How many readers are like me, increasingly amused at the procession of phantoms as the presidential election approaches? So-called labour unions that next to never appear in respectable daylight, suddenly raise their spectral arms to wave their endorsement of Tony Tan. Obscure clan associations emerge like apparitions worthy of the Chinese Hungry Ghost Month (currently in full flight) wailing like banshees their endorsement of . . . yes, you guessed it, Tony Tan.
Then 100 manufacturers got together and like witches encircling a brew
had a one-hour, closed-door dialogue with Dr Tan yesterday and came away impressed with the depth of his knowledge of manufacturing and the economy, the president of the Singapore Manufacturers’ Federation, Mr George Huang, told reporters.
— Straits Times, 13 August 2011, Manufacturers throw weight behind Tony Tan, by Cai Haoxiang
The opening sentence of that news story said they were “supporting presidential hopeful Tony Tan”, in case you needed the message hammered home.
Perhaps the crescendo will build towards a climax, which is when the previously unheard-of group, the United Sex Workers of Singapore, will announce that after serious, careful and deep-throated consideration, they endorse so-and-so too. After all, there is nothing sexier than a dignified man with _____ hair.
Not only is politics in Singapore becoming competitive, it’s becoming entertaining.
We also have a parade of ministers and ex-prime ministers exhorting citizens to vote for the best man for the job, or something to that effect. Every single one of them is scrupulously correct in his choice of words, never quite naming any candidate. However, Singaporeans aren’t fools; we know exactly who they’re cheerleading for.
‘I want the office of the elected presidency to be occupied by the best person who can discharge his duties and responsibilities well, serve Singapore selflessly, rise above partisan politics, and strengthen the governance framework of Singapore.’
Voters, he said, should look carefully at the attributes required for carrying out the responsibilities of the presidency and ‘scrutinise the candidates, especially their character, integrity, experience, bearing and gravitas’.
‘In particular, we should ask whether they can deliver their promises under the Constitution,’ he said, urging voters to elect a head of state who would ‘make us proud’.
— Sunday Times, 14 August 2011, Presidential hopefuls hit the road, by Melissa Pang
Note the use of the word ‘gravitas’. Doesn’t it say it all?
I wonder what would happen if leaders of opposition parties also began to urge Singaporeans to elect the best man for the job, and one who would ‘make us proud’. Would they be accused of playing partisan politics with the office of president?
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At this point, I think it is worth recalling a finding from an online survey I did during the general election last May. It was reported in the post How and when did you decide, part 2. About 40 percent had decided on their vote choice even before Nomination Day. Another 20 percent more decided soon after Nomination Day, generally before rallies began. That 20 percent, I guess, were mostly waiting to find out which parties and candidates were in their constituencies before crystallising their preferences.
Possibly a similar phenomenon is happening right now, but with a slight twist: People have more or less put the four aspirants in a certain order of preference and are just waiting for a bit of confirmation during the campaign proper — generally between their first two choices. Many would probably have decided which one(s) they will definitely not vote for.
In other words, I can’t imagine all these endorsements by unions, clan associations and factory owners making much difference. For heaven’s sakes, what credibility do these people have in political opinion leadership? Neither can I imagine all these exhortations by People’s Action Party (PAP) ministers making much difference either.
But here’s an interesting question: Would all these endorsements and exhortations, not just be ineffectual, but be a liability to Tony Tan? Would such overkill make him look like a loser? Or might these clearly engineered endorsements so irk swing voters that they might actually swing away?
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Speaking of swing voters, I need also to point out that it may be misleading to use the May 2011 general election vote-share between the PAP and opposition parties as a guide to voter sentiments in this presidential election — by this I mean the way netizens often speak of Tony Tan and Tan Cheng Bock splitting the “PAP vote” of 60 percent and Tan Kin Lian and Tan Jee Say splitting the “opposition vote” of 40 percent, and then making any number of speculative permutations from there.
I draw your attention to a finding by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) regarding the political orientation of voters during that general election. Based on a survey of about 2,000 voters conducted by a professional survey research firm, IPS cross-tabulated responses to various questions to arrive at a sense of whether a voter was Conservative, Swing or Pluralist. I don’t recall exactly how IPS defined these terms, but the general sense I obtained was that Conservative meant a voter who did not want to take risks with his vote choice, preferring order and the status quo; Pluralist meant a voter who preferred to use his vote to help achieve a more plural political scene; while Swing is obvious.
In my write-up of the study, IPS post-GE2011 survey, part 2, I argued that Conservative meant in effect a pro-PAP voter, and Pluralist meant a pro-opposition voter. And here’s the notable thing: They did not split 60:40, because there was a huge chunk in the middle — the Swing voters.
As it turned out during the general election, most Swing voters eventually decided to vote for the PAP. There’s an understandable reason for that. Except for residents in a few constituencies such as Aljunied, Joo Chiat or Potong Pasir, most had only a choice between the PAP and either an opposition party or candidates they were not impressed with.
To be very frank, even if you were a Swing voter in Punggol-Pasir Ris, Moulmein-Kallang or Ang Mo Kio, it would not have been easy to vote for the opposition in your area.
The presidential election may be entirely different, since all voters will have the same choice of all candidates. The “narrow local choice” factor would not apply. The big question then is whether those who tend to be Swing in temperament are impressed enough with Tan Cheng Bock, Tan Kin Lian or Tan Jee Say to throw their lot in with one of them?
Perhaps the PAP is acutely aware of the risk that the solid vote-bank Tony Tan can rely on is only about 20 – 25 percent, and which is why they are now pulling out all the stops — endorsements, threats of catastrophe, favourable media coverage, ministers’ veiled statements, etc — to help him. If so, what is at first sight merely amusing — watching the PAP do its usual obsessive-compulsive thing at each election regardless of whether it helps or hurts themselves — may signal more than that. Perhaps the parade of phantoms signals a slowly rising sense of panic.