A Rare Contentious Election in Singapore

Singaporean concerns about rising inequality, public infrastructure pressures associated with foreign worker numbers and the scarcity of political accountability are now playing themselves out in what usually is a tame election for the country’s presidency, a mostly ceremonial post.

Campaigning is now underway for the Aug. 27 election with the People’s Action Party still smarting from a 6.5 percent downward swing in national elections held last May 7. While current party members are deemed ineligible, presidential elections are always acutely party-political. The difference this time is that a candidate with opposition party links has met restrictive eligibility requirements to compete with PAP establishment figures. In the process, debate has opened up over the limits and possibilities of a president’s mandate.

Under Singapore’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the opposition’s 40 percent share of the national vote in the 2011 general election translated into just six of the 87 seats in parliament. This incongruity between levels of support and formal representation, combined with new confidence among PAP critics, has much to do with the way this particular presidential campaign is being conducted.

Four Tans will fight it out. The blue chip PAP establishment figure endorsed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is Tony Tan, a former Deputy Prime Minister and party chairman who has also been the deputy chairman of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation. The others are Tan Cheng Bock, a PAP member of parliament from 1980 to 2006; Tan Kin Lian, head of the insurance cooperative NTUC Income from 1997-2007 and PAP member for 30 years, and Tan Jee Say, who contested this year’s election as a candidate for the opposition Singapore Democratic Party.

Constitutional changes in 1991 creating the elected presidency were officially explained in terms of the need for custodial powers as a check against specific executive actions, notably through veto power over the spending of past reserves and key public service appointments.

The unmistakable target was any non-PAP government that might somehow find itself elected. A pro-PAP president could limit its fiscal options and its capacity to remove PAP apparatchiks in the public service, statutory bodies and government-linked-companies (GLCs).

Almost by definition, PAP critics appeared excluded from Presidential candidacy. To qualify, a candidate must have held senior office for not less than three years in a government department or organization of equivalent size or complexity, including responsibility for paid-up capital of at least S$100 million.

Tan Jee Say has firm establishment roots. Indeed, he spent five years as principal private secretary to then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong before working with various banks and investment houses. This included a stint as regional managing director of asset management company AIB Govett Asia during 1997-2001, which enabled him to satisfy presidential election eligibility requirements.

Tan Jay See’s branching out from the comfort of state capitalist networks, so important to the professional and political routes of many recent PAP leaders and ministers, appears to have reflected and reinforced an independence of mind that ultimately led him to opposition politics.

Although Tan resigned from the SDP in July in order to qualify for the presidential election, his pitch for a non-PAP president includes checking absolute parliamentary control by the PAP with “moral pressure on the PAP government by speaking up.” He claims that his presidential campaign can “raise the profile of all non-PAP forces and this will help in our outreach to the people in the run-up to 2016,” when the next general election is due.

Countering the notion promoted by PAP heavyweights and state-controlled media that Tony Tan is a “unifying force,” Tan Jee Say contends that: “To discharge his unifying role, the president must address the fundamental causes of the deep social divisions in Singapore and this is the underlying economic strategy of the government.”

Among root causes of the problem, according to Tan Jee Say, is state capitalism. If elected, he thus intends to lobby government to disband the state’s investment holding company, Temasek Holdings. Meanwhile, he would urge the government to build more hospitals and schools, increase medical workers and the number of places for Singaporeans in local universities. Veto powers might also be exercised to question salary bonuses to senior GLC managers, as controversially occurred in recent years despite heavy financial losses.

Far from being defensive about politicizing the president’s office, Tan Jee Say seeks to arrest the current monopoly of a particular brand of politics embodied in that post. Put simply, he contends that: “The PAP view is dominant in Singapore. There is a need for an alternative view to be expressed.”

This strategy irritates the ruling party, prompting Law Minister K. Shanmugam to caution candidates that the president “can speak on issues only as authorised by the cabinet; and he must follow the advice of the cabinet in the discharge of his duties.”

Undeterred, Tan Jee Say argues that it would be his duty to speak up on behalf of voters where he thinks the government has failed to deliver on its promises. Being elected affords the moral authority to do so.

In all likelihood, the PAP’s preferred candidate will prevail. Yet already this presidential campaign has produced a victory of sorts for the PAP’s opponents. Tan Jee Say’s candidacy has provided a platform for pressing the case for more effective parliamentary and other democratic means of holding PAP governments accountable. Lectures from the Law Minister and other members of the PAP establishment about the intended limits to the mandate of an elected President are unlikely to change that.

Tan Jee Say’s candidacy also throws into sharp relief the rationale for PAP establishment figures as the best placed to scrutinise the political executive’s processes. As voters are presented with someone genuinely independent of the PAP, suddenly the other three Tans are working overtime to bolster their non-PAP credentials. A lot of hair splitting is under way. After all, few political parties have such a distinguished record of conformity within its ranks as the PAP.

(Garry Rodan is an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University.)