Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Long shot presidential candidate set to enter the race

It looks like the presidential election may not be a battle between the Tans after all - of course, it assumes that all five aspirants are approved to contest the election.

Former JTC Corporation group chief financial officer Andrew Kuan has indicated in an exchange on his Facebook page that he is likely to head down to the Elections Department tomorrow, 27 July, to pick up the application forms for the certificate of eligibility (COE).

This would be in keeping with his announced plan to collect the forms in July and make him potentially the fifth candidate in the coming election to choose Singapore's seventh president.

Mr Andrew Kuan appears to be confident of his chances judging by his choice of words and his decision to miss the Toastmasters International convention in Las Vegas. Mr Kuan had written, "When I receive the eligibility certificate to contest in Singapore presidential election, have to be in Singapore in August 2011."

Despite his confidence, Mr Kuan is probably a long shot to be approved as a candidate in the presidential election which must be held by 31 August. The soon to be 58-year-old Mr Kuan is remembered for his failed bid to become a candidate in the 2005 presidential election, which led to President S R Nathan being returned to office for a second term.

Compared to the other potential candidates for the presidency, Mr Kuan has largely kept a low profile since announcing his intention to run for president. His Facebook page and website also does not indicate much activity.

Maybe Mr Kuan is waiting for the Writ of Election to be issued and to be granted the COE before he invests his full energies and resources into the race to the Istana. This may be a wise move given the large expenditure expected to mount a campaign for the presidency.

In terms of unofficial pre-election campaigning, Mr Kuan is also lagging quite far behind the other aspirants which include former deputy prime minister Dr Tony Tan, former member of parliament Dr Tan Cheng Bock, former NTUC Income chief Mr Tan Kin Lian and former opposition politician Mr Tan Jee Say.

The four Tans have been busy with their individual efforts to plant the seeds of awareness of their possible candidacy in the minds of voters even before they have been officially granted the right to run the race by the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC).

Mr Kuan's silence since announcing his candidacy earlier this month had given rise to speculation that he may be withdrawing his bid to become the next president of Singapore.

Such speculation was not unwarranted given the crowd of potential candidates that have thrown their names into the ring and the recent memory of Mr Kuan's withdrawal from contesting the Joo Chiat seat in the May general elections to avoid a three-cornered fight.

And despite his apparent optimism, I cannot but feel that Mr Kuan and his supporters may well have to be prepared for the possibility of him being denied the COE yet again given the stringent requirements spelt out in the Elected President Act. One consolation though, is that Mr Kuan may not be the only possible candidate to be rejected by the PEC.

But if by the chance, the PEC should choose to endorse all five applicants for the COE, Singaporeans may well be treated to a very lively election campaign - albeit one that is conducted in a dignified manner as befitting the office of the president.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Beyond Independence, Trust and Accessibility Key to Winning PE

Even though the Writ of Election has yet to be issued by the Elections Department (ELD), the key presidential hopefuls have definitely been stepping up their efforts to make an impression on the voting public.

Attendances at the Singapore-Malaysia World Cup qualifier, walkabouts and a visit to a new town park marked some of the weekend efforts of three of the potential candidates in the coming presidential elections to make themselves more accessible and endear themselves to Singaporeans.

These activities suggest that the front runners in the coming race to the Istana have moved beyond trying to convince the voters of their independence from the ruling party to one of fostering a sense of trust and making themselves accessible to the people.

Most of these efforts to build rapport with the electorate have, however, been communicated through various social media channels - namely Facebook pages - employed by the aspirants and their supporters.

The mainstream media has largely refrained from reporting on their weekend activities save for a photo story of Dr Tony Tan coming to the aid of a boy who apparently fell and injured himself while playing in the playground in Woodlands Waterfront Park.

That the mainstream media happened to be there during a private visit - Dr Tony Tan is after all a private citizen now except for the fact that he is running for president - and that a photographer was conveniently present to capture him and his wife attending to the injured boy has raised the hackles of netizens and many informed Singaporeans about the partisanship of the mainstream media, particularly the one where he had served as chairman.

