cedric Foo was dubbed “Cedric Fool.”
Sorry, anyone who has been through National Service (Most MEN) knows that is blatantly not true. You notice it in small things like – how some people never do push-ups for the same thing you do or how is it that some companies mysteriously get certain privileges that the rest of the battalion don’t. One of the biggest areas where you notice the “White Horses” comes from postings. How do some people end up in some jobs while others do not?
This is a systematic issue rather than a personal issue. By and large, the majority of “White Horses” are very nice people and they’ve been brought up to be embarrassed by the treatment that the system accords them. I take my former Deputy Manpower Officer (Dy S1), who is the son of a former Member of Parliament – you couldn’t find a nicer person than him. He remains a humble and gentle person. The “real” White Horses are humble and find themselves in an embarrassing position every time they’re signalled for special treatment.
So, in many ways, you can’t blame Dr Patrick Tan for getting a “cushy” National Service posting. Chances are, he never asked for it – it was handed to him on a plate and he took it. Simply put, who wouldn’t take something decent if it was offered to them? There are good chances that Dr Tony Tan never ordered anyone or even suggested to anyone that he wanted his sons to get cushy jobs.
Having said that, the incident reflects very poorly on Dr Tan and if he loses the election, this will be the very things that will rightfully does it. It has shown that Dr Tan is either very naïve or at worst, his integrity is questionable.
Let’s start with the obvious. When you want to climb the political ladder in a country that prides itself in having no corruption – its not enough to non-corrupt – you have to be seen to be non-corrupt. As Defence Minister, Dr Tan had to be aware that his son’s posting might be a controversial topic. Dr Tan has to this date made not one effort to show how he distanced himself from his son’s posting.
It’s not that difficult to do. Look at the way Mr Lee Kuan Yew got our current Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong into politics. He got his deputies, S.Rajaratnam and Goh Keng Swee to bring him into the party. Then, when he handed over power, he handed it to Goh Chok Tong, who was Prime Minister for 14-years. The cynics will still point out that there had to be some political manoeuvrings there – but you can’t actually pin-point anything on the Lees.
The Elder Mr Lee has also made it clear that he didn’t want his children to be “spoilt.” The Lee Family in Singapore is a tightly run ship and other than the Lees in politics – the others stay out of the limelight in the way that the Suhartos in Indonesia were never able to. Mr Lee has somehow ensured that there are enough urban myths floating around of how he doesn’t tolerate certain kinds of behaviour. One of them comes from an old school teacher who attended my grandmother’s wake. She tells a story of how she threatened to cane Lee Hsien Yang, younger brother of Prime Minister Lee. The Young Boy had threatened the school with “You know how my father is?” The story goes that the Prime Minister came down from the Istana, ordered the Principal to summon the school and promptly canned the boy in front of everyone. Message – just because he’s my son, I won’t allow you to give him perks.
Dr Tan could easily have done something similar. All he had to do was to point out how removed he was from the selection process. Cynics may not have been appeased but at least it would be a better answer than what’s been given now – “It’s all a pack of lies.”
This then leads to the next nail in Dr Tan’s proverbial coffin. He has shown that he simply doesn’t get communication. Thanks to the internet and social media platforms like Facebook – communications is a two-way street.
Dr Tan has had the advantage over the other candidates in terms of main stream media coverage. I saw the Presidential Debate on TV and he actually did better than the rest. That was the easy part – he had the machine to control the messaging in the main stream. Unfortunately, the game is quite different in cyberspace. This was something that the PAP machinery failed to realise until it was too late in the last election.
Dr Tan’s team has done a poor job of communicating in cyberspace. When the story of the younger Dr Tan’s posting was broken online – the reaction time in responding to the story was pretty slow. Instead of responding calmly, rationally and persistently, Dr Tan’s team went as far as to take down his Facebook page. Yes, people on the next can be nasty, crude and unreasonable. However, you still need to face them and as long as you keep your cool and stay objective – you can win them over. Taking down your Facebook page on the other hand is tantamount to admitting defeat – it’s like burning down the walls of a conquered city. – This isn’t exactly the reaction of a man you would expect of a man who is touting the value of a steady hand.
Then there’s the final response of Dr Tan and his sons – namely to accuse people online of deliberately trying to malign them and the institution of National Service. Sorry, it’s not going to work.
They are reacting to a story that broke online. As such, everyone is more inclined to believe the online story than to blame them. The facts are such – all the boys got cushy national service jobs when the father was Minister of Defence. The questions remain. Did Dr Tan exercise undue influence to get his sons cushy jobs? How did things happen? Dr Tan has dismissed this as a pack of lies as have his sons. Erm, sorry that’s not good enough. It’s not good enough to say – “I’m great – believe me.” You need to show why your version is the believable one. Dr Tan hasn’t done this and it should be no surprise why he was booed when he gave his acceptance speech.
Politics in Singapore is getting rougher and the ruling party cannot expect its mandate to be taken for granted. It seemed that the Prime Minister understood the message after the General Election. Unfortunately, the lessons seem lost on his preferred Presidential Candidate.
Dr Tan may yet win this election. He should pray that the older generations and those who are not active online come out and vote for the virtues he once represented. However, even if he wins the Presidential Election, as most suspect he will, he needs to answer some questions and he needs to be convincing – otherwise he can expect some dark clouds to hang over any presidency he may have