Just as the dust begins to settle from the recent political contest for the hearts and minds of the people, a new electoral battle is looming on the horizon. By 31 August, Singaporeans will have gone to the polls again; this time to choose who they want as Singapore’s next Elected President.
This, of course, assumes that there will be contest as the past two Presidential Elections had passed uncontested and saw S R Nathan returned as the President in both 1999 and 2005. In both past elections, the other competing candidates had been disqualified for not meeting the raft of criteria needed to be declared eligible for the post.
The atmosphere somehow feels different this year.
Maybe it’s because the 2011 General Elections had brought about a political awakening of the Singapore polity, and whetted our appetite for exercising our power of choice at the ballot box.
Maybe it’s because Singaporeans want aspirants for the position of the Elected President to earn the support of voters so that they can serve with greater legitimacy.
Maybe after two uneventful terms of the Elected President, there are possible candidates out there who truly believe they can make a difference in the governance of Singapore.
Even as I write this, the Elections Department has issued a statement indicating that anyone wishing to be considered as a candidate can apply for a Certificate of Eligibility from 1 June 2011. The application must be submitted within three days from the issuance of the writ of Presidential Election.
A former People’s Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, has thrown his name into the hat as a possible candidate, and another name that has been coming up often is that of former NTUC Income chairman Tan Kin Lian.
While Dr Tan has offered himself as a candidate, he also hopes that more people will come forward to contest the position and lamented that he would be sad if there was no contest, because “it’s only through a contest that you feel that you are legitimately there because you have the support of the people.”
For now, these two men appear to be the front runners for the presidential elections, provided they obtain the Certificate of Eligibility. Despite their long past affiliation with the establishment, both men have displayed much independence of thought and are not afraid to challenge the powers that be to put right what is wrong.
Former Foreign Minister George Yeo had also been suggested as a possible candidate after his election defeat, but Mr Yeo has all but ruled himself out of the race. He had said that while he is flattered by the suggestion, “I’m a free spirit. I don’t think my temperament is suited for such a job.”
Who else can we expect to see named as possible candidates for the Presidential Elections?
Looking at the list of past presidents, it is notable that the last time a Malay-Muslim held the office was during the tenure of President Yusof Ishak, Singapore’s first president from 1965 to 1970.
Extending this train of thought, it is not beyond reason to consider both former Speaker of Parliament and Minister Abdullah Tarmugi and former Senior Minister of State Zainul Abidin Rasheed (who had been slated as the next Speaker had he been returned in GE2011) as possible candidates. However, their affiliation with the PAP may actually work against them.
Looking at the history of the Elected President, the only truly Elected President was the late Ong Teng Cheong, who served as President from 1993 to 1999. It was the only time Singaporeans had a say in their choice of President.
Although the office of the President is largely ceremonial, the 1991 constitutional amendment to create the office of the Elected President gave the President certain reserve powers over government expenditure of financial reserves and appointments to key public offices.
And it was these powers that were brought to bear in the dispute between President Ong and the government over access to information regarding Singapore’s financial reserves.
The dispute had come as a surprise given that President Ong had been a Cabinet minister in both the Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong governments. On a more positive note, as a result of the dispute, President Ong came to be held in high regard by the people as a President for the people, a guardian of the people, coming close to the stature of his predecessor, the much beloved late President Wee Kim Wee (1985-1993).
President Ong's successor, President Nathan, has had a more amicable relationship with the government, with no overt signs of the check-and-balancer and gatekeeper role that President Ong had tried to assert during his tenure. As of 2009, President Nathan also became Singapore’s longest serving President, surpassing the tenure of Singapore’s second President, Benjamin Sheares (1971-1981).
As we now prepare for ourselves for the next Presidential Elections, what will be our hopes and expectations of the next Elected President? Surely, after two uncontested Presidential Elections, the people must be eager to see willing and qualified individuals step forward to contest the post of the President.
After a general election that had threw up more than capable candidates for the opposition parties, hopes are high that we would want to see more than capable and qualified people contesting the elections. The last thing we want is for the Presidential Elections to devolve into a three-ring circus.
As befits the office, let us hope that all aspirants for the post of the Elected President will treat the position with the highest measure of respect and dignity, and place the greater interest of the country at the forefront of their quest.