Some cynics would say that the visual imagery of the report had been designed to manipulate voters by gaining their sympathy and empathy for Dr Tony Tan's actions, and the more hardened ones would even go so far as to say that the whole incident had been staged to create the perfect opportunity to cast him in a softer light.

While the former deputy prime minister may seriously want to be more accessible to the people, the mainstream media and his minders are not going to be doing him any favors if they continue to stage manage his public appearances. This will only create a trust perception gap between the people and the former PAP stalwart.

The issue of accessibility and trust had also been a key point raised by former member of parliament (MP) Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who is also in the running for the presidency, during an interview after submitting his application for his certificate of eligibility (COE).

Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a medical doctor-turned-politician, had said the president must not be a distant person if he is to succeed in unifying Singaporeans. The president must be "somenbody the people can look to for support for some of the issues, national problems and so on", and underpinning all this is trust.

The six term MP had also stressed that without the trust of the people, he would not want to be president, adding that if the people trust him, they will know that when he makes a decision it will be in the interest of the country.

Trust will defnitely be a huge factor in our decision of who we want as our next president, especially if as defined by the Constitution, the president has only limited powers and may only be able to make an impact on policies by means of 'quiet diplomacy' instead of confronting the government with guns a-blazing, which seems to be the preferred approach of at least two other persons who have indicated an interest in the country's highest office.

Also out to garner more support is former NTUC Income chief Mr Tan Kin Lian, who, over the weekend, sought to get closer to a younger demography with his presence at the Miss Earth Finals and spend time with his supporters answering questions on issues close to hearts of Singaporeans.

Mr Tan Kin Lian, whose potential candidacy depends on the approval of the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC), had also turned up at Jalan Besar Stadium to support the Singapore team in the World Cup qualifier against Malaysia, as did Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who was heartened to witness the return of the Kallang Roar with Singapore 5-3 win in the first leg of the qualifier.

The fourth Tan in the presidential race, Mr Tan Jee Say, was also out and about on the weekend, making his presence at Tampines Mall known through his Facebook page and inviting Singaporeans to engage him. He has been seen as a potential wild card candidate because of his non-affiliation to the PAP as compared to the other three candidates.

Despite having announced his intention to contest the election, Mr Tan Jee Say has yet to file his papers for the COE, but in truth, he has until no later than three days after the issuance of the Writ of Election to do so - and that's plenty of time on the election timeline.

And so, as the days begin winding down and the election draws near, who among these players in the unfolding race to the Istana will we find faith in; who will we throw our trust behind; who will we want as president to be our voice, our conscience, in our forever changed political landscape?

Who will give us the best hope of having a president of the people? One thing's for sure, it will be a Tan!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Presidential race gets set to shift into high gear

The presidential race is set to shift into high gear now that the three frontrunners have submitted their applications for the certificate of eligibility (COE), which ensures their right to put themselves up for consideration by the Singapore electorate in the coming presidential election.

Former member of parliament (MP) Dr Tan Cheng Bock was the latest to submit his application forms at the Elections Department (ELD) today (22 July), some two weeks after former NTUC Income chief Tan Kin Lian and former deputy prime minister Dr Tony Tan handed in their applications.

All that is left now is to await the issuance of the Writ of Elections by the ELD, which is thought to be anytime after 3 August when matters relating to the Registry of Electors are expected to be completed, and the outcome of the deliberations of the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) on their eligibility to contest the election.

A lot can still happen in the intervening two weeks, with some sections of the population looking to see when the fourth Tan - Mr Tan Jee Say, a former senior civil servant and a non-PAP affiliated potential candidate as well as a former SDP candidate in the recent general elections - will step forth to submit his application for the COE. Mr Tan Jee Say had joined the race as a presidential hopeful when he collected his application forms on 15 July.

A potential fifth candidate is former JTC Corporation group chief financial officer Mr Andrew Kuan but he has yet to collect his application forms since announcing his intention to contest the office of the elected president. Of course, there is every possibility that Mr Kuan already had someone collect the forms for him and will use the three days allocated after the issuance of the Writ to submit his application for the COE.

