Tuesday, May 31, 2011

To Heal a Nation

Tomorrow marks the first day of June, and it is a day that many of us are looking forward to because it is the day that we find out who is ready to stand up to be Singapore’s unifying figure to heal the rift that has polarized our society.
Going by the chatter one hears both offline and online, and despite the calls of leaders on both sides of the political divide for Singaporeans to close ranks to work together for our common future, we are still very much divided by our loyalty to the familiar and desire for change.
Cynicism too, seems to be running rampant as citizen activism continues to flourish in the wake of the recent general elections. We are, after all, an awakened polity, powered by the greater diversity of information and views that is now available to us at our fingertips to form our own conclusions. No longer do we just allow ourselves to be dictated to by the mainstream media.
Left unchecked, this polarization of our society could very well tear us apart, and this is definitely not going to be good for you and me, for our families, for our children, and for Singapore as a nation.
This task of healing the nation must fall on the shoulders of our next President, a non-partisan head of state, who will be scrutinized and elected by the people. For the President to be able to succeed in this task, he/she must truly be the people’s choice and not just someone who has the endorsement of the government, in this case, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).
What we need is a People’s President in the truest sense of the word. Besides playing a key custodial role in guarding our reserves and ensuring transparency in appointments to key public offices, the next President must possess the qualities and skills that will enable him/her to unify Singaporeans from all walks of life and get them to move forward with a common purpose.
In this unifying role, the President must be seen to be the embodiment of the core values enshrined in our pledge, and that regardless of race, language or religion, he/she will ensure that Singapore is “a democratic society based in justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation”.
After the political awakening in the 2011 general elections, Singaporeans will probably not accept anyone whom they see as being a mere figurehead, a rubber stamp for the ruling party. To be a credible candidate for the post of Elected President, aspirants will have to demonstrate that they are above and beyond partisan politics and that their interests lie in the greater good of Singapore as a whole.
However, given the much emboldened polity, I am surprised that thus far only one person has openly come out to declare his intention to contest this august office. And even more surprising is the reaction his intention has drawn from his past colleagues.
Words like ‘awkward’, ‘mixed feelings’ from PAP members in response to Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s declared candidacy only serve to fuel speculation that the PAP-led government intends to nominate a candidate who is less likely to have an adversarial type of relationship with the government.
Obviously, Dr Tan had not made the PAP privy to his intention, and judging by the response from the party, it would also seem clear that Dr Tan was not of the government’s shortlist.
But just how serious a contender is Dr Tan? Well, given that Dr Tan has quit the PAP, Singaporeans should take his candidacy seriously. It is also worth noting that while he was a serving PAP Member of Parliament, Dr Tan had been one of the voices of reform from the backbenches. He was also known to have gone against the grain and voted against the party on issues.
For all intents and purposes, Dr Tan is currently the frontrunner for the upcoming Presidential elections, which must be held by 31 August. And he is the frontrunner despite the PAP’s attempts to “undermine” his candidacy.
And, the very same reasoning that has been used to question Dr Tan’s candidacy – that Singaporeans might prefer a President who is not so closely linked to the PAP – would actually also apply to other possible candidates that have been suggested by Presidential Election watchers, namely persons such as Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr George Yeo, Professor S Jayakumar, Dr Tony Tan, Mr Zainual Abidin Rasheed, and Mr Abdullah Tarmugi.
It is unlikely that Mr Lee or Mr Yeo will offer themselves to be President. Mr Yeo had already ruled himself out and it is unlikely that Mr Lee would want to take on a position that is primarily ceremonial in nature. And I do not think that Singaporeans would want to dabble with the possibility of the office of the President suddenly becoming a position with executive powers in the hands of Mr Lee.
It would come as a surprise though if Prof Jayakumar, Dr Tony Tan, Mr Zainul Abidin or Mr Abdullah suddenly steps forward to offer themselves as a candidate. For it would mean that they have quit the PAP. But a lingering question will remain: Where does their allegiance lie – to their former party or the people? This is because throughout their political careers, they have never broken rank with the party. So, will they be able to do so if elected President?
Of late, a few other wildcards have been thrown into the hat, with names like Mr Chiam See Tong, Madam Ho Ching (wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong), Ms Catherine Lim and Ms Chan Heng Chee have been suggested as potential candidates by netizens.
If you ask me, Mr Chiam, Ms Lim and Ms Chan are most unlikely to step into the fray; Mr Chiam due to his declining health; Ms Lim based on her own admission that she can do more as a commentator than as an office holder; and Ms Chan . . . well, I could be proven wrong here.
As for Mdm Ho, again, very unlikely as it would not look good to have husband and wife as head of government and head of state, respectively. I don’t think that Singaporeans are ready to entirely cede the country to one family.
So, we are back where we began with our crystal ball gazing. Save for the declared intention of Dr Tan, we will just have to wait until tomorrow to know if there is going to be a race of the elected presidency.
I am hoping that there will be a race so that I can once again exercise my right to choose who I want to be the people’s guardian and the nation’s healer.

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