Obsessive-compulsive behaviour (again) in presidential contest

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.

For instance, Goh Chok Tong, recently gilt with the ostentatiously baroque title of Emeritus Senior Minister, speaking at a National Day event in his Marine Parade constituency, said:

‘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?

* * * * *

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?

* * * * *

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.

22 Responses to “Obsessive-compulsive behaviour (again) in presidential contest”

  1. 1 Dan 15 August 2011 at 10:30

    Most colleagues I spoke too thought that TT would prevail. I would like to believe that your analysis here is accurate. However, under the current climate I think it is hard to predict. Perhaps how the people react to the PM’s national day rally speech will give some indications of how they intend to vote?

  2. 2 yawningbread 15 August 2011 at 11:19

    Straits Times 15 Aug 2011: Law minister Shanmugam attempting scare-mongering to get votes for the PAP’s preferred candidate Tony Tan. Referring to the likely economic downturn to come and the need to tap reserves for tiding things over,

    Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a community event yesterday morning, he referred to how the Government tackled the last financial crisis of 2008, such as by saving jobs, giving tax breaks, and providing direct assistance to families.

    ‘There was a Resilience Package – $20 billion was put in by the Government, we drew on reserves and took on a series of steps in a Jobs Credit system, which is pretty much unique in the world.’

    The President can also be very influential ‘if he is somebody with wisdom, knowledge and ability to give advice to the Cabinet in Government, which would of course be very useful’, he added.


    Stressing that the President is not a mere figurehead, he said what is important is for the hopefuls to ask themselves whether they are up to the job.

    ‘He has very significant powers, but understand what those powers are and then ask yourself whether you can perform the task and the role.’

    He is insinuating that only one candidate will be helpful to the government in allowing it to tap reserves, and that if voters voted for the candidates the PAP does not like, they will have to reflect and repent for not getting economic help from the reserves when the need arises.

    Lee Kuan Yew once warned against politics descending into the snake-pit of hissing insinuations and false accusations. Look where his own party has sunk to now.

  3. 3 Poker Player 15 August 2011 at 11:45

    “Lee Kuan Yew once warned against politics descending into the snake-pit of hissing insinuations and false accusations. Look where his own party has sunk to now.”

    What do you mean “now”? Other than the naive, has anyone really believed the Marxist conspiracy theory the govt tried to sell us many years ago?

  4. 4 Anonymous 15 August 2011 at 12:10

    The endorsement does help. There are many who don’t give a damn about the presidential election and will vote whoever they are familiar with. The intense publicity campaign will help bring these voters to vote for Tony since they don’t know other candidates and won’t be bothered to find out.

    Though we have an educated population. The majority is simply apathetic. This is the sad truth.

  5. 5 yuen 15 August 2011 at 12:49

    the talk “endorsement by PAP might be a liability” reflects two thinking processes: on the establishment side, an attempt to whitewash its preference for one candidate such that he might be seen as not “independent” – “despite the harm we do him by endorsing him, he still gets elected; so he has popular support of his own”; on the opposition side, hope that PAP is currently so unpopular that its preferred candidate would lose because of the endorsement

    it is so nice to see that PAP and opposition can agree on something; the president, even before getting elected, is already “helping to achieve consensus”…

  6. 6 Pundit 15 August 2011 at 13:01

    QUE SERA, SERA. The incumbent government always have the advantage.
    The outcome at this stage is unpredictable.Never underestimate the sentiments of the people. Cracks in government policies are appearing in increasing numbers. As long as they stay the course they will eventually self-destruct, and eventually be history.

  7. 7 Murlee 15 August 2011 at 13:49

    The PAP leaders seems ‘worried’ about the out come of the presidential election, just like what happens in GE2011. They would paint a picture as if if their ‘2 ex-PAP men’ are not voted as the President, all our reserves will be depleted in no time. It’s about time that PAP leaders wake-up & allows S’porean their choices.

    After the GE2011, I’ve written to the current Mister of Educ, pertaining to some rulings that have hindered a large portion of S’poreans from being assisted financially. Till now, there is no reply from the Minister concerned but the same issue was raised by the Prime Minister in his Nat.Day message.

    Question: If the current ‘new’ minister can’t even address the pressing bread & butter issue, will the president elected from the same (ex-political) party do any different?

