SINGAPORE - Former deputy prime minister Tony Tan was elected as Singapore's
seventh president in a closely fought four-cornered election on Saturday.
Garnering a majority vote of 35% of the total votes, many see Tan's weak
mandate as a sign that the political grip of the long-ruling People's Action
Party (PAP) is loosening amid growing calls for change in the increasingly
divided political landscape.
Tan won 35.19% of the 2.1 million valid votes cast, edging over his closest
rival, medical doctor and long-term member of parliament Tan Cheng Bock, by
just 7,269 votes - a mere 0.34% margin, with the votes having to be recounted
to ensure accuracy.
An investment adviser who fought under the opposition banner in May's general
election, Tan Jee Say, won 25.04% of the total votes. Coming in last was former
chief executive of insurer NTUC
Income, Tan Kin Lian, who garnered 4.91% of the votes.
Tony Tan becomes only the second president winning office in a contested
election in Singapore's history, after Ong Teng Cheong won in 1993. Current
president S R Nathan was uncontested in the elections in 1999 and 2005.
The president in Singapore serves as a largely ceremonial head of state. He has
to act according to the advice of the cabinet, but holds certain veto powers
over key government appointments, detention and investigations, as well as the
second key to safeguard reserves. He has been called "Singapore's No 1
diplomat" as ambassadors and high commissioners accredited to Singapore present
their credentials to him.
The president's election is usually a non-event in the country's relatively
mild political landscape, but this year's poll received much more attention
because of its unique timing, just three months after the watershed election in
May in which the PAP won 60.1% of the votes, its lowest percentage ever,
although it still won 81 of the 87 seats in parliament.
Many saw the presidential election as a referendum to confirm support for the
PAP government or to check the size of the PAP's core support. Unlike in the
past, the PAP government no longer openly endorses any candidate. Prime
Minister Lee Hsien Loong, however, singled out Tan as "eminently qualified" and
"a very good candidate", and it was widely accepted that Tan was the preferred
candidate of the establishment. Tan's victory could therefore cement the
position of the PAP as the preferred hand for running the country.
The 71-year-old Tan has over 27 years of experience in parliament, having
served in various ministries, including security and defense, education and
finance. He also served as deputy prime minister under Goh Chok Tong.
As a part of the PAP's inner circle, he was until recently the executive
director and deputy chairman of Singapore's main sovereign fund, the Government
of Singapore Investment Corp, and chairman of state-owned Singapore Press
Holdings. The island state's first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, openly said in
the late 1980s that Tan was his first choice to succeed him as prime minister,
but Tan declined.
The road to presidency was not easy, though. His campaign met much cynicism and
confrontation, especially from the anti-establishment online community.
Immediately after he announced his candidacy, allegations arose online about
his son, Patrick Tan, whose compulsory two-year military national service was
deferred by 12 years while his father was minister of defense. Tan was jeered
and booed in some quarters while delivering his nomination-day speech.
"There is this momentum effect from the general election," said Bridget Welsh,
a political science professor at the Singapore Management University. "For
somebody with his credentials and support from the unions, we would have
expected a more comfortable margin for Tony Tan. But he won with an extremely
narrow margin, a sign that people are speaking up against the Lee Kuan Yew
elite-type of old PAP."
In the May election, PAP campaigns bore the brunt of many people's rising
dissent and angst over the cost of living, a high influx of foreign workers and
soaring property and rental prices.
Although presidential runner-up Tan Cheng Bock is also from the PAP, his
support base is distinctly different from Tan's, which contributed to his high
support, Welsh said. "Tan Cheng Bock has his supporters from the grassroots and
[a wider range of] sectors of society [which] shows that people prefer a PAP
that is more accessible, more connected and more consultative," she said.
Independence of PAP Probably aware of the growing disenchantment in some sectors with the
ruling party - as seen in the May elections - all four presidential candidates
tried to distance themselves from the government of the day by emphasizing
their independence from the PAP.
Tony Tan and Tan Cheng Bock had a harder time proving their independence,
having been long-time PAP members. On many occasions, they reminded the public
how they had spoken up against their PAP colleagues. Tan Cheng Bock said he had
spoken against the scheme that allows a limited number of people to enter
parliament without fighting an election.
