In a surprising twist, President S R Nathan may very well be on the slate for the upcoming Presidential Election. The man, after all, has not indicated that he will not be contesting the office, but has indicated that he is still deciding on whether to seek a third term of office.
Mr Nathan, who is already 87, has however conceded that his age will be factor in his deliberation.
So, should Mr Nathan seek a third term or should he hand over the reins to a slate of new candidates who may possibly bring with them fresh perspectives on the role and responsibilities of the Elected President?
Growing list of presidential hopefuls
To date, three men have declared their intention to contest the election: Former People’s Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament (MP) Dr Tan Cheng Bock, 71; former NTUC Income chief Mr Tan Kin Lian, 63; and businessman Mr Ooi Boon Ewe, 70. (Mr Ooi is a doubtful starter given that he may not be able to meet some of the basic criteria).
Also up for consideration is former Foreign Minister Mr George Yeo, 57, although his inclusion in the list of potential candidates is more driven by the populist desires of his young fans and supporters. I have already discussed why Mr Yeo should not run for president – well, at least not in this presidential election – and I similarly think that Mr Nathan too should do the honorable thing and step aside.
Another name that has surfaced is former Deputy Prime Minister Dr Tony Tan, 71, who has not explicitly rule himself out of the race when asked if he would make a bid for the job. Dr Tony Tan is currently the executive director of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) and chairman of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH). These portfolios could very well work against him, given the negative public sentiment towards both the GIC and SPH. However, even if he relinquishes both portfolios, the recency of his ties with these organizations, as will his affiliation with the PAP, may well be counted against him by voters.
But what about Mr Nathan? Besides already being an octogenarian, Mr Nathan is seen as being too close to the establishment, and by this, I mean the PAP establishment. Lest we forget, his two terms of office had been ‘won’ uncontested and he had come unto the scene in 1999 to be the second Elected President as a PAP endorsed candidate. His nomination was strongly supported by none other than Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself.
Going by current ground sentiments in post-2011 General Elections Singapore, I would rate Mr Nathan’s chances of being returned to office as being very, very slim. Rather than suffer the ignominy of an election defeat, it may be better for Mr Nathan to retire with dignity and look forward to the publication of his memoirs in September, which among others will include the highlights and challenges of his tenure. I am sure that whoever is elected our next President can take a leaf from his memoirs to ensure an effective presidency.
Mr Nathan’s relationship with the PAP government has also been described as ‘amicable’, although some critics take a more cynical view and see it as a ‘hand in glove’ relationship, and he would be hard pressed to change this perception if he wishes to submit himself to the judgement of the people in this upcoming election.
President with a vision
The bar, too, has been set high for all presidential hopefuls given the platforms that have been put forth by the two frontrunners. Dr Tan has adopted a moral high ground position of being the people’s champion and a unifying voice to heal this fractured nation while Mr Tan has taken the everyday man approach of offering concrete plans of action in calling for an annual report on the Singapore reserves (including the Central Provident Fund) and promising to lead the way in reforming political salaries.
And looking even more closely at the two leading presidential hopefuls, it would appear that Mr Tan’s clearly thought through plan of action, should he be elected president, has put him ahead in the race, ahead even of Dr Tan, whose 26 year political career has endeared him to many Singaporeans from all walks of life.
And despite the dampener that Mr Nathan has seemingly thrown onto Mr Tan’s plans, it is not beyond the realm of reason to achieve those plans, especially if one approaches the job with “principles, independence, commonsense and the ability to ask the right questions and do the right things, without fear or favor” as succinctly put by Dr Tan.
While Mr Nathan see the presidency as an office that “operates on the Constitution – and what is possible and what is not possible is determined by that”, it would be remiss to accept such an assertion at face value without making an effort to flesh out how the relevant articles in the Constitution can be implemented in the greater interest of the people of Singapore and not just the government of the day.
Compared to the other hopefuls I have listed above, I would describe both Dr Tan and Mr Tan as political mavericks (and I use the term political in its non-partisan form), simply for their individual courage and conviction to speak up for what they believe in, without any thought of their own personal gain.
They clearly realize that if elected, they will come to office during a period of enormous change and their individually articulated visions for their presidency clearly suggest that they see a need for the evolution of the role of the president.
Despite having been a PAP member until recently, Dr Tan has always had a reputation for speaking his mind and sometimes breaking rank with the party, which had resulted in him being censured by the party. This would suggest that in Dr Tan, it would be possible to see a President who will ensure that the government does not just operate with a blank cheque.
And in taking up the cause of trying to unify the people of Singapore, Dr Tan could help repair the 60-40 divide that has fractured our society. Imagine the ‘kingmaker’ role that such a president could play if he were to succeed in bringing the people together, especially if he is seen to be above party politics. And given the possibility of Singapore moving towards a two party dominance system, it would require us to have a head of state that can look beyond party colors and call upon the leaders of parties on opposite sides of the political divide to find the middle ground.
Like Dr Tan, Mr Tan’s plans also ensure that the government operates with full accountability and transparency, with the president in full knowledge of the status of the reserves. This will ensure that the president is able to discharge his custodial duties without having to try to second guess the government. Should Mr Tan be able to realize this, it would be an ultimate homage to the work that had been started by the late President Ong Teng Cheong, Singapore’s first Elected President.
Mr Tan’s pledge to take only $300,000 of the President’s $4 million annual salary and donating the rest to a charity for causes he believes in, will probably win him many fans and supporters, which ultimately translate into votes. It is also by far the most concrete indication of the degree of prudence that his presidency will exercise. The presidency is, after all, a calling to serve the nation and its people, and not a job.
A President for your future
Even before the Writ of Election has been issued, it is clear that the campaigning to win the hearts and minds of the people have begun, at least by the two frontrunners, all thanks to the facility and efficacy of the Internet and the many social media channels.
Where once the Singapore polity was thought to be apathetic about anything to do with politics and governance, there is now a much heightened and greater sense of awareness of the need to register one’s view and participate in the decision making process.
Even though the presidential election is not a political battle, it is a matter of equal importance for through our vote we put in place a man who will be charged with the duty to protect our interests and to ensure that the government of the day acts in our interest.
It is ultimately our future that we decide on when we go to the ballot box, and my wish is that we choose a President who will ensure that we have a future to look forward to.