Sunday, April 14, 2024
HomesingaporepoliticsVoters speak: How Singaporeans chose their president

Voters speak: How Singaporeans chose their president

SINGAPORE – In the nine days that led up to Polling Day on Sept 1, Mr Christopher Jong found himself doing something out of character: consuming political news with fervour.

The 27-year-old entrepreneur not only kept a close eye on the campaign trails of each presidential candidate in the media, but also on platforms like Instagram.

A short snippet of former senior minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam giving his now-famous trampoline answer to BBC presenter Stephen Sackur about whether Singapore believes in a social safety net prompted him to watch the full 48-minute video, which was recorded at the St Gallen Symposium in 2015.

“I actually watched the whole thing, which is strange because I don’t normally do that,” said Mr Jong, one of the 70.4 per cent of voters who gave Mr Tharman a resounding mandate.

“But it’s quite captivating to see how he could hold his own against an interviewer constantly bombarding him with tough questions on these topics about Singapore.”

While old stereotypes of youth voters – that they are politically apathetic, or disinterested in current affairs – had begun to fall away, the just-concluded presidential election has arguably shown the political nous of those in their early 20s to mid-30s.

The youth vote: At ease with a social media election

With the last contested presidential election being in 2011, the bulk of this group was choosing their president for the first time. Based on the sum of each birth cohort from 1990 to 2002, this would mean close to 600,000 new young voters.

What was clear from the about 25 voters that The Straits Times spoke to across the different age groups was that young voters had considerations that were similar to those of older voters, such as the track record of the candidates and who they deemed most suitable to represent Singapore on the global stage.

The difference?

Many were appraising the candidates through the lens of social media and a range of online sources, from long-form video interviews to memes and podcasts.

Ms Stephanie Chew, 25, said that as a first-time voter for the presidency, she was keen to look at the candidates’ ability to carry and articulate themselves, and the overall messages each chose to focus on during the election period.

She cited the candidates’ Instagram and TikTok accounts as key channels, alongside podcasts and alternative media such as Mothership, where candidates could be seen or heard answering questions at length.

“This allowed me to get to know each candidate in greater detail (and) did impact my view of the candidates and how well equipped they were to take on the duties of the presidency,” said the senior communications executive, who voted for former GIC investment chief Ng Kok Song.

Ms Aroni Sarkar, 23, agreed, noting that many were keenly aware of the differences between choosing a president and voting in a general election.

“You’re not really choosing someone whom you need to consider for their policy positions because this is for the role of the president,” said the political science student.

“So the criteria we’re looking at become a lot more about the character and how they engage with the public, rather than their personal politics, and as an individual, how his character and experience are reflected in their responses.”

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Marketing executive Rebecca Tan, 25, who voted for Mr Tharman, said she listened to The Daily Ketchup’s podcasts with all three candidates, and it “was nice to see them in a more natural setting and see their personalities shine through”.

She added that more of her friends were keeping tabs on the presidential election than on the 2020 General Election. This is so although some analysts had termed GE2020 Singapore’s first Internet election, as physical rallies were not possible then due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Then there were those who were not only consuming election content online, but also making their own.

Mr Ali Azman, 21, rooted for former NTUC Income chief Tan Kin Lian as he felt that the 75-year-old was independent of the current government.

The fresh polytechnic graduate himself contributed to the corpus of online information sources via TikTok videos he put up on his account @thesingaporeanson, such as the reasons to support Mr Tan.

While the unfiltered format of long interviews put up by content creators on YouTube and Spotify appeared to be a hit with young voters, it proved to sometimes be a double-edged sword.

Ms Tan said she felt the podcast with Mr Tan contributed to his “downfall” due to the way he answered the host’s questions.

This included his comments that Singapore would be better off if half the female population chose to be housewives and his disagreement over the need for secrecy about the Republic’s reserves to defend the Singdollar.

“He never gave a proper argument to substantiate such sweeping statements,” she said.

“Whenever prodded for further elaboration, he would either say it’s too technical to explain or that he was ‘young once’.”

Ms Sarkar noted that much of the content she saw on social media was memes made from some of Mr Tan’s more controversial remarks, such as his providing a choice for Singaporeans to elect a “blue-blooded” candidate, and that his wife was dressed in green as that is the colour that Malays like.

“He seemed tone-deaf to what young people wanted to hear, and I think that disconnect stopped a lot of young people from voting for him,” she said.

Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah of Nanyang Technological University’s School of Social Sciences stressed that young people are not a monolithic group, and are divided into many identities.

But it could be seen in this election result that many people, whether young or old, voted for Mr Tharman, he said.

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Courting pro-establishment and middle-ground vote

He pointed out Mr Tharman’s recognisability and strong qualifications, as well as a strong campaign, in particular on social media, for securing voters.

“People young or old generally appreciated the fact that Tharman has a good reputation in terms of not engaging in personal attacks against his opponents, which, for the presidency, for someone who is above partisan politics… it’s almost like a prerequisite,” he added.

Unpacking Mr Tharman’s landslide win, a key vote bank is undoubtedly the pro-establishment voter – which conventional wisdom places at about 35 per cent of the electorate – and residents of Jurong GRC, the constituency for which he was formerly the anchor minister.

They include those like accountant Tan Siow Keng, 58, who counts herself among his long-time supporters.

“To us and our neighbours, he’s like an idol. We all followed him on the campaign trail (and) supported him on Nomination Day,” she said, noting that her Jurong neighbours would share his whereabouts on the campaign trail and rush to catch him on walkabouts.

Ms Geraldine Wee, 44, a communications consultant, said she had made up her mind before the campaigning as she had always admired Mr Tharman.

“I always thought he should be prime minister – he’s intelligent, extremely capable, and he cares about people. I’m disappointed he wasn’t our PM,” she said.

If she could not have him as prime minister, then he should be president, she added.

Nursing undergraduate Cheok Xin Lin, 22, felt the same way.

As a long-time Taman Jurong resident under Mr Tharman’s care when he was MP, Mr Cheok was ready to vote for Mr Tharman once he announced his intention to run for the presidency.

“He is very genuine with all his interactions. He will try to remember names and interesting things about the residents. We’ve also seen how he carries himself internationally – very firm and dedicated,” he said.

Other voters said they made their choice after looking into the information available – both existing, and the new content generated during the campaign.

Mr Srinivasan Raghunathan, 52, looked closely at the track record of the candidates and what they intended to do should they become president.

He found himself agreeing with Mr Tharman’s pitch that there is a lot of work to be done in the coming six years, which would require someone of the former senior minister’s influence and international standing.

“There are many challenges ahead for Singapore, and we need to have the best man representing Singapore’s interests,” said the assistant director of a ship management firm.

This was a consistent theme among many of those who voted for Mr Tharman.

Corporate communications executive Lester Kok considered Mr Tharman’s experience at the Monetary Authority of Singapore and the various ministerial portfolios he had held, including in education and finance.

“Simply put, he is the best person to represent Singapore with his foreign policy experience and he has a sterling reputation in the UN,” he said.

“In addition, his wife and him both have a track record on the ground (of) helping the underprivileged.”

Ms Sarkar, the 23-year-old student, said Mr Tharman’s focus on making his plans for Singapore a joint mission and for the community to come together, rather than being about individual efforts, particularly resonated with her.

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‘Tharman didn’t need my vote’: Voting tactically to send a message

While acknowledging Mr Tharman’s abilities, some voters backed Mr Ng to support whom they felt was a worthy candidate who had come forward of his own accord.

Others who voted for Mr Ng agreed with his call for a non-partisan president without any past political ties.

Mr Jabez Koh, 32, said he wanted to ensure that Mr Ng did not lose his deposit.

The content lead for a food and beverage company said: “It took guts for Mr Ng to contest the presidency despite facing a losing battle against someone like Mr Tharman.

“I knew that Mr Tharman would win. He didn’t need my vote.”

Software engineer Jiale, 29, who declined to give his full name, felt the same way.

“I wanted to increase the vote count for Mr Ng so that in the next presidential election, (others) would not be discouraged to stand for election,” he said.

Too big a margin of victory might undermine the confidence of future prospective candidates in offering themselves, he added.

Mr Ng received 15.72 per cent of the votes cast, and retained his deposit.

Entrepreneur Grace Tang, 39, said she voted for Mr Ng as she did not want a president who is “clearly partisan” and wanted to support a candidate whom she thought could be a check and balance against the other two branches of government.

“I wanted to make sure that the candidate I supported would be presidential, someone who would be suited for the office. I felt that Mr Ng was the only candidate who could fulfil both criteria adequately,” she said.

From speaking to others, Ms Tang was sure that Mr Tharman would win. So it was all the more that she felt she had to vote for Mr Ng.

