After weeks of speculation, Singaporeans can expect to see at least a three-cornered fight for the office of the Elected President. This has come about after a People’s Action Party (PAP) big gun and former Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Tony Tan confirmed his candidacy on Thursday and assumes that President S R Nathan would step aside to make way for Dr Tony Tan.
Dr Tony Tan (TT) joins two others Tans as a presidential hopeful – former PAP backbencher Dr Tan Cheng Bock (TCB) and former NTUC Income chief Tan Kin Lian (TKL). Their candidacies are subject to the approval of the Presidential Election Committee.
Like Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Dr Tony Tan has also resigned from the PAP as well as relinquished his positions in Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore (GIC) in order to present himself as being independent from party politics and qualify himself for the presidential race.
Although there is still about two months until the deadline for the presidential election, interest in the presidential race has been gaining momentum, especially since TCB and TKL confirmed their candidacies earlier this month and former Foreign Minister George Yeo first indicated an interest and later confirmed that he would not contest the election.
This heightened interest is also because it will be the first time in almost two decades since the last election was held in 1993 for the office of the Elected President.
TT’s candidacy also comes close on the heels of the most recent comment on the elected presidency by DPM Teo Chee Hean last Sunday. DPM Teo had said that electing a president is different from electing a Member of Parliament (MP). He said the president "needs to be measured, considered, and at the same time, also a unifying factor at a higher level for all Singaporeans", seemingly echoing points that had been made by both TT and TCB.
DPM Teo’s comments follow on those made by Law Minister K Shanmugam and former Senior Minister S Jayakumar. Both had asserted that the president had no power to initiate decisions or policy, but only had blocking powers in specified areas.
To me, such pronouncements, including the clarification on the role of the president by President Nathan himself, seemed to be an effort at preparing the ground for a pro-establishment or government-supported presidential candidate, someone like Mr Yeo or TT.
Support for TT’s candidacy has also been coming on strong from PAP MPs as well as President Nathan, making it quite apparent that he is the PAP-led government’s preferred choice for the next president, despite his assertion that he is running for president as an independent candidate and that the government had not asked him to throw his name into the fray.
How all this would translate into support for or against TT, who was a PAP MP for 27 years and a Cabinet Minister for more than 20 years, remains to be seen and would probably only be realized when voters go to the polling booths to cast their vote for their choice of president.
A key concern for voters, especially those who already harbour anti-PAP sentiments, would be just how independent TT can be as president given his long association with the PAP-led government and his role in GIC.
Can he truly be independent-minded when push comes to shove on matters related to the protection of the reserves? Or will he simply concur with the views of the government and the GIC management team? Should we only pass judgement then, as suggested by TT, or should we exercise our due diligence at the ballot box to ensure an unquestionably independent president?
On the other side of the fence, Singaporeans can take heart that both TCB and TKL are undeterred and determined to continue with their bid for the presidency to ensure that there will be a contest and that Singaporeans will be able to choose whom they want as their president.
Although a straight fight (with TT) would have been preferred by the 71-year-old TCB, the prospect of a three-cornered fight was seen as an opportunity for a good contest, especially given the new wave of political awareness following the recent May general election. My only question for TCB is why the preference for a straight fight between him and TT? Is it because he is certain of victory against the PAP stalwart or is he worried that in a three-cornered fight, the splitting of votes between him and TKL would lead to a victory for TT?
The 63-year-old TKL, on the other hand, welcomed the three-cornered fight as he saw all three candidates as being good for Singapore. TKL saw the election as a contest where Singaporeans will decide if they want "someone to continue the policies of the establishment or if they want someone who brings to the office of the President, new views reflecting the aspirations of a large number of Singaporeans".
At the end of the day, Singaporeans will want a president who can be unquestionably independent; one who is not beholden or seemingly beholden to the PAP-led government; one who can and will speak his mind when required to do so; one who can truly be the conscience of the nation when it really matters.
In terms of a level playing field, all three candidates – a banker, a doctor and an insurer – have been associated with the PAP in one way or another, either as MPs or as grassroots leaders. This fact alone makes it even more imperative for all the candidates to convincingly convince the people that they are running the race for the people and not for the establishment.
Remembering also that the last time the presidency was contested was in 1993 when Singapore chose its first Elected President, Singaporeans would definitely want to be able to exercise their right to give their mandate to someone they can believe in.
The May 2011 general election had been a long overdue awakening of the political awareness and social consciousness of Singapore society. Going forward, I sincerely believe that this awareness and consciousness will play a big part in how we make our decisions at the polls.
I would expect that in the days ahead, all three presidential hopefuls will be stepping their efforts to reach out to Singaporeans to convince us that they should be our choice, that they deserve our vote, and that they would be there to serve us, the people, to the best of their ability.
And I expect that such a campaign, even before the issuance of the Certificate of Eligibility, would be carried out in the most dignified manner as befits the office of the President of Singapore.
So, to all the candidates, I say, convince me why I should put my trust in you.
Convince me (and by extension all Singaporeans) and you may just get our vote.