Election season ended with one of the most memorable elections in history. As expected, former Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, won the election to be Singapore’s next president. For once, there was no need to qualify political adjectives with the phrase, “By Singapore Standards.” The winning margin of 0.34 percent or some 8,000 votes out of over two-million cast was as narrow as its gets nearly everywhere else. How did this happen in a place where elections usually means life carries on as usual and results are more predictable than weather in the Sahara? What does this mean for politics in Singapore?
Well, let’s start with the obvious. The vast majority of voters are still with the establishment and good old fashioned things like a reputation for reliability and political smarts as well as help from the main stream media help.
For most of us, Dr Tony Tan was the “preferred” candidate of the government. Both Prime Minister and Emeritus Senior Minister had said nice things about him and suddenly the mainstream media started giving his views on things as minor as toilet paper quality an unexplainable amount of attention. However, that didn’t deter us from liking him. Enough voters remembered Dr Tan as a minister and he was remembered for being likeable enough. The man only retired from the cabinet in 2005. Our last memory of his cabinet performance was taking a different stance from the cabinet during the debate on building casinos – hence the image of him being a senior member of government who dared disagree with the main stream remained.
Even his weaknesses were explainable. As Executive Director of the Government Investment Corporation (GIC), he was subordinate to the Chairman, who happened to be Lee Kuan Yew, our founding Prime Minister and former Minister Mentor. Hence it was possible to argue that he wasn’t the main decision maker when GIC decided to invest heavily in the then loss making Citigroup and UBS. His most serious weakness, namely the question of his sons rather cushy National Service career was accepted by the silent majority – yes, we know there’s a White Horse system and Tony’s boy wasn’t doing anything worse than what other White Horses did and do.
Then there was his performance during the campaign. He spoke intelligently enough and displayed enough gravitas for people to accept that he was “Tried and Tested” enough to have as the symbolic helm. On a personal basis, I liked the fact that he made the point that it is important to “Run for the office that exist rather than what you’d like it to be.”
Say what you like about the man but he is aware of the realities of being a public figure. There are more than enough forums outlining how he’s shifted position of various policies and that he’s not as independent as he’s making himself out to be. Could he be, as one blogger put it – “A double headed snake?” Well, perhaps he is – but then again, is he merely doing what needs to be done in politics to get the job done?
Much as the post of President in Singapore is ceremonial and the President should be above the petty squabbles of politics – having a President who knows how the game is played is useful and in many cases acceptable. Idealism is admired in politics – naivety is a dangerous trait in a national leader – even if that leader is primarily symbolic.
I take all of these factors into account and despite my misgivings about the way he’s handled the question of his son’s National Service record – he was and is the most qualified of all the four candidates. In that respect, I believe that the best man did win on the night.
However, while Singaporeans were willing to give Dr Tony Tan a chance at the polls, we have to look at his margin of victory. By all accounts, Dr Tony Tan has to consider himself a very lucky man. He is President by virtue of the “First-Past-The-Post” system we inherited from the UK.
This system means the person who gets the job is simply the person who gets the most votes rather than the person who receives the largest share of the votes. If you look at the UK as an example, even the most prominent leaders like Mrs Thatcher or her Labour Predecessors of the 1970s never won a lot more than forty percent of total votes cast. They merely won more votes than their contenders. Is this system necessarily fair? No, it isn’t.
However, the British system has produced relatively stable governments than many nations on the continent using “proportional representation” systems which are better at reflecting the national share of the vote. Britain’s current coalition is the first of its kind in living memory or at least amongst people my age.
Dr Tony Tan is President because he won the most votes on the night. He is not President because the majority voted for him. If you look at the numbers – nearly two thirds of the electorate didn’t. Luckily for Dr Tony Tan, this is a competition of individuals and not parties – if it were, the other three candidates could easily have kept him in the cold by forming a coalition against him.
What does this mean? Well, I’d say that the message is similar to the one delivered at the General Election. Singaporeans generally like the establishment as it is – it’s done a fairly good job on the macro-level. However, we think the establishment needs to listen to us and show a bit more concern about us. To make sure the powers that be get the message – hit them where it hurts most – placing a few more opposition leaders in parliament.
We all saw Dr Tan as the establishment candidate but he was more than that. He was a qualified candidate for a post that in many ways is a waste of his qualifications. We’re willing to give him a chance.
However, we want Dr Tan to remember that he works for us – “The Electorate.” The margin of victory is so narrow that Dr Tan cannot escape the fact that he’s only president by luck. Face it, he had all the advantages, yet he had a wafer thin majority. The message to him is clear – “you’ve got to make us happy.”
This will be a test for Dr Tan. On one hand he has to face his former colleagues in cabinet who will undoubtedly remind him that his scope to do anything is limited. If you read the constitution, the President only has powers to say “no” to the government on certain occasions. He is legally obliged to do whatever he’s told to by the government. However, he also faces a growing number of young voters and netizens who want him to be “independent” in his thoughts. There’s also the fact that the older voters who supported him could easily defect to his nearest rival – Dr Tan Cheng Bok, former Member of Parliament for Ayer Rajah.
The other Dr Tan had a powerful and very appealing message – “Singaporeans first – Unifying Singaporeans.” Like Dr Tony Tan, Dr Tan Cheng Bok has been in politics for a long time. He is familiar with the workings of the ruling party and while he may not have had Dr Tony Tan’s experiences of dealing with the cabinet and in policy formation – he was far closer to the ground and his record of putting nation before party is unquestionable. This man stood up and voted against the “NCMP and NMP” (Non-Constituency Member of Parliament and Nominated Member of Parliament) schemes despite the fact that the party whip was in place (Whips in the Westminster tradition are legalised party thugs – they “persuade” MPs to vote along with party decisions rather than with their individual conscience).
