It was not the outcome I had thought most likely, but nonetheless, it was a welcome announcement. The Presidential Elections Committee declared four of six men who had submitted applications for Certificates of Eligibility to be qualified. This maximises the chances of former Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan gaining the presidency.
Referred to popularly as the “four Tans”, besides Tony Tan, the others are former People’s Action Party (PAP) member of parliament Tan Cheng Bock, former head of insurer NTUC Income Tan Kin Lian, and Tan Jee Say who had stood in the May 2011 general election under the Singapore Democratic Party banner.
Welcome though the announcement may be, the process is still flawed. The Constitution’s eligibility rules are ridiculously tight. If the aim is to get people of good character and integrity, there is no need to apply essentially financial guidelines as the main decider. Article 19 (2) (g) of the Constitution says that to be pre-qualified, any person wanting to stand for election must satisfy the Presidential Elections Committee that, inter alia,
[he/she] has for a period of not less than 3 years held office —
(i) as Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker, Attorney-General, Chairman of the Public Service Commission, Auditor-General, Accountant-General or Permanent Secretary;
(ii) as chairman or chief executive officer of a statutory board to which Article 22A applies;
(iii) as chairman of the board of directors or chief executive officer of a company incorporated or registered under the Companies Act (Cap. 50) with a paid-up capital of at least $100 million or its equivalent in foreign currency; or
(iv) in any other similar or comparable position of seniority and responsibility in any other organisation or department of equivalent size or complexity in the public or private sector which, in the opinion of the Presidential Elections Committee, has given him such experience and ability in administering and managing financial affairs as to enable him to carry out effectively the functions and duties of the office of President.
To compound the suffocating “papa-knows-best” nature of Singapore’s political processes, the same Constitution decrees that two of the three members of the Presidential Elections Committee must be civil servants, namely the heads of the Public Service Commission and the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority. The third has to be a member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights — which by the way, has absolutely no remit to look into question pertaining to minorities such as gay people. Consequently, as announced in Gazette Notification of 27 May 2011, the members are:
1. Mr Eddie Teo, Chairman of the Public Service Commission;
2. Chan Lai Fung, Chairman of the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority; and
3. Sat Pal Khattar, a member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights nominated by the Chairman of that Council.
Only the third is from the private sector. Sat Pal Khattar is a founder of law firm Khattar Wong and Partners.
The Committee announced that Tony Tan and Tan Cheng Bock qualified under subclause (iii) and the other two under subclause (iv). NTUC Income, which Tan Kin Lian managed was not a company but a co-operative. AIB Govett (Asia) Limited, which Tan Jee Say headed, managed investment funds of over S$100 million even though its paid-up capital was less than that. Despite this, Tan Kin Lian and Tan Jee Say qualified because the organisations they headed were of equivalent size and complexity. The significance of these decisions lies not only with the current election, but in the way they set precedents for future ones.
While I do not know what considerations guided the committee’s deliberations, the outcome is consistent with the commonly-held view I expressed in the earlier article, that
Few Singaporeans believe that the committee is totally independent of political considerations. A common feeling is that who the committee disqualifies or approves will, to a great extent, be determined by which scenario is considered least risky for the government’s preferred candidate, Tony Tan.
The calculation, I suppose, is like this: The vast majority of the 60 percent of voters who cast their vote for the PAP in the recent general election would take the cue that Tony Tan is the preferred candidate of the PAP government and give him their vote. Some of them however, may vote for Tan Cheng Bock. The 40 percent who voted for opposition parties would mostly split between Tan Kin Lian and Tan Jee Say. This assures Tony Tan of the largest chunk of votes even if he does not scrape past 50 percent.
The Constitution allows for a winner even if he fails to get a majority. Section 32(8) of the Presidential Elections Act says “the Returning Officer shall declare the candidate to whom the greatest number of votes is given to be elected”.
With four candidates pre-qualified, there is a danger that one or two of them might fail to cross the 12.5-percent threshold. This is the minimum percentage of votes they need to get in order to obtain a refund of the election deposit, which currently stands at S$48,000. This is no small sum, and I’m pretty certain this question is exercising a few minds at the moment. In other words, while four men may have been pre-qualified, not all may show up on Nomination Day (17 August 2011).
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Asking around the last few days in a totally unscientific way, one answer that seems to be extremely common is this: “I will vote for whoever is furthest from the PAP”. Admittedly, my sample is heavily skewed since I tend to mix around with anti-establishment types. Despite this, and hearing this answer so frequently, I am led to question my own view that Tony Tan is the most likely winner. Over the last week or two, Yahoo Singapore had been running an online poll, and, while the result fluctuated from day to day, it was never obvious that Tony Tan had a runaway majority.
So, this election may be the first one Singapore has had since independence where we really can’t be certain of the overall winner.
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A week or so ago, I got an email from someone I know who is a little miffed about another set of ridiculously tight rules. This time it is about overseas voting.
She is based in Beijing where she is registered as an overseas voter. However on Presidential Elections Polling Day itself, she will be in San Francisco. Upon enquiry, she was told that she is not allowed to cast her vote in San Francisco despite being a registered overseas voter. She can only do so in Beijing.
I am not even going to suggest loosening up the rules for overseas voting. I think we should go the whole hog and switch to internet voting.
A tiny European country, Estonia, home of Skype, pioneered this in 2007. As reported in the New York Times/International Herald Tribune,
To vote, Estonians must put their state-issued identification card, which has an electronic chip on it, into a reader attached to a computer and then enter two passwords. The readers sell for between 100 and 200 krooni, or $8.40 to $16.80, and more than one million chip-enabled ID cards have been issued in this country of 1.3 million people.
Estonians already can use their ID cards to obtain digital “signatures” with which they can conduct business online without the need to sign paper documents.
— New York Times, 22 Feb 2007, Estonians will be first to allow Internet votes in national election.
Singaporean identity cards do not have computer chips, so we can’t follow this procedure exactly. But we’ve used a Singpass system for years to make all sorts of official transactions, not least declaring our income taxes. If it’s good enough for the government to hold us legally accountable for our income declarations — false declaration of which can land us in jail — why isn’t it good enough as a way of recording our votes?
Like the constitutional rules for pre-qualification and the composition of the Presidential Elections Committee, this is one more aspect that whispers to us: the government has a hidden agenda that does not spell “true democracy”.