New normal after the General Election reflected in presidential polls
By Zakir Hussain
Rounded off, the final vote tally on the first count was a photo-finish of 35-35-25-5, with Dr Tony Tan and Dr Tan Cheng Bock both so close to each other at the finishing line that a recount ensued.
Mr Tan Jee Say scored a creditable 25 per cent of valid votes while Mr Tan Kin Lian trailed far behind with just under 5 per cent.
The presidential election was not meant to be General Election, Round Two, but voting behaviour can be hard to change in four short months.
And voters appear to have made their choices for who should be Singapore's seventh president along party lines, more or less.
But what is more telling is the divide within the pool of traditional People's Action Party (PAP) supporters, which forced such a tight result between Dr Tony Tan and Dr Tan Cheng Bock even though the former deputy prime minister was the Government's preferred candidate.
Even if the party never explicitly endorsed Dr Tony Tan, it was abundantly clear that the party leadership preferred him.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong felt he was eminently qualified for the job, and that he would be a unifying figure.
Many party activists and grassroots leaders also cast their lot with him, volunteering to help him campaign even as some of their fellow party members stumped for Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a veteran former PAP backbencher.
Dr Tony Tan was also endorsed by a large swathe of unions and establishment groups, from chambers of commerce to community groups - a feat that eluded other contenders.
In conventional terms, many in the establishment regarded him as more qualified for the role: He had helmed five ministries and served as deputy prime minister in some 27 years in politics.
A 'new normal'?
Alas, Dr Tony Tan had himself described Singapore politics post-General Election as having entered a 'new normal'.
One wonders whether Dr Tan had himself expected the race to be this close, given his remarks when he declared his intention to run in June.
He said then: 'I am not running because I am convinced I will win, but because I know in the present circumstances, it is my responsibility to step forward and to try.'
As it turns out, the results of the presidential election confirm what the General Election showed about how the electorate has changed in the way it supports non-government candidates.
That Dr Tony Tan won just a sliver above 35 per cent of valid votes shows how this 'new normal' is shaping up.
Assuming that most voters stayed more or less with their preferences for either the opposition or the PAP, Dr Tony Tan's votes would no doubt have been drawn largely from a section of the 60.1 per cent of the electorate overall who backed the PAP on May 7.
But he scooped up barely 60 per cent of the vote from this pool, in spite of the many expressions of support and suitability from all corners.
Some have described the choice between Dr Tony Tan and Dr Tan Cheng Bock as a choice between the PAP 'elite' and the PAP 'grassroots'. This is too simplistic a depiction, given the support Dr Tony Tan has garnered among many on the ground.
A more plausible explanation would be that the PAP ground is deeply split. On the one hand are party loyalists who went for Dr Tony Tan.
On the other are those who favour a more 'neutral' candidate who would not obstruct the Government, but whom they feel may be independent enough to speak up when needed - and they saw these qualities in Dr Tan Cheng Bock.
It is a trend the PAP will need to ponder over, as it shows that when they have a choice, the PAP base wants someone different from who its leadership might prefer: Forty per cent of its supporters went for Dr Tan Cheng Bock.
On the plus side for Dr Tan Cheng Bock, it would appear that he has also drawn support across partisan lines, with some 25 per cent of opposition voters backing him, even if some of them wanted a candidate with the best chance of beating Dr Tony Tan.
View from the street
Street polls conducted by this newspaper across the island over three days last week appear to back the way the vote was split.
Dr Tan Cheng Bock was seen as a more 'neutral' candidate than Dr Tony Tan among the 964 voters polled.
Some 76 per cent of them felt the PAP Government supported Dr Tony Tan alone, and as a result, close to 40 per cent of this group were less inclined to vote for him.
Older voters and those in the heartland tended to favour Dr Tony Tan, while younger ones backed Dr Tan Cheng Bock - especially younger professionals and those in the Central Business District.
The proportion of those in this latter constituency - who do not have that bond of undergoing the early years of independence with the PAP - is set to expand in the coming years.
View from the opposition
At the same time, more than half of those who voted for the opposition in May appear to have thrown their support behind Mr Tan Jee Say.
In some parts of the country, he came a close second to Dr Tony Tan.
But the former Singapore Democratic Party candidate at the General Election could not muster enough support, as several opposition backers remain wary of his hardcore stand and adversarial tone.
Still, 25 per cent is a sizeable figure - given that in the 2001 General Election, a slightly lower proportion of the population voted against the PAP. This rose to 33 per cent in 2006 and almost 40 per cent in May.
Had former NTUC Income chief executive Tan Kin Lian not been in the picture, it is likely his supporters might have stumped for Dr Tan Cheng Bock as a compromise candidate.
In the end, the results show that the desire for an opposition is here to stay. It is not confined just to Parliament, but extends to the presidency as well.
Close to two-thirds of the electorate did not vote for Singapore's next president. Dr Tan Cheng Bock may have campaigned on the need to 'heal the nation' after a polarising General Election. But that task has now fallen on Dr Tony Tan's in-tray.