Written by Dr Wong Wee Nam
12 June 2011
Anxiety About The Candidates
When Dr Tan Cheng Bock publicly announced that he is going to contest the 2011 Presidential Election, he received, as expected, all kinds of response.
People are generally excited that there would be a contest. Many voters of Tanjong Pagar GRC are glad that they are finally going to experience what it is like to go into a voting booth. However, for some reason, some of his ex-comrades in the PAP do not feel very comfortable with the idea.
The former Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr. Lim Boon Heng, said he read the news of Dr Tan’s intention with “very, very mixed feelings”.
Mr Lim said that given the current sentiment among the electorate, Singaporeans might prefer a President who is not so closely linked to the People’s Action Party (PAP).
“My sense is that people would prefer if there were someone who can be a strong unifying symbol for Singaporeans, who’s not so closely related to the PAP” he said.
He further added, “I don’t know whether Dr Tan Cheng Bock, in spite of his independent streak of thinking and expression of views, fully meets the bill.”
By openly declaring he would be contesting the Presidential Election, Dr Tan Cheng Bock has opened himself to public scrutiny. Mr Lim has given his views, but to be fair to Dr Tan as well as the voters, he needs to clarify and substantiate his opinions.
As both Mr Lim and Dr Tan had been parliamentary colleagues for 26 years, Mr Lim must know a lot more about Dr Tan than many of the voters. Thus instead of just making some vague and generalised statements, he must tell us why he has this “very, very mixed feelings” why Dr Tan cannot be a strong unifying symbol for Singaporeans and why he does not fully meet the bill.
True, Singaporeans may prefer a President who is not so closely linked to the People’s Action Party. However, given the stringent criteria needed to get a certificate of eligibility and over 50 years of PAP government, where in Singapore can we find a candidate who has not been tinted by the PAP? This is difficult unless we go and look up in places like the National Library Board.
Why then is there this anxious need to discourage Dr Tan?
However not all his comrades agree with Mr. Lim that “Singaporeans might prefer a President who is not so closely linked to the People’s Action Party”.
When news broke that Dr Tan has intention to run for President, veteran backbencher Inderjit Singh, who was caught by surprise, told Today: “For Presidential Elections, there’s always been a candidate that the Government supports … it’s quite clear that we will be fully behind this person so it will be very awkward (to have Dr Tan in the contest).”
Whoever Mr Singh or the Government supports (why should a Government want to be fully behind a particularly candidate anyway?), why would it be awkward to have Dr Tan in the contest?
I used to have lunch with Dr Tan Cheng Bock on a regular basis. When I decided to contest the 1997 General Election as an opposition, there was no awkwardness. We only declared we would not eat with each other from nomination day to voting day so as not to confuse voters. The next morning after the results were announced, Dr Tan was the second person to call me up to console me.
There was no awkwardness. Awkwardness is only a matter of attitude. If we do not treat each other as deadly adversaries but as citizens trying to give out best to our country, there should not be any awkwardness.
Since the President Election is an apolitical election about choosing someone for a largely ceremonial office, and no deadly adversaries are involved, why should it be awkward for anyone to be a candidate?
Why then is there this anxious need to discourage Dr Tan or, for that matter, any other candidate from contesting the Presidential Election?
Anxiety about Understanding the Role of The President
Recently, there are also some anxieties about what the Presidential Office is all about.
Former deputy prime minister S. Jayakumar has called on the public and potential presidential candidates to be “very clear” about what an elected president can and cannot do. Similarly, Law Minister K Shanmugam has explained what the President is elected and empowered to do under the Singapore Constitution.
If one were to read the facebooks of Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Mr. Tan Kin Lian (another declared candidate), I think they are very clear about what they can and cannot do.
Dr Tan sums it up well. He said: “The better man would win, that’s all. This is election is not about politics, it’s about which candidate voters feel will be able to fulfil the main tasks of a president which is to guard our reserves and to appoint the top echelons of Government servants.”
Nevertheless, both the former and the current ministers anxieties are valid. While it may be an apolitical election, it is bound to stir up political sentiments. However, both the ministers’ clarification may not change this very much.
Even in the first Presidential Election, it was still about the PAP. In a television broadcast a “reluctant” candidate, Mr Chua Kim Yeow, made it clear that he was seeking support from voters who wanted to “avoid an over-concentration of power” in the ruling party, known by its initials as the PAP.
“The absence of an effective opposition in our Parliament has got many thinking people worried,” Mr. Chua said. The ruling party, he added, dominates both the government and the legislature. “Do you want the PAP to dominate the presidency as well?” he asked.
Even in this coming Presidential Election, it will still be about the PAP. It is inevitable that candidates would want to show that they are independent. By doing so it is inevitable that voters will end up voting according to the amount of shades of the PAP that the party has left on each candidate.
Even in an election where no issues are being fought, the voters will still be trying to send some kind of message to the PAP. This is something we have to live with at the moment until our political maturity grows beyond that. It will help speed up this growing process if the PAP plays its part by not endorsing any candidate this time round. As long as the PAP continues to support one candidate over the others, the Presidential Election will continue to be a vote-for-or against-PAP contest. Anyway, isn’t it strange to have a preferred candidate to check on you?
After Dr Tan Cheng Bock, former NTUC Income CEO, Mr. Tan Kin Lian, has also thrown his hat into the ring. To the credit of these two declared candidates, they have allowed themselves to be examined by the people of Singaporeans way before the election.
In an ordinary General Election, the PAP has always called on the opposition to reveal their candidates early to allow the voters to scrutinise them. Similarly, on 9 August 2005, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in the then Presidential Election, too, called for all candidates to be open about their records.
Thus, other candidates who have the intention of contesting this coming Presidential Election, especially the endorsed one, should heed this call and declare their intention early so that Singaporeans can have a look at them.
In the first Presidential Election held in 28 August 1993, the anxiety was whether there would be another candidate to ensure a contest. This time round the anxiety was whether the “right” candidate would be elected.
With the stringent criteria of integrity, good character, reputation, ability and experience in order to qualify as a candidate for the election, what is there to worry about?
With such selection criteria, whoever is elected will be able to do the job. A president voted in by the people must be the right person to symbolise the country. After all, he is the people’s choice.