In many ways, Singaporeans are quite contented with the presidential election system and consider the outcome of the August 2011 election legitimate. Beneath this overarching conclusion however, there are interesting variations in what aspects are considered more legitimate than others and how different types of citizens saw the matter.
The pity was that the Straits Times’ report on a half-day seminar Presidential Election Survey 2011 focussed on just two findings: That many Singaporeans were “confused about job of president” and that the president “should be paid less than PM”, to quote the newspaper’s headlines.
I suppose they were the easiest findings to convey to the general public who have little time for nuanced discussion of politics and current affairs, but it was a pity nonetheless, because the survey revealed more interesting stuff than that.
Commissioned by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), it asked a sample of 2,025 respondents a series of questions pertaining to the presidential election of August 2011. The sample was weighted to reflect the proportions of gender, race and age groups in the 2010 census.
Of particular interest were a series of questions regarding the election system itself — interesting because this year’s was the first presidential election in 18 years, and a relatively open and unpredictable one at that. It gave Singaporeans an opportunity to see the system for its strengths and flaws. The survey responses thus show how satisfied or dissatisfied Singaporeans were with the system. As the graphs below indicate, they were generally satisfied.
To each of the statements below, respondents were asked whether they (1) strongly disagreed, (2) disagreed, (3) were neutral, (4) agreed or (5) strongly agreed.
I have put them in descending order, with statements that had greater agreement placed first.
You will see that statements expressing the principles of an elected presidency, its pre-qualification process and potential received the widest support.
Less widely accepted are statements about how the election was or should be carried out.
Two statements that appear to assert Singapore particularism were the least supported — that social organisations should not be endorsing candidates, that financial competence should be an important consideration. It is hardly surprising that these assertions do not have wide support, since other democracies function well enough without such rules or expectations. So, why must they apply in the Singapore context?
As you will have noticed, the statement with the lowest support was the assertion that nothing needs to be changed. This suggests that a little more tweaking may be welcome.
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IPS included three other statements in this part of the survey, which largely asked people how their vote decision was shaped and what they thought of the actual outcome. Opinion was more divided on these questions than those above.
Note also the relatively low number of responses to the Patrick Tan question (base = 1,714), suggesting a reluctance to answer on this point.
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Drawing on four of the above statements, IPS computed a “political legitimacy” indices. The four statements were :
- The 2011 process of certification gave those I think were truly qualified the chance to contest;
- Overall, there is no need to change anything in the system of the Elected Presidency;
- All candidates got fair coverage by the mass media, that is, free-to-air television, newspaper and dario;
- The outcome of who has been elected on 27 August will strengthen Singapore’s governing system.
The minimum score was 4 and the maximum score 20. The overall mean was 14.5.
The mean for men was lower (but statistically significant) than that for women, while the means for Chinese and other races were lower than those for Indians and Malays.
The younger the age group, the lower the mean i.e. the more skeptical they are of the legitimacy of the system.
The higher the education, the lower the mean.
Very generally speaking, those who were most skeptical of the legitimacy of system were younger, male, better-educated Chinese or other races. They may well be the most privileged demographic group among Singapore citizens, but they are also most skeptical.
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Another index drawn up was that for “institutional independence”. This was drawn from three statements in the survey:
- The person who exercises the powers of the Elected President must be chosen through an election by Singaporeans and not selected by Parliament;
- Social organisations, unions or other community groups should not be allowed to endorse candidates in the presidential election;
- Political parties should not be allowed to endorse candidates in the presidential election.
The minimum score was 3, the maximum 15 and the overall mean was 11.8.
Men gave a higher mean than women, i.e. the men were more demanding of institutional independence. Those of “other races” were more demanding of institutional independence; the Chinese were least demanding.
Younger Singaporeans were slightly more demanding of institutional independence.
The better educated, the more demanding they were of institutional independence.
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Between these two indices, one gets the sense that younger, better educated Singaporeans were more critical voters, where “critical” means discerning, as opposed to complaining.
That notwithstanding, the overall sense that I got from the survey was that Singaporeans do know what they want from the office of president. The Straits Times story might have presented a different take, saying that Singaporeans were “confused” about the role of the president in that many respondents to the survey expected the president to do things that constitutionally he cannot.
By saying that, the newspaper suggests that Singaporeans are failing a sort of test.
Why should the constitution be the test? Might one not say that it’s the other way around? That Singaporeans’ wishes are the test and the constitution is failing it. In other words, the expectations expressed by survey respondents represent what Singaporeans want out of the presidency, and where they diverge from constitutional provision is not a matter of Singaporeans being “confused”, but the constitution being insufficient.