Thursday, June 20, 2024
HomesingaporepoliticsTharman rises above the fray despite a politically charged election

Tharman rises above the fray despite a politically charged election

How do you elect someone to an apolitical office, without the election becoming politicised?

Going by this year’s presidential election, the answer, as it was in 2011, is “with great difficulty”.

Hogging the headlines in the run-up to Polling Day were two candidates loudly touting their independence, and opposition figures lining up behind Mr Tan Kin Lian – after another “independent” hopeful, Mr George Goh, was disqualified.

But as the sample count came in past 10.40pm on Friday – complete with cheers of “Majulah Singapura” in the Tharman camp – it was clear that with around 70 per cent of the vote, the former senior minister had won by a mile and more. His rivals bowed out well before midnight.

The outcome of this election showed that in spite of all the noise online and offline, Singaporeans had rejected the politics of division, and carefully weighed who they thought would best represent their country not just domestically, but also on the world stage.

Politicised election

It was not always apparent that this would be the outcome.

Among Mr Tan’s very visible backers were Progress Singapore Party (PSP) chairman and founder Tan Cheng Bock, Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) member Tan Jee Say, Peoples Voice (PV) chief Lim Tean, People’s Power Party chief Goh Meng Seng, and former PV candidate Leong Sze Hian.

More opposition supporters emerged in the final stretch of his campaign, including SDP chief Chee Soon Juan and Reform Party secretary-general Kenneth Jeyaretnam, who said electing Mr Tan “might finally force the Government to reveal more about the size of the reserves”.

Opposing figures coalescing around a presidential candidate is not new.

In the 2011 race, Mr Tan Jee Say had the backing of then National Solidarity Party politicians Nicole Seah and Steve Chia, as well as Mr Vincent Wijeysingha, Mr Ang Yong Guan and Dr Paul Tambyah, who were with the SDP.

But what was especially acute this time round was the dog-whistling – saying one thing in prepared statements, while signalling something completely different through one’s actions.

Earlier this week, Mr Tan Kin Lian said that Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Mr Tan Jee Say, two of his opponents in 2011, were supporting his campaign in their “personal capacity”.

Opposition parties such as the PSP distanced themselves from endorsing any candidate. Yet their leaders – not just ordinary party members – were openly stumping the campaign trail.

Mr Tan Kin Lian also hinted that if elected, he might nominate Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Mr Tan Jee Say to the Council of Presidential Advisers.

It begged the question: How would Mr Tan remain impartial when working with the government of the day, if he was potentially beholden to at least half a dozen politicians who couldn’t even win their own seats at the last general election?

Results repel divisive rhetoric

While Mr Tharman was generally regarded as the front runner, a question mark hung over whether the former senior minister could replicate the level of support he had garnered in general elections.

It did not help that a recent spate of controversies involving government figures seemed to have soured the public mood.

Yet as a testament not just to his campaign messaging but also his personal popularity, he managed to sustain his track record of electoral wins – including an overwhelming 75 per cent victory in Jurong GRC in 2020 – and far exceeding the average national vote share of his former party, the People’s Action Party (PAP).

If one uses a back-of-hand estimate that the bedrock of PAP voters make up around 35 per cent of voters, moderate PAP voters make up a further 15 per cent, undecided middle ground voters another 25 per cent, and the remaining 25 per cent committed to vote against the PAP, Mr Tharman had unequivocally won over not just hardcore establishment supporters, but also a significant swathe of the middle ground.

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While the other candidates had raised red flags over his past affiliation to the PAP, he said repeatedly on the campaign trail that running for the presidency is a matter of character, not whom the candidate was affiliated with previously.

He said: “We are appointing someone for a high leadership position – head of state. Look at the person’s individual character, their contributions, their track record, their emotional commitment, and their rapport with people.”

His message appears to have sunk in with voters.

At a doorstop interview on Friday night, he thanked Singaporeans for “following the issues closely, and for engaging calmly”.

“I believe that the vote for me and what I stand for is a vote of confidence in Singapore… It’s a vote of optimism for a future in which we can progress together and support each other as Singaporeans.”

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Mr Ng Kok Song was gracious in defeat, saying that giving people the opportunity to vote was “the ultimate objective” when he set out to stand for the presidency.

He added that he received a call from Mr Tharman after the announcement of the sample count, and had congratulated him on a “magnificent victory”.

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Meanwhile, it is worth asking if Mr Tan’s positions on some issues hurt his performance at the polls, especially when they might have been considered by some to be anachronistic and perhaps even prejudiced.

