This year — 2011 — is likely to be marked as quite extraordinary in Singapore’s political history. For one thing, it’s the year that Lee Kuan Yew finally left the cabinet. For another, it may be another 30 years before Singaporeans again experience two elections in the same year. Or never again.
We’ve waited 18 years and two walkover “elections” before we had another chance to choose our president directly. But depending on what Big Bully thinks of the result, the constitution may well be changed to eliminate a directly-elected presidency after this one. As I mentioned in the closing of the article Sack HDB, disband People’s Association, the People’s Action Party (PAP) has not been an institution builder, but an institution destroyer, often behaving with petulant capriciousness.
As another election winds down — polling stations open less than 12 hours after writing this — let me muse about what has happened through this one.
Would have been a low turnout
The excitement level among the electorate was distinctly lower for the presidential election than the general election three months earlier. It was probably due to the recognition that with the limited powers of the office, it was less important. There might have been, in addition, some election fatigue. If not for compulsory voting, this would be the kind of election that would have a relatively low turn-out. My guess is that if people could choose whether to bother to vote, less than half would.
Low name recognition
One other factor that possibly reduced voter excitement was the low name recognition of most of the candidates. Tan Kin Lian had never contested before while Tan Jee Say had only recently appeared for the May general election. Tony Tan and Tan Cheng Bock had retired from politics for several years.
“Despite the Straits Times assuming him to be a well-known personality,” a lecturer friend told me recently, “based on my interactions with my students, many of them would struggle to tell you anything about Tony Tan.” He reckons his students typify the better-educated early-twenties voters.
Nine days were too short
Nine days of campaigning was definitely too short. Fifteen or twenty days would have been better. Unlike in a general election when each candidate could concentrate on a constituency, presidential election candidates had to cover the whole of Singapore. Moreover, because candidates were not supposed to be party-affiliated, they didn’t have a ready party machinery behind them, having to cobble an organisation together on the go and stretching resources very thin.
The bystander that got sucked in
The Workers’ Party reportedly barred its members from helping any presidential candidate. This was supposed to be in keeping with the party’s stand that there should not be a custodial president at all. The party’s 2011 manifesto states:
The office of Elected President, with his powers to veto key decisions of a popularly-elected government, conflicts with the tenets of Parliamentary democracy.
The Office of Elected President should be abolished and the Presidency should be reverted to its former ceremonial position. The power of Parliament as the people’s representatives should be unfettered.
But midway through the hustings, the controversy over open community spaces in Aljunied and Hougang took the headlines (see Sack HDB, disband People’s Association). What effect did that have on voters? It’s hard to know but the fact that the ‘PAP-Govt complex’ did a small about-turn within 24 hours suggested that they, at least, feared it would have a significant impact.
My view is that those who are not particularly attached to the Workers’ Party would not have their minds changed by that episode. Whether pro-PAP or pro-Opposition (except Workers’ Party) they would probably have had their prior negative views of the other side reinforced.
But I wonder what effect it had on the Workers’ Party’s core supporters. My sense of them is that as much as they do not like PAP-lackeys, equally they hold their noses at opposition politicians whom they see as “confrontational”. In this presidential election they might have formed a bloc looking for a “safe” alternative to the government’s preferred candidate, or might have preferred to spoil their vote as a way of expressing their disagreement with the elected custodial presidency.
However, the controversy might have changed that. Incensed by more ill-treatment, the core Workers’ Party supporters might have shifted to the harder opposition side. Some who might earlier have been planning to spoil their vote, could have changed their minds.
Actually, it may be useful to ask if the Workers’ Party may in this instance be out of touch. The thing about elections is that the process creates a sense of ownership of the office being elected into. When people have gotten used to having a say about who occupies that office, it’s very hard to take it away. It may well be that after this presidential election and perhaps one more, Singaporeans will come to rather like the idea of an elected custodial president. And then it’ll be the Workers’ Party that has to play catch-up again, and amend its manifesto.
Probably furious in the attic
One person we did not hear from at all through this campaign was Lee Kuan Yew. Had he been muzzled? Or was he more furious with his own PAP and its preferred candidate than the other contestants? This was the second election in a row in which the PAP failed to set the agenda, something he would never have let happen if he had been in charge. I can almost hear him say of the party’s current leadership: What a bunch of nincompoops that can’t even keep the initiative!
The government did try to set the agenda. Efforts were made to remind Singaporeans that the president has to represent Singapore abroad, and so needs to know how to comport himself. More importantly, law minister K Shanmugam repeatedly spoke about how narrow the president’s powers are, debunking ideas about checks and balances. The president had no executive powers, he reminded one and all.
Yet, a few days ago, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong vocalised his fears about paralysis and gridlock, with no seeming sense of contradiction. Surely, if the president was relatively powerless, he could not possibly produce gridlock, could he?
More icing was soon added to the cake, with Tan Cheng Bock accusing government-preferred candidate Tony Tan of meddling in government policies, referring to the latter’s boasts about how his long and great experience with finance would see him play a role in helping Singapore weather the coming economic storms. Tan Cheng Bock alluded to this again in his final television broadcast, saying he didn’t think Singaporeans wanted “someone who experiments with financial theory”.
Amidst all these contradictions bubbling forth from the government and their preferred candidate, the government then chose to admonish the people for being confused.
Did you know that in 1993, when we had our first presidential election, Ong Teng Cheong’s symbol was a heart? His opponent Chua Kim Yeow chose a flower. In this election, Tan Jee Say also chose a heart.
At the coffeeshop
Thursday afternoon, I happened to walk past a neighbourhood coffeeshop where several elderly Chinese were sitting, sipping coffee and tea. There was one man and three or four women. What I overheard went something like this:
Man: Have you received your polling cards yet?
First woman: No, but my son will take care of it.
Second woman: Er . . . where would the card be?
Man: Do you even know there’s an election going on?
Women together: Yes, we know.
Man: Do you know there are four candidates? Have you thought about it?
Women together: What’s there to think about? When we go [to the polling station], we just look for the lightning on the ballot paper.