Looking back at the submissions by the three Tans, it would appear that Dr Tan Cheng Bock's team had probably put in the most effort into preparing for the trip to the ELD. Compared to the same day submissions by Mr Tan Kian Lian and Dr Tony Tan, Dr Tan Cheng Bock's trip to the ELD was marked by the presence of supporters who chanted his name and broke into applause once they saw him.

From a public relations perspective, such a scene, which would probably find its way to the masses via the broadcast media and social media video channels, would probably help to establish him as a potential presidential candidate who has and is worthy of the support of the people, in the minds of the electorate.

Those who were lucky enough to be present at the ELD would have witnessed scenes of the 71-year-old general practitioner being carried and cheered by his supporters as well as the procession of old and young people from all races walking with him to Bayview Hotel for his press conference.

Kudos to Dr Tan Cheng Bock and his team for having distinguished himself from the other two candidates.

The press conference following the trip to the ELD was de rigueur and served only to provide each of the potential candidates with the opportunity to restate their platforms, which in the case of the presidential election saw the candidates touching on broadly similar subjects. With no party manifesto at their disposal and taking into account the limits on the role and powers of the president, the difference between their platforms could very much be a matter of degree.

The key to winning the hearts and minds of the voters would fall on their ability to convince the people of their honesty, integrity and sincerity to serve the people as a president who is independent of and above partisan politics and who will stand up for the people when it matters most.

In my view, Dr Tan Cheng Bock also scored points for having stuck to his programme. Despite being the first presidential hopeful to announce his intention to run the race, the doctor-turned-politician had not reacted in haste when Mr Tan Kin Lian and Dr Tony Tan submitted their applications within minutes of each other.

A lesser man may have jumped onto the bandwagon for fear of being left behind, but the six-term former MP for the Ayer Rajah constituency took a measured approach and looks set to reap the rewards of his enterprise.

Save for a sudden fall from grace, I would go so far as to say that up to this point in time, Dr Tan Cheng Bock has managed to secure his place in the 'hearts and minds' and imagination of the people of Singapore, especially those who would have the task of putting pen to paper to mark their choice of president.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

PE hopefuls and the mainstream media

An apparent calm has descended on the unofficial campaigning for the coming Presidential Election with the aspiring candidates relying on their Facebook accounts to continue engaging the public, especially since it has now become clear that the Writ of Election will probably only be issued on or after 3 August 2011.

The last report by the mainstream media featuring three presidential candidate hopefuls had been on Monday (18 July) as part of a story on the impending closure of the KTM railway tracks for removal works. The candidates were Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Mr Tan Kin Lian and Mr Tan Jee Say, and last Sunday was the final day for the public to have access to the railyway tracks, save for a three-kilometre stretch from Rifle Range Road to the Rail Mall which will be open until the end of the month.

Following on that report, the mainstream media covered a lecture by Dr Tony Tan, another presidential hopeful, on the futures of higher education. The weight of the report is sure to feature for quite some time in the collective consciousness of the general Singapore polity, comprising both the traditional and new media constituents.

In media reports on the lecture he delivered at the Singapore Management University, former deputy prime minister Dr Tony Tan was portrayed as favoring a 'Singaporeans first' policy in higher education. But in order not alienate new and potential citizens, the reports in the mainstream media also took pains to highlight Dr Tan's distinction between 'Singaporeans first' and 'Singaporeans only'. Dr Tan had said that being 'Singaporeans first' is different from saying 'Singaporeans only' and that it would be a grave mistake for Singapore to close its doors to foreigners.

Looking at it as objectively as possible, one cannot help but feel that the lecture and the media reports have boosted Dr Tan's candidacy and ingrained an impression of him as a president who would have the interests of Singaporeans at heart - something the 'not in favor of PAP' ground have doubts about given the seemingly pro-foreign talent policy instituted in the universities during his seven-year tenure as education minister and more than 20 years as minister-in-charge of the university sector.