Aside from drawing the ire of female (and male) voters for his past references on Facebook to “pretty girls” and “pretty slim girls”, Mr Tan also made the headlines for his nativist comments, such as claiming that locals prefer the president and ‘first lady’ to be “blue-blooded” Singaporeans from birth.

It was a clear dig at Mr Ng’s fiancee and Mr Tharman’s spouse, who are foreign-born Singaporeans, while just stopping short of naming them. But could it also have raised eyebrows among a proportion of Singaporeans who have foreign-born family members?

In a podcast, he spoke of his “suspicion” on matters of diversity, saying: “If you want to be a homosexual, do it privately. If you want to do it outwardly, then you actually cause problems with younger people and so on.”

Then there was the mixed – and dare I say confusing – policy messaging.

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Mr Tan stuck to a safe script in his national broadcasts, saying that while the head of state may not have executive authority, he would use the “soft influence and prestige” of his office to make life better for Singaporeans.

He was more specific elsewhere, though, and bordered on overreach. In one podcast, he called the goods and services tax (GST) “wasteful”, saying the Government should impose a payroll tax instead.

He overlooked the fact that such a move would disproportionately impact the less well-off compared with the GST, which taxes people based on what they consume, not what they earn, and comes with a slew of tiered offsets.

During a live forum on Aug 28, Mr Tan claimed that the reserves were used by the Government to subsidise banks during Covid-19, which went on to make “huge profits”.

My colleague and I who covered the forum that day were flummoxed.

Was Mr Tan referring to the Jobs Support Scheme? If so, was he not aware that the wage support went to many sectors to help employers retain their local staff, not just banks?

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Misunderstood institution

Three decades since the elected presidency (EP) came into existence, survey after survey has shown that Singaporeans’ understanding of the institution is limited, although it has improved over time.

A survey published in July found that while most first-time voters understand the roles and functions of the elected president, they are less clear about whether the president has the power to change existing laws, and his relationship with political parties.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in a statement on Saturday that “in this election, both voters and candidates have shown a greater understanding of the roles and duties of the president, which bodes well for Singapore”.

This is a positive development. Yet one cannot deny that going forward, the checks and balances put in place to ensure the integrity of the system will be used, election after election, as ammunition for those who consider it unfairly stacked in favour of the PAP-led government.

Due consideration must also be given to the particularities of each election, including individual candidates’ popularity.

What if there is no equally or more well-regarded figure than Mr Tharman in future elections?

The premise of the EP remains valid: Mindful that a rogue government coming into power in a “freak election” could fritter away the nation’s hard-earned reserves, a “second key” was created, so that the president’s consent is needed before the government of the day can spend past reserves.

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But what happens if it is not a rogue government, but a rogue president who gets elected?

When we speak of a candidate getting into power due to a “freak election” result, we imply that Singaporeans have not consciously voted for this candidate.

But today, some Singaporeans do not seem as concerned about the risks associated with a “freak election”. And the 14 per cent who cast their ballot in favour of Mr Tan – a not-insignificant number – would not have considered their choice a “freak” decision.

Given Singapore’s evolving and contested political landscape, will there come a time when further adjustments to the EP system are needed? If so, what and when?

Rising above the fray 

Ultimately, the president is elected directly by the people to preserve the integrity of the Singapore system, financial integrity, as well as the integrity of key appointments of the public service.

Friday’s result shows that the vast majority of Singaporeans still believe in the elected president’s unifying role.

This does not just involve exercising one’s duties without fear or favour. It is also about someone who can command the trust and confidence of the government of the day, so that the president and the Government are not constantly at odds with each other.

It is unequivocally clear that Singaporeans believe Mr Tharman is the best man for the job.

But beyond this, I also believe he made an emotionally inspired choice to run on the slogan “Respect for All”.

It is a message for our times, because the challenges we face in our communities and in our homes are not just of the mind, but of the heart; about whether people think they are heard and seen.

It acknowledges that people and nations have a moral essence, a soul, and each one of us is of infinite value and dignity.

It is sensitive to how people’s sense of self-worth shapes their sense of connection to dominant social institutions, which in turn influences their fears and hopes about their own future and the future of their country.

As Mr Tharman said: “It has to be a future where we deepen our solidarity as Singaporeans regardless of our differences, regardless of our backgrounds… It is what I’ve stood for. I believe it is what Singaporeans stand for.

“And this vote is really a vote of confidence in that future.”

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