“I wanted to support him also because I wanted to send a positive signal to other would-be independent candidates,” she said.

That is, voters would give them due consideration and potentially vote for them, and hopefully encourage more independents to step forward in future elections, she said.

Notably, many who voted for Mr Ng said they were confident that he had the ability to represent Singapore at home and abroad if he had won, and that theirs were not protest votes.

Senior communications executive Stephanie Chew, 25, said she had tuned in to the presidential forum that aired on CNA, and caught The Straits Times’ Ask The Next President Anything show.

Remote video URL

Mr Ng’s answers in these sessions and in his presidential candidate broadcast cemented her choice, she said.

“He also spoke from the heart and was very genuine throughout his entire campaign, which I think made a difference,” added Ms Chew.

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Tempered by rationality: The anti-establishment and protest vote

Among those ST spoke to, those who voted for Mr Tan expressed anti-establishment sentiments. The former NTUC Income chief executive received 13.88 per cent of the vote.

One clear theme among those who polled for Mr Tan was unhappiness with the Government.

IT executive Royston Tang, 42, said he was dissatisfied with how the People’s Action Party (PAP) Government had handled the corruption probe involving Transport Minister S. Iswaran and tycoon Ong Beng Seng.

While Mr Tan’s “senseless and insensitive speech towards the public and the media” and “illogical thoughts on certain national issues” were disappointing, Mr Tang said this was outweighed by his unhappiness with the PAP.

He said his choice was cemented by the “heavyweight support” from former presidential candidate and Progress Singapore Party chairman Tan Cheng Bock, and Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan.

A 34-year-old freelance art director, who declined to be named, said he voted for Mr Tan partly out of protest, because laws that he disagreed with were passed while Mr Tharman was in the Cabinet.

They include the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, and changes to the Constitution that allowed for a reserved presidential election in 2017.

While he felt that the endorsements for Mr Tan by former presidential candidates Dr Tan and Mr Tan Jee Say had politicised the election, it was his view that voters who were opposition-leaning were already likely to vote for Mr Tan.

Others were sceptical about the differences between Mr Tharman and Mr Ng, and felt that Mr Tan was the clearest non-establishment candidate.

A 59-year-old blogger who declined to be named said he voted for Mr Tan because Mr Tharman and Mr Ng “failed to convince me that they are not just extensions of the ruling party”.

“Though a bit goofy and clueless outside his field of expertise and (someone) who sometimes even ‘incriminates’ himself, Mr Tan has always been friendly and approachable,” he said.

The blogger said that Mr Tan first stood out during the Lehman Brothers debacle in 2008, when he helped retirees who had lost their life savings, and he had been following Mr Tan on social media.

He said he would have supported entrepreneur George Goh if he had qualified, “but left with the three candidates, my support went to Tan Kin Lian”.

Mr Goh, 63, had been among the presidential hopefuls for the election.

He had applied under the private sector route, but did not receive a certificate of eligibility.

After the certificates went out, there was some speculation of an increase in spoilt votes among segments that felt none of the three candidates met their requirements.

But Singaporeans appeared to exercise rationality and respect for the weight each vote carried – spoilt votes accounted for 1.98 per cent of total votes cast, which is marginally higher than in GE2020.

Some, like former training consultant Kathirithamby Ramakrishnan, 74, said he liked Mr Tharman, but voted for Mr Tan as he wanted to give him a chance, “so (those like Mr Tan) would not be disenchanted from coming forward”.

“I wanted to give a little ‘tip’ to another candidate, so that in the future others will build up their style and experience and one day come forward. If they can be the CEO of an organisation, surely they can also be ‘CEO’ of a country,” he said.

Political observer Zulkifli Baharudin pointed out that the hardcore opposition voters would have picked someone they viewed as more distant from the PAP.

Given that Mr Ng and Mr Tan were not very well-known figures, a person who voted for them must have wanted to see a different person, someone not so closely linked to the Government, in the role of the president, he said.

It is clear that while Singaporean voters are very diverse in terms of background, age, education and other factors, the not-so-diverse voting outcome showed that Singaporeans do care about the presidency and they are mature in the way they choose at the polls, he added.

The outcome also did not reflect this diversity because Mr Tharman was a “nuclear option”, said Mr Zulkifli.

“Mr Tharman’s persona was so overwhelming that people were ready to put aside their differences.”

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