  8. 8 Tan Tai Wei 15 August 2011 at 14:00

    From their viewpoint, not at all amusing (although in reality quite so).

    I have evidence to say that they and many of our technocrats have been brought up to treat mass communication and influence as “behavourists” would, modelled upon Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom and Dignity”. Behind it all, it can be only “conditioning” that effect “behaviour modification”, not reason, purported rationality being only a time-wasting, long-winded way to achieve the same results. Ring that bell, and dangle the right cheese, and responses to what you want would be certain.

    Ans so they fill the media with the dangling “cheese”, somewhat like advertisers do, flashing their images and playing their jingles over and over again. And then, people instinctively buy Pepsi cola whenever they thirst.

    But how disrespectful would that stance be to the voters! They are the experimenters, and we all are their rata and pidgeons!

  9. 9 Lim Bt 15 August 2011 at 19:36

    GCT’s authority : ‘I want the office of the elected presidency to be occupied by the best person …..” is being eroded with his poor showing in the last GE (72 % down to 57%). He should keep quiet. He is thinking that the people will follow him. Look at the number of postings in Yahoo News Singapore on him. Almost all of them are not supporting what he said : “What kind of politics does Singaporeans want?’

    He should not be telling the people : ” 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’.” He should look carefully at TPL’s and some others PAP MPs/Miinsters attributes etc before he advised us what to look for? Look into your mirror first.

  10. 10 Jim 15 August 2011 at 19:45

    Actually if you are active in the Chinese communities, clans and associations, the above mentioned societies are actually highly respected in the Chinese community.

  11. 11 Singa 15 August 2011 at 22:59

    The watershed GE 2011 showed that many S’poreans are not daft nor politically apathetic. For too long, esp under LKY’s era, many unfair policies were simply bull-dozed thru in a single-party dominated Parliament. The big drop in PAP’s vote share & the lost of Aljunied GRC serve as a long overdue wake-up call to the $million-dollar ministers to heed the heartlanders’ sincere cry for fairness/help. Apologies (for mistakes & tardiness), promises for change and better/faster action, were quickly made by PM Lee and echoed by ministers/MPs.

    Overnight, both PAP & voters, realised and experienced the power of the vote.

    Come 27 Aug, will politically-savvy S’poreans, who prefer a non PAP-backed President, once again unleash the ‘power of the vote’?

    With the EP election hotting up, PAP’s “fear-of-losing” mentality is so evidently manifesting itself thru NTUC/trade unions, top ministers, MPs, TT affiliated clan associations and business groups, SPH etc. This ‘obsessive-compulsive’ behaviour could backfire.

    What many S’poreans find baffling is the need for the incumbent govt and its machinery to endorse a candidate of their choice esp when the stringent criteria for EP candidacy was drawn up by the PAP govt itself. Even the PEC members are PAP selected.

    PAP is setting an unhealthy precedent, bearing in mind the fact that the Elected President should be truly independent and have no affiliation to any political party. Since one of EP’s main duties is to ensure that S’pore’s reserves (taxpayers’ golden eggs’) are not squandered/misused, can we trust a PAP-endorsed President to discuss (in private) matters pertaining to our re$erve with PAP ministers?

    Vote for a purely non-PAP affiliated/endorsed EP candidate.
    Vote for Tan Jee Say.

  12. 12 Randi Hui Ying Tan 15 August 2011 at 23:42

    I remembered you divided all the political parties into quadrants in one of your posts – which made a lot of sense to me. As an opposition supporter, many around me expected me to vote for Mr Tan Kin Lian or Mr Tan Jee Say, hence they were surprised when I said I’m rooting for Mr Tan Cheng Bock instead.

    I voted for the Workers’ Party in Aljunied – mainly because I felt it was a credible opposition. I’m probably what you would call a conservative opposition supporter – if there’s such a term. I want changes, but am not ready to rock the boat too much. I like Mr Tan Jee Say but his association with SDP makes me wary and cautious … Besides, he’s relatively new in the political scene. I don’t have sufficient confidence that he will make a good president.

    To say that Tony Tan and Tan Cheng Bock are splitting the PAP votes is oversimplification. IMHO, you’re absolutely right in your analysis, as usual. Though it’ll really be interesting to see how the results turn out on 27th August.

