After a lifetime of not having to vote, Singaporeans are currently in a happy vote fest. Three-months after voting in a General Election, we are about to vote for a new President. At the time of writing, Singapore only has two more days of actual campaigning before polling day on August 27, 2011.
While the Presidential Election hasn’t generated the same excitement as the General one, there has been quite a bit of discussion in the chat-rooms and in the coffee shops on which of the four Tans running for the highest office in the land is best suited for the job. On the surface of things, the talk about who is going to be President is interesting. If you look at the office of the President, it’s basically a ceremonial one or if you want to be unkind – a redundant one.
Despite all the chatter about the various powers that the President holds, real power, as in most Commonwealth Countries, lies in the hands of the Prime Minister as the leader of the largest party in parliament. Like the British Monarch, the only perk that Singapore’s President actually has over the Prime Minister is at ceremonial occasions (Actually, its less fun – the sovereign can keep a Prime Minister standing as he or she delivers her report, the President by contrast only has a bigger chair on National Day).
The Singapore Constitution has been written in such a way that the President can do lots of things – ON THE ADVICE OF THE PRIME MINISTER. What does that mean in plain speak? Simply put, the President can only do what he’s told to by the Prime Minister.
However, sometime in the 1990s, the constitution was changed to make the Presidency an elected one (the President is the only individual elected by EVERY Singaporean – the Prime Minister is only elected by his constituents) and to give the President some areas where he’s allowed to act on his own discretion – namely in the two key areas of vetoing the drawing down on past reserves and on the appointment on certain key civil service appointments. While the President may not have to “ACT ON ADVICE OF THE PRIME MINISTER” in these areas – he needs to ‘CONSULT THE COUNCIL OF PRESIDENTIAL ADVISORS.’ What exactly is that? A council of the great and good who help the President know what he’s doing. One doesn’t exactly need to point out that Parliament has a say in influencing who gets on this council of great and the good.
The lack of actual powers of the President is so well known that incumbent was known to make cryptic remarks like “Ask God” when he was asked if he was going to run for a second term, a few weeks after he said he wouldn’t. One of his predecessors even went as far as to call the Prime Minister of the day – “Boss” whenever they were in private. In return for knowing who’s boss, the President is well rewarded – like the British Monarch, the President is looked after by a Civil List – this means a small salary of S$4 million plus.
So, why does anyone really care about who becomes the President? I mean, as long as the President looks reasonably dignified and waves on National Day, why should anyone care who becomes President?
I suspect the reason is simple. This is the only other chance we’re ever going to get to slap the government for the next five-years. As I have often said and many would probably agree with me – the Singapore government has done about 70 – 80 percent of things right. So, most Singaporeans are in no rush to kick out the government.
Where most of us get ‘cheesed off’ with the powers that be, comes in the form of style. As a visiting school friend of mine was said, “Singapore is run like Churchers – it’s a giant school.” Listen to enough government official communications and you’ll get the feeling that you’re reading a school report. “We the teachers are smart – you the kiddies don’t know what is good for you so listen to us.”
That was tolerable when they were getting things right. However, in the last few years, they’ve been less right than usual. One only has to think about Mas Selamat, the limping man who waltzed out of a secure facility and only caught a year later by …..Malaysians. The government was simply out of tune with the ground. What was more frightening than the actual gaff was the arrogance of officialdom. Instead of apologising – we, the public were consistently reprimanded for expecting ministers to resign instead of being satisfied with the sacking of two Ghurkhas.
So, when it came to the last General Election, we put the ruling party back into power with a heavy mandate (60 percent) but we gave the opposition more seats. For the ruling party, this was a slap in the face. Suddenly, the Prime Minister got rid of the ministers we wanted him to get rid off and started looking into the issues that we wanted him to address. – A good chunk of the electorate now gets it – slap the government at the polls and they listen.
Unfortunately for the powers that be, this feeling may actually move to the Presidential election. Yes, the President can’t do much but we, the electorate can send the sharp reminder to the government that we can hurt them by not voting in their preferred candidate – or at least giving the preferred candidate such a nasty scare that he remembers who’s boss when he’s in the Istana. Poor Dr Tony Tan is currently suffering from this reaction. This former Deputy Prime Minister was once regarded as one of the “good guys,” – he was thought of as an “Independent Thinker.” However, once the Prime Minister and “Senior Minister Emeritus,” started saying nice things about how great he was as a potential President – the internet crowd started digging up dirt on the man. Now, the interesting thing about Dr Tan is how is how his son managed to get posted to cushy job as a Defence Scientist when he was Defence Minister.
Is it fair for Dr Tan? Well, it may not be but then again, the government hasn’t exactly been fair when it comes to the presidency either.
Let’s start with the obvious – the criterion of who can be President isn’t exactly fair to begin with. One of the key requirements to run for President is that you must have either been a minister or a CEO of a company with a paid-up capital and turn-over of S$100 million. That instantly disqualifies quite a few people. Then, when you look at that criteria, you’ll understand that the people who can run either won’t or they’re going to be exceedingly conservative – you don’t get to those positions by rocking the boat. Let’s face it; of the two candidates who are not former members of the ruling party, one of them was a former civil servant and the other the CEO of the Insurance Cooperative – which is to all intents and purposes an arm of the government.
No matter how much the candidates talk about being “independent” of the government, it’s hard to believe them. It’s easy to dismiss this as “saying anything to get the job.”
However, to be fair to the candidates – there is at the very least some semblance of competition. During the last election for President, the candidate was unopposed. Everyone else who made the grade decided not to run. The one person, who tried to run, didn’t make the grade – he was a CFO rather than a CEO. The fact that he didn’t make the grade would have given the government the result it wanted. However, that wasn’t enough – they had to dig into his past and publish his dirt – which included things like disputes he had with his condominium management committee a decade ago.
We the public simply don’t want elections being ‘fixed.’ Other countries have survived with different centres of power and as far as most of us are concerned, there is no reason for one group to have unquestioned power.
We also remember the treatment of the last President who did what he was supposed to do. The late President Ong was a former Deputy Prime Minister who believed that he had a job to do, no matter what the government thought or felt. He gave a public press conference about the teething problems he had with the government. Didn’t actually make any allegations but he provided an independent view on what was going on. Somehow that was a bit too much for the powers that be – somehow, when the man died of cancer, there was a “committee” that decided he would not be accorded a State Funeral – surely this is something that would be considered an automatic given for a former Head of State.
In many ways, who wins the election is not important. The candidates are generally accepted as decent people who would do justice to the job. What is important, however, is whether this Presidential election is the beginning of a new way of doing things? Will the government accept that it is no longer the unquestioned authority on all matters in the country? Could this be the beginning of government being about a conversation of equals rather than between the great and good with the dull and obedient?