Tony Tan, meanwhile, told how as education minister he had opposed a scheme in
which the government would give education and housing priorities, tax rebates
and other benefits to mothers with a university degree, as well as their
children; the parliamentary debate that ensued resulted in the plan being
Tan Kin Lian and Tan Jee Say had an easier time in stating their independence;
the former has never run for any election for any party, while the latter has
never been a member of PAP. Tan Kin Lian said he wanted to be the "voice of the
people", regardless of their political association, while Tan Jee Say said he
wanted to be a "check and balance" for the PAP government.
Analysts said they were rather surprised by the 25% of votes garnered by
newcomer Tan Jee Say, who first came to prominence in April when introduced as
a candidate under the Singapore Democratic Party's opposition banner in the May
"It is a clear sign that Singaporeans want a more plural political system, ie
one in which no party is predominant," said Reuben Wong, assistant professor,
Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
"This democratic transition has already happened in many Asian countries that
used to have dominant one-party systems [such as in] Taiwan, the Philippines,
South Korea and Indonesia. Malaysia and Singapore are likely next," he said.
Stability over change
The timing of the election may be an advantage for Tan, said analysts. The
global economy faces uncertain times and Singapore is on the brink of a
technical recession after recording negative growth in the June quarter. In
such circumstances, conservative and pragmatic Singaporeans choose stability
over change, and Tony Tan with his wide experience in the financial sector had
an edge over his rivals.
Businessman Lee Choon Hong attested to this. He voted for the opposition in the
May elections, but on Saturday he "put his money" on Tony Tan.
"I choose people who are good. Among all the candidates this time, Tony Tan is
the best. He's very knowledgeable and will be able to solve economic problems.
He's also from the government, so he can work very well with the prime minister
in [times of trouble]," he said.
Two days before the election, Tony Tan's campaign received support from the
business community. The Singapore Business Federation expressed the hope that
Singaporeans would send a strong message for "stability and economic
rationality" when voting because the result would affect businessmen's
decisions on whether to invest or expand operations in Singapore.
Singapore retailers also put their weight behind Tony Tan, saying he was the
best person to ensure a stable business environment, so "we would like to
encourage everyone to vote for Tony Tan", the 300-member Singapore Retailers
Association's president Jannie Chan told local media.
Three out of four unions linked to the labor movement in Singapore also
endorsed Tan. Lim Swee Say, the secretary general of the National Trades Union
Congress, said unions wanted a president who could boost Singapore's
international standing to bring in foreign investment. They said they preferred
a candidate with a track record of contributing to job-creation and who had
shown the ability to work constructively with the government.
Tony Tan talked in great detail about the economic problems in the United
States and Europe, warning repeatedly about "dark clouds" on the horizon. He
asked voters to choose a president who was "tested, trusted, true" to ensure
"confidence for the future".
Singapore's choice of stability over change becomes clear when the votes for
Tony Tan and Tan Cheng Bock are added together to reach 70%.
Despite the largely ceremonial role of the president, many people have
expressed concern over the weak mandate earned by Tony Tan. Even the
state-owned Straits Times reminded readers that "close to two-thirds [of
voters] rebuffed him".
"This was an intensely fought four-way contest. [Even after the campaign
period], there was no clear choice of a candidate who could achieve 50% of the
votes in a one-round, first-past-the-post system," said academic Wong from NUS.
The opposition Reform Party has floated the idea of amending the constitution
to allow for a run-off election, that is, a second round of voting where one
candidate fails to gain an overall majority in the first round.
"The people have spoken and a clear majority has said that they want another
president other than the current winner," Reform Party secretary general
Kenneth Jeyaretnam said.
"Unlike the government, which only needs a bare majority of seats in
parliament, the president should unite Singaporeans of all political
persuasions and views. To do this, he needs to be elected by a clear majority
of votes cast and not just on an almost statistically insignificant difference
between him and the runner-up," Jeyaretnam said.
Prime Minister Lee has appealed for unity following the intense campaigning.
''Now that the election is over, we should all come together again as
Singaporeans, to tackle the challenges that Singapore faces, and take our
nation forward,'' Lee said.
Tony Tan said after his victory was announced that his priority was to unite an
electorate that is polarized in its political views.
"The president is the president for all Singaporeans, not only for those who
have voted for me," he said. "I pledge to work my utmost for each and every
Singaporean, whatever be their political affiliation."
Megawati Wijaya is a Singapore-based journalist. She may be contacted at
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