  13. 13 K Das 15 August 2011 at 23:58

    I quite agree with your observation that some 60% of voters more or less would have decided whom to vote for much earlier before voting day. I clearly fall within this group. In fact for this PE, I am already 60% decided, as it is, whom I should vote for. This may go up if one or two candidates decide to back out. On the other hand I am 100% sure of whom I should not vote for.

    A blogger above mentioned that “they would paint a picture as if if their ’2 ex-PAP men’ are not voted as the President, all our reserves will be depleted in no time”. There are problems here. Under the constitution only a Government and not a President can withdraw the funds to get it depleted. The President only gives the approval. Also for others (meaning other than the PAP) to deplete the funds they have to form the Government first. Even then it may not possible if the sitting President is a PAP man and he refuses to give assent.

  14. 14 Chow 16 August 2011 at 00:05

    My gut feel (and it is only my inuition) is that TT will probably scrape by with a narrow margin only because people won’t see him as much of a deal to act as an extra member of the Opposition. The rest of the votes will probably get split up primarily between TCB and TKL with TJS getting only a small percentage as I think he got into the fray too late and doesn’t have much of a ‘historical background’ to point out except for the recent elections. TKL can always point to his recent dealings with the Lehman minibonds while TCB can point out that he was his own man during his tenure as an MP. To a certain extent, if the President really were that ceremonial a role, I really cannot understand why the PAP is getting quite agitated about it unless there were really a whole can of worms to be unearthed. Well, having said all this, I’ll vote for a Tan, but not that Tan that is so greatly desired by the Establishment.

  15. 15 Rabbit 16 August 2011 at 03:55

    It kind of sly of msm to report that Tony Tan has gathered “broad support” just because a few closeted elites suddenly came out to sing his credentials. Indeed, someone of such impressive status, sneaking from clans to unions and whispered behind close door, to buy votes instead of open debate, made close resemblance why his son easily whiz passed 12 years NS deferment behind “close door”.

    With all these hidden attitudes, tapping human greed and fears, driven by political power put together, our journalists & all PAP affiliates have resorted to sell their soul for survival. This is typical nature of human beings, putting self above the rest, sinking into PAP political traps beyond hope. People will forever live in souless economy digits, to be pressurized or face the whip.

    This presidential election has painted glaring evidence in the current state of Straits Times, putting their master above the people and humiliating the people choice with less than impressive coverage. This is what PAP called objective and reliable source of information – deep throated to a gag, making sure it gone into our stomach at all cost, whether we like it or not. The usual irking PAP know-best comes into play the 2nd time in 2011 pre-election.

    Is this called constructive engagement with the people? Not even near to a close. Already before dawn break, we could hear their staff scrambling for selective publication from forum writers (ghost or not) to idolize Tony like he will never live another day to see all his “praise-worthy” letters. To add insult to our injured readers, expect more forthcoming letter of criticisms in their rightful time too, of course not about Tony, but specifically written on other presidents hopeful, shutting them disrespectfully across the population.

    People president is just not PAP cup of tea, so that The HOUSE OF “TALENT” is kept safe from corruption at obscene price, best hidden from public scrutiny. Don’t- ask, don’t- tell is their choiced dumb president.

    People President or PAP dumb president , the choice is only a week away. Don’t give me their crappy excuses of dark clouds or sunny sky ahead. If it has to happen, it will happen just like how Mas Selamat escaped under PAP nose with tight security and yet not a single head in PAP rolls.

    • 16 yuen 16 August 2011 at 12:04

      you are much too hard on ST; SPH and Mediacorp are the PR dept of Singapore Inc, and obviously must toe the line set by Singapore Inc Board of Directors, also known as cabinet;

      people out there are hoping that the non-executive chairman, also known as president, will acquire great powers and will be a person who acts independently of the board, almost like an ombudsman, but that’s not what the constitution provides, nor what Singapore Inc would want;

      since we are all dependents of Singapore Inc, the boat rockers had better confine themselves to noise making only

  16. 17 Anonymous 16 August 2011 at 08:47

    Endorsement has little effect except for the added publicity which TT has already got. Wonder if the endorsement means these unions and organisations can “donate” to TT’s election’s fund. Hmmm

    • 18 Anonymous 16 August 2011 at 15:18

      Endorsement means that these organisations have to “volunteer” its members to help Tony Tan for his campaign.