The man showed an incredible grasp of what the ground wanted. Simply put – we, the people feel like second class citizens in our own land and we can’t help feeling that there’s a Singapore for some and a Singapore for others. Dr Tan Cheng Bok’s offer to put us first is appealing. Then, as my favourite Young Politician from Pasir Ris GRC says, “Lots of people in the PAP support him and he had plenty of supporters in the Workers Party.” If you chat to enough voters, you’ll find that the main difference between the Dr Tan’s is the fact that Dr Tony had a higher national profile. Should he mess up, we would happily vote for Dr Tan Cheng Bok instead.
If Dr Tony Tan is smart, he’ll offer Dr Tan Cheng Bok a seat of Council of Presidential Advisors. This is the body that the President has to listen to when he doesn’t have to listen to the government. The principle is simple – “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” By doing this, Dr Tony Tan will bring Dr Tan Cheng Bok and his supporters into his camp. This is a move that the Prime Minister will have to support. Dr Tan Cheng Bok may not have been his preferred choice – but the election results are such that he cannot afford to alienate Dr Tan Cheng Bok, either on the national level or even within party lines (Dr Tan was once elected into his seat with some 88 percent of votes cast in his constituency.)
Of the two candidates who were not former members of the party, the most interesting one is Tan Jee Say. Mr Tan was a high flying scholar, who moved into the private sector and later into politics.
He ran on a campaign of making the President an office that provides “Checks and Balances” on a very powerful government. While the constitution as it stands does not allow the President much room for manoeuvre, Mr Tan has rightfully suggested that the government will have to think twice before challenging a President who has a democratic mandate. Let’s face it, the President is elected by every member of the electorate – the Prime Minister is only voted in by his constituents. Mr Tan is also right to point out that part of the reason for making the Presidency an elected post was to put a check on potentially spendthrift government.
The message is appealing. Mr Tan is not. Let’s face it, what exactly is Mr Tan’s record of public service? He gained some attention during the General Election and then, when he didn’t get his seat, he happily resigned from the party (Singapore Democratic) to run for the Presidency. If he was that interested in “serving the people” or acting as a “Check and Balance” surely he would focused on building his party into a force credible enough to take on the ruling party in parliament rather than going for the Presidency, which is primarily ceremonial?”
Power in Singapore comes from control of parliament. If you want to limit the powers of the current government, you need to start with a seat in parliament. Winning one seat as an opposition is tough but it isn’t impossible. Mr Low Thia Khiang, leader of the Workers Party understood this well enough. He held onto Hougang for nearly two-decades, building up a track record as a person who could look after the electorate. He waited and took his time and when the ruling party was vulnerable, he struck. We cannot rule out the possibility that Mr Low has the potential to be a potential Prime Minister, should the ruling party ever fail. People will trust him because he’s built up from the ground.
The more perceptive will realise that Mr Tan is hopping to parachute himself into high office. First he joins a political party – then when it doesn’t win, he rushes into another election where he thinks he can use their ideas. This smacks of political opportunism. In the investment banking scene, you could argue that opportunism is a good thing. However, you are talking about politics what is usually a conservative country. Jumping from here to there smacks of political opportunism rather than genuine interest in the public.
Furthermore, while Mr Tan was never a member of the ruling party, he was a senior member of the civil service. Sure, the ruling party will think twice about blackmailing him (he knows where the proverbial bodies are buried) but the converse is also true. He cannot claim to be “guilt-free” of the “sins” of the government.
The image of Mr Tan’s blatant sense of political opportunism was most clearly visible when he started complaining about how the campaign period was too short for him to correct his image of being confrontational. May be he is right. However, his complaint makes him sound like a spoilt child. Sorry, politics is a rough game. The guys in power have the advantage of choosing when elections take place. You either enter the game on their side or you learn to fight by the rules they set. Mr Tan new full well that the Presidential Election would come after the General One. He should started building his brand equity much earlier. Say what you like about media bias but the man is also at fault.
Having said all of that, Mr Tan is highly intelligent. His ideas are worth listening to and despite being a relative novice; Mr Tan did win the votes of one in four Singaporeans. He cannot be underestimated.
What can Dr Tan do? Well, the answer is simple – take his better ideas, repackage them and sell them as your own. Ideas in politics are not copyright and as long as you are in power, you have the means of putting them into action.
Look at Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Both came from parties known as being closer to the socialist left than the business right. However, both the New Democrats and New Labour took ideas shamelessly from their right wing opponents and made them their own. Both Clinton and Blair spoke of “economic growth” with a kinder face. George Bush II who was an awful President but a first rate Governor of Texas was also good at this – think of his “Compassionate Conservatism.”
Dr Tan with the backing of the Prime Minister should look at how he can “borrow” some of Mr Tan’s ideas and make them their own.
Finally, there was Mr Tan Kin Lian, former CEO of NTUC Income, our largest insurance cooperative. Mr Tan noticed the way things were going and quickly conceded defeat. As he predicted – he lost his deposit.
In way, one is tempted to feel sorry for this Mr Tan. However, he deserved it. Mr Tan made much of his experience running the insurance cooperative. Halfway through the campaign, he lost the plot. He made wild promises about donating half his salary to the public and how he would raise the wages of pensioners and National Servicemen. – Nice gesture – but the President simply has no authority to do this. Purse strings are controlled by the Ministry of Finance and the President is merely a gatekeeper on past reserves – he does not allocate revenue. Hard to trust someone who has no idea which office he’s running for.
Dr Tony Tan has won a tight fought race for an office with very limited scope. He has, however, cards he can play. He needs to read the public mood correctly and play his cards accordingly if he wants to make this Presidency the shinning star of his brilliant career.