A close presidential election confirms the growing rift between the ruling party and the public, writes Asia Research Centre’s Garry Rodan
Singapore’s presidential election last Saturday selected a new occupant for a largely ceremonial position. Yet the election’s conduct and outcome have wider political implications. Both highlighted tensions within the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) over the dominance of an elitist structure and ideology which is increasingly seen by many party members as an electoral liability.
The winner, Tony Tan, secured only 32.72% of the vote, prevailing by a mere 0.34%, or 7,269 of the 2.1 million votes cast by Singaporean citizens. This was despite his being the “establishment” candidate endorsed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and a host of PAP-affiliated organizations in a notionally non-party political contest.
It’s a surprising result given how utterly unsurprising presidential elections in the city-state are supposed to be. Past polls have been determined with little or no controversy. Outgoing President S.R. Nathan went uncontested in 1999 and 2005 and his predecessor, former PAP minister Ong Teng Cheong, won with a decisive margin of 16 percentage points in 1993. Highly restrictive eligibility criteria favor establishment figures.
Indeed the office in its current form, created in 1991, was supposed to offer the PAP a bulwark against the possibility that a freak result in a general election would usher in a large number of opposition members of parliament. The presidency was vested with veto power over any spending of accumulated government reserves (currently estimated at $250 billion) and the ability to make key public service appointments.
Yet in this weekend’s vote, the prime minister’s endorsement and the nod from PAP-linked trade unions— not to mention favorable treatment from government-controlled media—may have cost Mr. Tan as many votes as it gained. Mr. Tan’s establishment credentials as a former deputy prime minister and executive director of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, a sovereign wealth fund, actually increased the challenges of persuading voters that he would be best placed to scrutinize the PAP executive through custodial powers.
The lackluster support he garnered was not so much a statement about his personal standing (he remains well-respected) as a reaction against the PAP’s perceived arrogance and political paternalism. The image of a monolithic party-state directed by political elites picking electoral winners alienates an increasing number of voters.
The other three candidates gained significant traction with voters by trumpeting their determination to make the presidency a watchdog of sorts on the government. This might not be surprising coming from Tan Jee Say, who had contested the previous parliamentary election as an opposition candidate, and ended up in a distant third place on Saturday. But the theme was picked up by Tan Cheng Bock, a former PAP backbencher who came in second, and Tan Kin Lian, former head of an insurance cooperative and a PAP member for 30 years, who placed fourth.Read more.