Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Elected Presidency in a new normal

The office must evolve - the challenge is how to
by Eugene K B Tan

Aug 30, 2011

It was a pulsating finish to Singapore's fourth Presidential Election. A mere 7,269 votes separated Dr Tony Tan from Dr Tan Cheng Bock. The hustings, which fired up the hearts and minds of Singaporeans, portend what future PEs could be like. What can we make of the results?

The influence of the May General Election should not be over-exaggerated. To be sure, there is residual unhappiness after the so-called "watershed election". My sense, however, is that the majority of Singaporeans distinguished between the parliamentary and presidential polls.

What the GE demonstrated, reinforced in Saturday's poll, is that the voter is keen for more political competition and diversity. But as the PE results illustrate, the average voter is not going to throw caution to the wind and cast a ballot for a candidate just because he comes with an opposition accent. The People's Action Party branding still carries cachet. Voters can discern form from substance.

International media reports have characterised the outcome as a sign of "many still upset with long-ruling PAP". This reading is premised on viewing the polls in partisan terms, with Dr Tony Tan flying the PAP/Establishment banner, and Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Mr Tan Jee Say and Mr Tan Kin Lian collectively the non-PAP/non-Establishment flags. According to this view, the score was PAP - 35 per cent; non-PAP - 65 per cent.

That is probably reading the results simplistically. Many Singaporeans did not see the contest in purely partisan terms. They carefully scrutinised candidates' track records, their campaign promises, and how they would work with the PAP Government.


In a crowded race with three serious contenders, it should not be surprising that the votes were split. The results, if anything, confirm that the political landscape is more diverse, more competitive. The Singapore electorate is maturing and is more than capable of making up its own mind. The endorsements by the trade unions, business groups and others seem to have had limited effect.

Both Dr Tans, as former PAP stalwarts, can be regarded as the Establishment camp. They also espoused a moderate reading of the roles, functions and powers of the Elected President.

Combined, they polled 70 per cent of the popular vote. To these voters, the past PAP affiliation was not a deterrent - there was confidence they would exercise the executive custodial powers independently.

The support for both men also indicates Singaporeans value stability, in the sense of an Elected President being able to work with the elected Government. It suggests that many may be uncomfortable with the office being an alternative power centre.

Mr Tan Jee Say and Mr Tan Kin Lian, seen as the non-Establishment camp, together garnered 30 per cent of the ballots. Their support base is primarily the staunch Opposition voters, who prefer a President not so closely aligned with the ruling party. All in all, the election appears to indicate the PAP enjoys a loyal support base of about 35-45 per cent of the electorate (safely assuming the bulk of Dr Tony Tan's supporters are Establishment loyalists) and the Opposition a 30-35-per-cent loyal following.

A significant 25-35 per cent form the middle ground, often described as the swing voters. How is one to understand Dr Tan Cheng Bock's strong cross-camp appeal? His ability to reach out to both pro-Establishment voters and those less so, is a political craft honed through his many years as a popular grassroots MP. His commitment to unify people was a strong and persuasive selling point; his common touch, his signature ability to engage Singaporeans from all walks of life, was vital in bringing those of different political persuasions together.


All said, the winner's razor-thin victory margin points to the need for the Elected Presidency to evolve in tandem with Singaporeans' expectations of the roles and functions of the office. Amid the new normal of more competitive political landscape, much will also be expected of the President-elect's promise of seeking to heal the country's political, economic and social divisions.

Where the late President Ong Teng Cheong had sought to demonstrate purposefully the role of the EP within our parliamentary system, Dr Tony Tan's presidency is likely to be characterised by the imperative for a People's President to unify Singaporeans of whatever political inclinations. I believe he is conscious of the need for him - more than for any of his predecessors - to not only work with the Government but also with all political parties and civil society.

In this regard, he will have to be play a more "activist" role. I am reasonably confident that Dr Tony Tan will attempt to build bridges with the various groups, but he cannot get the different camps to work together if they are not prepared to do so in the first place. Before the non-PAP will work with him, he will have to establish to them his credentials as being non-partisan and independent. But with sincerity, impartiality and determination, there is no reason why bridge-building cannot take place.

The need to evolve the office of the President in a manner that is in sync with Singaporeans' expectations has to be on the "to-do" list of both the incoming President and the Government. They will have to manage the competing, and perhaps even conflicting, visions of the Presidency - the process of electing a head of state as well as the latter's roles and function.

Dr Tony Tan will have to throw light on what he does in his custodial roles, notwithstanding the confidentiality of those actions. Removing the myths and misperceptions is essential to the standing and legitimacy of the EP.

There is also a growing expectation that the presidency should be a watchdog that can both bark and bite. The sense is that the current reactive powers of the EP results in a watchdog that can only bark, and in limited circumstances, and that this is not good enough. In short, there is the imperative to manage voters' expectations and keep faith with the Constitutional parameters.

Can we expect dialogues and discussion - behind closed doors for a start - on how to maintain the relevance and legitimacy of the office?

To ignore the current ground sentiments and concerns may result in the PE in 2017 becoming a proxy political contest in which the raison d'etre of the EP will be challenged, and the office's authority and legitimacy suffering as a result. That would be a pity, since the Elected Presidency can enhance our system of governance.

Eugene K B Tan is assistant professor of law at the Singapore Management University School of Law

No comments: