Voters back moderates, yet 65 per cent spurn PAP's implicit choice
By Chua Mui Hoong
THE biggest effect of Presidential Election 2011 may be on General Election 2016, not just on the institution of the elected president.
Although the concerns of the electorate in a presidential election are different from those in a general election, PE 2011 does paint a broad picture of people's political inclinations for different types of candidates.
And the picture it paints is not pretty for the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). If GE2011 unveiled the new mood of the Singapore electorate, PE2011 confirmed it was no mere flash in the pan, and that the so-called new normal is here upon us.
What do the results tell us?
First, they speak volumes about voters' preference for the kind of presidency they want. Before the Aug 27 polls, the president's role was hotly debated by candidates, and in the mainstream and online media. In the end, Singapore voters gave 70 per cent of their vote to the two candidates who had no problems with the limited custodial role of the presidency, rejecting the other two candidates who had promised a more active presidency.
Second, the result speaks once more of the stability of the Singapore electorate, putting paid to fears of a freak election result, which is when protest votes against the PAP result in a less than ideal candidate being voted in.
The two candidates who made spending promises did not gain traction with voters. Mr Tan Kin Lian promised to work for higher allowances for full-time national servicemen and to press for an allowance for the elderly. Mr Tan Jee Say promised to press for any spending on reserves to go to things like schools and hospitals. He did not dwell on the matter for his presidential campaign, but many voters would remember him as the opposition candidate in the May General Election who considered his $60 billion economic regeneration plan 'small change'.
There was always an irony in a candidate, who wants to become Chief Protector of Past Reserves, making it a campaign promise to draw from the national purse he is meant to protect from profligacy. Voters obviously did not buy into those promises, giving Mr Tan Jee Say 25 per cent and Mr Tan Kin Lian just 4.9 per cent of the 2.1 million votes respectively.
In the end, the race was won by Dr Tony Tan with 35.19 per cent, a mere 7,269 or 0.34 per cent more than Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who got 34.85 per cent.
Despite talk of voters feeling sour with the PAP, a remarkable 70 per cent plumped for the two candidates with the strongest PAP links, who were PAP MPs for 27 and 26 years respectively.
This is higher than the 60.1 per cent who supported the PAP in GE2011. This shows that the anti-PAP voters are not reflexively anti-PAP. Voters look at the candidates. Dr Tan Cheng Bock said he had always put nation above party and promised to work with different political parties as part of his 'unifying Singapore' campaign promise. These resonated with many, both PAP and opposition.
This election result shows the Singapore voting core as being eminently stable and sensible. It puts paid to two myths often advanced by democracy sceptics in Singapore: the myth of the self-interested voter swayed by spending promises; and the myth of the irresponsible voter prepared to risk the nation's stability with an emotional protest vote.
When it came to the crunch, faced with a slate of four credible candidates, Singapore voters were neither self-interested nor irresponsible.
The third, and to me most significant, outcome lies in the fact that 65 per cent no longer automatically accepts the PAP's preferred choice for president.
Although PAP leaders were careful not to be too effusive in their comments, it was clear to voters just who the Government thought would be the best choice. Dr Tony Tan also received endorsements from unions and business groups. Still, two-thirds of voters chose someone else. This does not undermine Dr Tony Tan's mandate to be president. He intends to work hard to be every Singaporean's president, not just those who chose him. This is correct.
But politically, the result shows a fragmented society. Singapore is not yet divided along deep-seated ideological lines akin to those in America, where Republicans and Democrats are in gridlock. In Singapore, there is still a broad political consensus among the majority. But there is increasing fragmentation.
[Media sensationalisation. A fragmented society is so much more interesting to report. The speculation, the intrigue, the divided loyalties, the betrayal, the emotional upheaval. Yes. If it is all true.
If Tony Tan was not a candidate, Tan Cheng Bock would have been the default PAP candidate. Everyone who voted TT would have voted TCB. If TCB was not a candidate, many of his votes would have gone to TT. Many would also have gone to Tan Jee Say and maybe Tan Kin Lian even. Assuming TCB votes are evenly divided among the 3, TT would have gotten 46% and still won. But a more likely outcome would have been over 50% for TT, about 10% for TKL, and 40% for TJS. Maybe.More likely TJS and TKL will only pick up 5% each from TCB supporters. and TT would be 60% in the majority.]
In the past, the political consensus was centred on the PAP, with the PAP defining what is good for Singapore and voters buying into its vision. That PAP centre no longer holds. This was seen in past general elections and most notably in May in Aljunied GRC, when PAP leaders' attempts to sway voters there backfired.
Indeed, it can be argued that the PAP and what it stands for has become a key axis of fragmentation in Singapore politics, with voters defining themselves on the basis of whether they support or do not support the PAP (and its candidates by proxy).
In the last election, 55 per cent - five in nine voters - spurned a high-flying PAP team for the opposition in Aljunied GRC. That was widely seen as a watershed result; but it showed the mood in only one constituency.
This presidential election was on a national scale. And fully two in three spurned a high-flying PAP-approved candidate for rivals with less impressive financial experience.
[Right. That S. R. Nathan was a financial genius and a wizard. How the hell did they managed to foist him on us for the last 12 years.]
However you parse it, the sobering reality is that two-thirds of voters did not support the PAP's implicit choice of national leader.
What does PE2011 portend for the next election? To be sure, the contest for a custodial president is different from that for the government of the day. Voters on Saturday made their choice for president in full assurance that the PAP held 81 out of 87 seats in Parliament. But to the extent that a national election reflects the will of the people, this much can be said of the result: The voting core respects candidates for national office who are politically moderate - thus 70 per cent voted for the two Dr Tans; and two-thirds are no longer prepared to accept the PAP's choice as a fait accompli.
[Bull crap! It has always been so. The first Presidential election 18 years ago had a virtual unknown take 41% to Ong Teng Cheong's 59%. And he didn't even bother to campaign. Voters for TCB of course wants him to be president, but they are not overly upset that it is TT. Most are glad it is is not the other two. So 70% of Singaporeans are happy with a conservative choice. Maybe not PAP's first choice, but certainly not antagonistic to PAP. Certainly if PAP could not have TT, TCB would have been the next best thing, and they would not have been overly upset if TCB had won. Maybe he was not the first choice, but he's not unreasonable.
So in a way the voters were saying, I know you want TT, but I think you can work with TCB, and we think we believe him more.]
The first should be consoling to all right-minded citizens. The second should give the PAP pause for thought and serve as motivation - if any more were needed after May 7 - for serious reform.
But five years is a very long time.
Meanwhile, the hope is that the losing candidates continue to stay engaged politically and find ways to harness the considerable energies of their supporters to positive ends. And that Singaporeans - regardless of their vote this election - do the sensible, mature thing and accord to the new president Tony Tan the respect the office deserves.