Singaporeans generally satisfied with presidential election system

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

9 Responses to “Singaporeans generally satisfied with presidential election system”

  1. 1 Lee Chee Wai 7 November 2011 at 03:06

    Here is my cynical 2 cents worth:

    At some fundamental level, no one really cares.

    To expand on that thought – the Elected Presidency was created on very shaky foundations:

    1. It was a top-down decision.
    2. It was designed ostensibly to preempt an abstract problem which did not exist and was unlikely to exist except in the worst cases of egregious governance.
    3. It had an artificial constitutional construct based on little evidence for nor against the efficacy of the various components of its design.

    As a result, the citizen at large had no democratic ownership of what was effectively a non-issue. Back then, and even now, I seriously doubt (purely based on intuition – as with many things in Singapore, I have no numbers nor source for numbers) many had thought an out-of-control money-spending government to be a major problem, much less believe the presidency to be a solution to that “problem”. Further, the artificial nature of its legal construction just makes running for that office awkward to say the least. I did not know whether I should have laughed, cried or simply bury my face in my hands when I watched the four Tans “campaign” for the post. Even that ancient TV “debate” between Goh Chok Tong, Lee Hsien Loong, Chiam See Tong and JBJ was a laughable incoherent back-and-forth of abstract insinuations and counter-accusations. When I (re?)-watched that “debate” a year ago … I really did bury my face in the palms of my hands.

  2. 2 yuen 7 November 2011 at 08:17

    people are confused because the situation IS confusing; the purposing of having an election is to give the elected person some kind of mandate; what mandate was Tony Tan given? if say Tan Cheng Bock got a bit more votes and was elected instead of Tony Tan, how was the mandate different (except in small matters like evicting the PM from Istana)?

    the answers reveal some vague desire to change, but no specific change being desired; I guess IPS will need to do a few more surveys before 2017

  3. 3 Vote for Change 7 November 2011 at 11:53

    Actually it is the Straits Times trying to confuse Singaporeans. The constitution is what the PAP wants. If Singaporeans really want their wishes and aspirations to be expressed in the constitution, they have to vote for a party that will do so. The PAP is certainly the wrong choice.

  4. 4 Does it matter? 7 November 2011 at 14:07

    “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.”

    Agreed, but unfortunately Singaporeans are unable or unwilling to enable the constitution to be sufficient, although that ability lies in their hands, or rather their vote. Or the availability of a credible opposition to get their majority vote.

    That being the case, so does it really matter what the mainstream media suggest or how well Yawningbread analyses, whether rightly or wrongly, complete or incomplete or whatever?

  5. 5 Issent 7 November 2011 at 15:40

    “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.”

    Well said. Unfortunately most Singaporeans have no idea how the constitution can be changed.

  6. 6 george 7 November 2011 at 17:23

    As always, the PAP wants to insist that it is right and WE are wrong. And you can bet that this will be used to justify follow up actions including changes made to the law- basically to make it illegal for bloggers to say things they have during the last two elections.

    Nothing new in the tactics here – more of ‘give a dog a bad name for an excuse to shoot it. Just mark my words. Such changes are coming.

    My bet is Tony Tan would be a prime mover on this behind the scene – nobody likes to be expose the way he was. He is probably hopping mad, behind the facade of an inscrutable fixed smirk on his face.

    Based on whatever has been put out into the public domain, IMO clarity and transparency is still very much lacking in the way processes are carried out.

    The govt should NOT continue to be allowed to treat the governance of Singapore like it is its own private company. Suka suka this way one day and that another day, whatever it suits the MIW prevailing interest.

  7. 7 Chanel 8 November 2011 at 13:44

    IPS dared not go far enough. One of the questions shoudl have been:

    Do you think it necessary to have a President, elected or otherwise?

  8. 8 Yujuan 12 November 2011 at 00:39

    We are satisfied with the PE, really?
    There are many doubts in our mind. First the Election Dept is not an independent body, it’s controlled by PAP.
    Next, the results are far too close, surely many Singaporeans are not feeling easy about such a close win for a Govt endorsed candidate.

  9. 9 Methodology 14 November 2011 at 01:25

    Hi Alex
    Thank you for providing more details beyond what the press wrote.
    I would like to question the methodology that IPS has used for this and many other surveys in the past year. I am confused several times as to how their survey sample can be extrapolated across the Singapore population of 3+mil.
    Most basic question I have: how was the survey carried out and in how many languages and dialects?
    I do not think the results of the IPS surveys, this one, and those of the recent past, are valid across the holders of the pink IC.

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