      Endorsement also means that the leaders of these organisations stand to gain some benefits if Tony Tan gets elected.

  17. 19 Finding it equally amusing 16 August 2011 at 10:34

    Great article! Good job!

    It is clearly a biased situation, where ruling party hijacked all its means to clamor support to TT – through its portfolio ministers (law, ESM, ex-MM etc), the newspapers (BT, ST, zaobao, wanbao etc), the media (CNA, Ch5/8 etc), selling Tony Tan like cure-all “ko-yok” (medicine in Hokkien). Is he an economist better than whole of MTI to pinpoint the extend of damage in crisis? is he a super-hero to revive manufacturing sector against the tides? is Captain Singapore (c.f. Captain America) who will charge through the sluggish economy? but hold it, those are NOT in the scope of elected President. Perhaps TT is just an ideal candidate that will not oppose the current regime, of course, we will get to be entertained with exchange of words scripted to show us EP is “challenging” the regime, somehow, and finally the regime will concede the planned concede items to “show” some victory he is not a puppet, just one of the script writer, and those front-row supporters will cheer for the drama, thinking what a great EP he is. haha. I am entertained by all that will be unfolding if TT is EP.

    But I should think it will be even more exciting if TJS or TKL is elected President, as you can be sure the challenges are not scripted and will be good for the ruling party to be highlighted of the areas that need to be improved, quickly, not until the next election. Though it is not in the scope of the EP to challenge all things, nor do we elect him for the sake of challenging the ruling force, but there is still a need to. Why? GE2011 is completed and PAP is not overturned (phew. stability is good) and in fact, still overwhelmingly dominating the parliament but the PAP ministers woke up from their 5-year slumber to improve to HDB, Transport, Immigrant controls etc. which is good for us, but it would not have happened if there wasn’t a strong challenge from Opposition to slap their face to wake up and stop ignoring the population’s feedback in the last 5 years. We dont have GE every year, so the next best for Singaporeans is to elect a President who would continuously act on our interest and keep the PAP ministers on their toes. Will TT do it? I seriously doubt in dressed rehearsals. Will a non-puppet EP cause disunity to Singapore? Nope. He doesnt have the power to. He will only ruffle PAP’s wings a bit, but the voice of a President should be loud enough to get PAP ministers to act more cohesively for our benefits.

    From another perspective, assuming you belong to one of those union that endorses TT, would you follow your union head to vote for him? By the way, do you know who is your union leader who endorses and what background he/she has? is he/she a specialist in politics or another cancan dancer dancing among the troupe? haha… . How about this: is it compulsory to vote for TT because your union endorses him? answer: NO. Isnt all these endorsement amusing? I would be even more amused if one of the leaders who pledge endorsement is found out to vote otherwise, after-all, isn’t voting a secret?

    Finally, I hope PAP keeps up its entertainment value, amuse us further on the waves of senseless endorsement that is planned to get the voters to believe in betting the “winner”. I don’t buy it and neither do all the people reading this do, and I sure hope Singaporeans are not stupid to fall for the amusement.

    YB, Thank you for the enlightening article and sharing your insight with us!

    • 20 Winking Doll 19 August 2011 at 13:10

      > “I don’t buy it and neither do all the people reading this do, and I sure hope Singaporeans are not stupid to fall for the amusement.”

      Unfortunately there are those who will fall for the amusement. Just today, I came across 2 young (in their 30’s) internet-savvy Singaporeans who decided to vote for Tony Tan based on MSM information about Tony Tan’s resume. E.g. He presents a dignified image of Singapore when interacting with foreign heads of states, with his GIC experience he can help grow the economy, blah, blah, blah.

      But they did not know the facts about his *actual performance* on-the-job.
      Those who don’t want Tony Tan to be the president please share the facts about Tony Tan’s “track record” with your friends, families, neighbours, colleagues, etc.


  18. 21 Blurrrrdog 16 August 2011 at 14:07

    Asians are a very realistic people – once the outcome is different – every one will move to associate with the winner. As the Chinese says “看风使舵”. Moreover it is the current executive who determine who get the national day award.

  19. 22 Daniel 16 August 2011 at 14:51

    Regardless of experience or anything else, I would not be willing to vote for anyone that has ever sued anyone else for defamation.

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