Another election winds down

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.

Oh dear.

14 Responses to “Another election winds down”

  1. 1 Robox 26 August 2011 at 23:06

    Looks like I am not the only one who is already in a reflective mood. Even though I had been ready to make this declaration a few days ago, I would say now that even before the first ballot has been cast, we already have a winner: the Constitution. I was really thrilled that it was the Constitution that took centrestage in the leadup to the campaign as well as throughout the campaign.

    This augurs well for all politics in Singapore from now on.

    Contrary to appearance, I don’t have a Constitution fetish; It’s been my fervent belief for a few years now that it is only by holding the rogue PAP government acountable to the Constitution that politics can be cleaned up.

    When the Constitution wins, the people win, and we could say that no matter what the outcome at Saturday’s poll is, the people have won. (As an aside, with the distribution of the vote share that I anticipate after Saturday’s poll, the majority of Singaporeans are going to be disappointed with the results no matter who wins.)

    But, while some attempts were made towards that direction, I did wish that we could have gone further with the many debates on the Constitution during this period because they almost centred on powers of the elected president. The candidates could have been grilled on their positions specific on issues – such as was done with S377a – with the Constitution as the framework for those discussions; it would have revealed their own commitment to constitutional accountability.

    But I guess, with the campaign period as short as it was, the electorate did require the time and space to grapple with the constitutional provisions to do with the president’s powers.

    Another election, I guess.

  2. 2 most arguments are useless 27 August 2011 at 01:09

    I can almost hear him say of the party’s current leadership: What a bunch of nincompoops that can’t even keep the initiative!…
    I raised a similar point this evening with old boy acquaintances (guess the School below) at The Fullerton Leadership Lectures.

    The speaker had reminded us of the distinction of stepping forward as a leader v. the opportunity to do so when one is appointed to a position.

    Most people may also be familiar with the concept of servant leadership. This may be too much to ask of our candidates but I was at least hoping for a more strategic and creative campaign in view of the 9 days parameter.

    Also, some of the mini-media crisis for each candidate could be handled in a more pro-active manner or at least in a timely way. I question the value provided by the chaps in charge of PR/Spin
    during this period…(in the words of my son, I don’t care if you are hopping mad at what I say; “if you can’t handle the truth….)

    Alex, I am still grateful for the old man/his team for staying with the English language; he has also shown leadership under fire/during crisis. Notwithstanding that a bolt of electricity to anyone is cruel especially without judiciary insulation.

    I still love this country/beautiful people (search hard and rejoice when you see goodness within; nincompoops and all).

    The school : attended by many who needs
    Mandarin lessons as adults or speaks Mandarin in a funny way; think of the other
    Alex who returned to Singapore this year.

  3. 3 Rabbit 27 August 2011 at 02:49

    Endorsement aside, I hope people vote with their intelligence because they realized there is no fair justice in Siingapore under PAP. We don’t have to wait for a Rogue government to appear in the future; they already existed and have mobilized People Associations to divide the living harmony of our nation.

    This president election is like voting for an independent police, to ensure Singapore is kept safe from Rogue government. We want a police that is tough; dare to confront any wrong-doings of the ruling party. A cat who can immediately smell a rat is a good president, as simple as that.

    A president that is too soft or “level-headed” like Nathan, is seen as complacent for my taste. If Mas Selamat escaped and SMRT graffiti have brought home any lessons to the people, it was because of leadership complacency. PAP has backed and elected such leadership in our backyard..

    For our children of Singapore, please don’t turn our country into another North Korea or Libya. Vote in a truly independent president or live and repent for the next 18 years once more?

    • 4 Anonymous 27 August 2011 at 12:40

      I fully support your opening paragraph. The People’s Association MUST be disbanded as instead of uniting the people, it is now an Association that actively divide the people into PAP supporters & others and it is doing it with the money of ALL the people.

  4. 5 Joelle 27 August 2011 at 03:20

    Hahahahahahah (@ just look for the lightning logo).
    Yeah like i posted in some other forums, this time round is different…. when
    these old/uninformed folks go to the polling station and take their ballot slip, they cannot find the LIGHTNING sign!! So the fear tactic and ‘default’ choice wont work like how all the GEs worked!! LoL

  5. 6 lsconv 27 August 2011 at 08:09

    (Usually, I would put my actual name when commenting, but I’ll make an exception this time for reasons that will be clear.)

    Yesterday I gave a call back home (I’m not in Singapore and unfortunately won’t be voting this election) and spoke to my parents. They are retired, in their 60s, relatively well-off, do not read the alternative online media, and are generally pro-opposition (after all, they did vote for WP in Aljunied this May).

