Singapore Seeks to Rig Another Election

In 2011, the popular Tony Tan Keng Yam, 67, whose distinguished career as a Singapore public official included membership in parliament, deputy prime minister, minister of defense, finance and trade and industry at various times, came within a relative whisker of losing the race to become the nation’s president – by less than 1 percent of the vote.

Behind Tan in the race for the six-year nonpartisan incumbency was Tan Cheng Bock, who won 34.85 percent of the vote against Tony Tan’s 35.2 percent. Behind them both was Tan See Jay, a candidate formerly with the opposition Singapore Democratic Party.

It may be no coincidence that last month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Singapore’s Parliament that “certain aspects” of the process of electing the country’s president must be reviewed given that the presidency – regarded as a largely ceremonial office – is custodian of the country’s enormous foreign exchange reserves. Singapore, an island republic of only 3.1 million citizens and permanent residents, at US$262 billion has the 10th largest reserves of 186 countries and principalities in the world, outpointing such major economies as Germany (12th), the UK (14th) and, the United States (19th).

How much of Lee’s concerns relate to “character” and “competence” or to Tan’s razor-thin win is questionable. The list of qualifications to run for President is already formidable. They are so strict that nobody could be found who was qualified besides SR Nathan in 1999 and 2005.

If that smacks of the dilemma in Hong Kong, in which the territory’s politics and democracy are hobbled by the fact that China insists on selecting suitable candidates for the election of its chief executive, it should. In Hong Kong, defiance on the part of students and opponents resulted in an 80-day standoff with police over concerns that the Chinese Communist Party would determine Hong Kong’s future. Tens of thousands of protesters blocked the streets of the Central District.

Singaporeans are not likely to be as intractable as Hong Kong’s street protesters. The country’s next election must be held before August of 2017. Nobody has said it out loud, but the ruling People’s Action Party has a long record of moving the goalposts through legislation to make sure opposition parties stay out of power. Gerrymandering in the 2011 election gave the PAP 82 seats in the parliament on 60.1 percent of the vote to out of 87 total – meaning a combined 39 percent of the vote won the opposition five seats.

The biggest and, in critics’ eyes, most egregious modification to voting procedures was engineered by Lee Kuan Yew, the patriarch and founder of the PAP, who put together a scheme called group representation constituencies, in which members of parliament were voted into office as groups. The government said the plan was primarily to enshrine minority representation in parliament. At least one of the members of a group constituency had to be a member of a minority race.

The Parliamentary Elections Act states that there must be at least eight single or multiple candidacies, with the number of MPs to be returned by all group constituencies not less than a quarter of the total number of MPs. What those limitations meant was that fractured and impoverished opposition parties were basically never going to be able to field enough candidates to make up teams to win the group candidacies – although the Workers’ Party won one of these at the 2011 elections -- in the Aljuneid group constituency, and retained it last year. The PAP is now moving back to more single-constituency seats, given that its scheme was less watertight as expected.

The new decision to vet candidates, said an Australian political science professor, “certainly reflects concern about Tan's close call at the last election and the desire to better insulate the PAP's preferred candidate from competition. It is just one a number of reforms to political institutions now mooted.”

A source with a Singapore-based human rights organization agreed, saying “the comment I've received from a source is that is does relate to Tony Tan and the 2013 election.”

Under the government’s new plan, the prime minister’s office announced last week that the panel would include Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, who will to lead an eight-person team including the chairman of the public service commission, Supreme Court Judge Tay Yong Kwang, former speaker of the parliament Abdullah Tarmugi and Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee. Others are Chua Thian Poh of Ho Bee Land, Philip Ng of Far East Organization, Peter Seah of DBS Bank, and Wong Ngit Liong of Venture Corp.

According to the Straits Times, Lee told parliament the commission would deliver its recommendations by the third quarter of 2016, paving the way for changes to be made ahead of the next presidential election.

According to the Straits Times, the prime minister said the president must be above politics and act as a "stabiliser in our political system.”

Three areas are to be reviewed, the Straits Times said, starting with criteria for eligibility to stand, considering “the president's custodial role over the reserves and public service, a role that requires ‘individuals of character and standing’ with experience and ability to do the job ‘with dignity and distinction’."

Second, the panel will consider provisions for minority candidates to have fair and adequate opportunity to be elected, given the President's status as a unifying figure who represents a multiracial Singapore.

Third, refinements to the role and composition of the Council of Presidential Advisers will be reviewed to ensure that “key decisions are made after careful consideration from people with substantial suitable experience in the public and private sectors.” Those criteria are likely to be familiar to the students and opposition protesters on Hong Kong’s ramparts during the Umbrella Movement, as it was called, considering that all of the nine members of the Singaporean selection committee appear to be citizens of good standing in the eyes of the People’s Action Party.