Singapore elects a new president
Tantamount to a humiliation
Aug 28th 2011, 8:07 by Banyan
PRESIDENTIAL elections in Singapore rarely set pulses racing. The job is that of a well-paid but largely ceremonial head of state, who is not allowed to represent any particular party. The poll on August 27th was the fourth time the post has been directly elected, but the first time there has been any doubt at all about the outcome. Four candidates competed, all surnamed Tan. One, Tony Tan Keng Yam, was seen as the representative of the government and the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore ever since it withdrew from the Malaysian Federation in 1965. As expected, he won. But he barely scraped home, with a shade over 35% of vaild votes cast, and just 7,000 more than his nearest challenger, Tan Cheng Bock, a former PAP MP, who campaigned against his former party colleague. Tan Jee Say, a former senior civil servant and banker who was an opposition candidate in the general election in May, won 25%, and the fourth candidate, Tan Kin Lian, just 5%. Voting is compulsory but nearly 2% of voters spoiled their ballots—more than 37,000, it was judged.
The PAP never endorsed Tony Tan formally. But he has held a number of cabinet jobs, and the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, enthusiastically endorsed his candidacy. He also enjoyed the backing of party activists, trade unions, chambers of commerce and community groups. So, that he won not much more than a third of the vote is a remarkable slap in the face for the government. All the same PAP diehards protested that, since two former PAP MPs had garnered 70% of the vote, this was an endorsement for the party.
This follows the general election in May when the PAP did worse than in any election since 1965. It still won 60% of the vote, which left it, in Singapore’s first-past-the-post system, with 81 out of 87 elected seats in parliament. But the party acknowledged it as a setback, and Mr Lee promised to do some “soul-searching”. Voters seem to feel, however, that the government has still not got the message. The presidential election turned into a relatively low-risk chance to teach it a lesson.
A constitutional change in 1991 accorded the president some limited powers—including a veto over the government’s use of past financial reserves, and over senior appointments. The idea was to install a check over a putative future government that was spendthrift and populist, and stacked the civil service with its cronies. The eligibility criteria for presidential candidates are strict, ensuring that only pillars of the establishment need apply.
Until this year, only the first direct presidential election in 1993 had more than one candidate—in that case a virtual unknown who barely campaigned, but who still, in a foretaste of this year’s shock, won more than 40% of the votes.
In general elections opposition parties, which are small and fragmented, are at a disadvantage. Most parliamentary seats are in big “group” constituencies, where they struggle to field slates of credible candidates, and whose boundaries, they claim, are manipulated in the PAP’s favour. The presidential poll is the only one that is island-wide and not affected by these considerations. It gave voters the opportunity to install a different sort of check into the political system. The result is sobering for the PAP. As the country's biggest newspaper, the pro-government Straits Times, put it in reporting the result: "the voting patterns show a society more politically divided than ever before.”
They reflect a widespread sense that the government, blinded by Singapore’s astonishing economic progress, has lost touch with the grievances of ordinary citizens. This sense is in part about particular issues, such as the cost of housing or immigration, which some blame for depressing local wages. But it is as much a question of style—a resentment at what is seen as the government’s paternalistic belief that it knows best.
They also reflect the breakdown, thanks to the internet, and especially social-networking sites, of the government’s virtual monopoly over the media. In both general and presidential elections, the government’s opponents were able to change the terms of the debate by taking it online. For example, when one of the newly elected opposition MPs complained on his Facebook page that he was not allowed to attend constituency functions on a public-housing estate, the issue soon became a national one about the perception of a pro-PAP bias in public bodies.
The realisation that more than 60% of Singaporeans voted against the government’s favoured candidate will presumably provoke more soul-searching within the PAP. Some will take it as proof that the party must move further and faster in opening up to adjust to the “new normal” of a political system with a sizeable opposition. Others, however, may take the opposite view: that too much liberalisation has led to a fading of the fear of the unpleasant repercussions that used to deter critical commentary and opposition activism. In short, that Singaporeans are forgetting who knows best what's good for them.
(Picture credit: AFP)