    It turns out that they are voting for Tony Tan. These are their reasons:
    – the other three candidates are apparently not aware of the limits of the president
    – Tony Tan, with his immense knowledge in economics, will be able to play a role when a crisis hits
    – Tan Jee Say’s association with SDP has a negative impact in their perspective
    They probably gave a few others, but I cannot remember.

    I’m not sure if their views typifies voters in a similar generation, but I guess, because of them, Tony Tan stands a high chance of winning the election.

  6. 7 georgia tong 27 August 2011 at 09:24

    Yes it is true. I ask my aunts who are in their 80s. Sign – they will vote Tony Tan – PAP man. My aunts are contented lot – taken care of by their children.

    Same of many of my friends. Those who are contented with they current situation will choose between Tony Tan and Tan Cheng Bock. Reason – PAP men. Sigh…..

    Seems like regardless of education level, most are not awaken politically. They read main stream media and do not bother to find out more.

    Perhaps some common characteristics of PAP supporters :
    1) most are passive, they will give they vote to PAP but don’t expect them to rally or speak up passionately for them

    2) they are ‘ignorant’ of what is really happening as they believe everything dish out by the main stream media

    3) they have so much blind faith in PAP that they are ‘gullible’. So if Tony Tan says it is a lie what the alternate media said about his sons, they will believe him. No questions ask, no need to find out more.

    In order for them to exercise social responsibility, this group of people has to be awaken politically. How ? I have no idea. I have tried with my friends, they are not interested. Perhaps too preoccupy with work and family.

    They remind me of the saying about the wife cheated upon by the husband – she is always the last to know. Too busy with bringing up kids and truth is hard to swallow. Self deception and be content with the ‘current’ family life better than rock the boat.

    Perhaps these PAP passive supporters are the same.

    • 8 Han 28 August 2011 at 15:41

      I like how you say people whose political opinions are different from yours are automatically asleep/ignorant/passive/gullible.

      So maybe the next step is to not count their votes or take away that right?

  7. 9 Azhar Kamar 27 August 2011 at 11:12

    Lol ‘lightning’. That’s why if TT wins, we know why…

  8. 10 Anon7788990 27 August 2011 at 13:31

    “When we go [to the polling station], we just look for the lightning on the ballot paper.” PAP brainwashing!

  9. 11 yuen 27 August 2011 at 22:54

    the results so far show that the PAP brand name remains intact; voters have not abandoned the old shop; they only wanted to give it a fright; now that Khaw Boon Wan has brought a few thousand new apartments onto the market, they are ready to forgive

    TJS’s low vote shows that Temasek Review and Nicole Seah only have so much influence; you might meet them happily in the pub, but you go home to mommy for dinner

  10. 12 Rglelin 28 August 2011 at 11:04

    At the risk of being flamed, I feel that TJS and his supporters really threw a spanner into the works… Yes, of course everybody has the right to vote for whoever they feel is best; thats democracy. But I believe that the PAP machinery would have calculated for that and approved TJS’s PE bid precisely to dilute the votes against TT… At the same time, I believe they would have calculated that even if TJS won, he would be such an ineffectual and confrontational President that he would drag the name of all oppositions through the mud in the next GE or PE.

  11. 13 reservist_cpl 29 August 2011 at 01:06

    Thank you for helping to clarify that the Workers’ Party was not “quietly supporting” any candidate!

    Anyway, I think having an elected President is meaningful *if* the President has more powers. Which is why I believe the Presidency should be combined with the office of Speaker of Parliament.

  12. 14 ricardo 29 August 2011 at 06:04

    It is now TT’s job to unite all Singaporeans; those who voted for him as well as those who didn’t; multi million Dignity Ministers as well as the Uncles & Aunties who clean the toilets.

    But he has another role. In 1989, the PAP improved the ISA

    Today the President is the last bastion against personal & political abuse of the ISA. If he is a PAP lackey, the only the only safeguard is that the elected PAP government would never be so vindictive, cruel and evil to stoop so low as to abuse the ISA for political and personal ends.

    Cough, cough! Excuse me while I wash my mouth out with soap.

    As for the Constitution,

    challenged these “improvements”. One judge declared them Unconstitutional but his judgement was later overturned on the grounds that it had gone through Parliament.

    A 81/87 majority can fix anything; even the Constitution or the need for Judicial Review.

    Well, we know from history how TT will respond to ISA issues. Let’s hope he never has a chance to do so.

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