With six weeks to go before the 31 August deadline for the Presidential Election, I would not be surprised if we see the mainstream media generating more of such reports that are designed to present Dr Tony Tan as the president for the people, especially when the official campaign period begins.

Despite the growth of new media and the active involvement of its constituents, let us not forget that there is still a sizeable constituency (the non-Internet savvy constituency) out there that is primarily reliant on traditional mainstream media, a media that continues to play a significant role in shaping and influencing public perception and opinion.

And unless all the 'players' in the upcoming race to the Istana have equal access to or treatment by the mainstream media, an unfair advantage would accrue to the person featured more regularly or favourably by the media. This critique of the mainstream media had also been the subject of many discussions in relation to the conduct of general elections (both recent and past).

Cynics would argue that Dr Tony Tan has an unfair advantage by virtue of his previous role as chairman of Singapore Press Holdings, the parent company of The Straits Times and its sister newspapers, and need only point to the lack of coverage of the activities of the other potential presidential candidates in the run-up to the official election campaign.

But the onus also lies with the other potential presidential candidates to find and create opportunities for them to be heard and covered by the mainstream media. Most recently, Dr Tan Cheng Bock visited a temple in Yuhua village while Mr Tan Kin Lian attended a Halal Food Expo. However, save for a small photo story on Dr Tan's temple visit in Today, neither Dr Tan Cheng Bock nor Mr Tan Kin Lian gained much mileage from their activties.

The challenge then for the presidential hopefuls is to mount a campaign that is both a public relations exercise and an exercise to build their credibility as the people's president. At the end of the day, what you say and how you frame what you say in relation to the bigger picture matters more to the media than your physical presence, which may or may not merit a photo story.

While the Internet has provided an alternative and independent channel for them to reach out to the voters, they must not forget that there are still many voters out there who are unfamiliar with the new media. To wait until the start of the official campaign period, which would include televised broadcasts, to reach out to them may be too late, as opinions and decisions may already have been formed by then.

Even though the potential candidates cannot officially campaign for the presidency yet, opportunities are still a-plenty for them to create impressions and help voters, especially the non-Internet-enabled ones, form an opinion of them.

Build the right impression with these voters and half the battle may already be won.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

An August election it is

The presidential election looks set to be held in August with the Writ of Election probably issued after the National Day celebrations.

It beginning to look like the probable election date is going to be 27 August, similar to the date of the last presidential election in 2005 (although it turned out to be a walkover). This will certainly be pushing the election, which must be held by 31 August, down to the wire.

An August election will afford the opportunity for President S R Nathan to officiate at his last National Day Parade and provide a grand celebratory platform for him to say his goodbyes to Singaporeans after 12 years in office.

The election machinery has also been restarted for the coming presidential election, after having been put away after the May general elections. Apparently, civil servants appointed as election officials have been issued with their appointment letters and briefings have been conducted to refresh them on the duties that they would be performing on election day.

The exercise to enable Singaporeans who did not vote in general elections to have their names reinstated in the electoral register has also been completed, thereby ensuring that all eligible Singaporeans would have the opportunity to cast their vote on the day of the presidential election.

The coming presidential election will also be an 'august' election by virtue of the number of potential candidates it has attracted to contest the highest office in the land. After the straight fight in the first presidential election in 1993 and two non-event elections in 1999 and 2005, the prospect of having to possibly choose from among five candidates would be a grand opportunity for eligible voters.

A total of five people have declared their intentions to run the presidential race, although one of them has yet to visit the Elections Department to collect his application forms for the certificate of eligibility. Three of them - Mr Tan Kin Lian, Dr Tony Tan and Dr Tan Cheng Bock - are definitely committed to the contest as two of them submitted their application forms for the COE on 7 July and Dr Tan Cheng Bock will be submitting his application on 18 July.

The actual final tally of candidates will, of course, depend on the decisions of the 3-member Presidential Elections Committee (PEC), which is headed by the chairman of the Public Service Commission and includes the chairman of the Accounting & Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) and a member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights nominated by the chairman of the Council.

Former deputy prime minister Dr Tony Tan and former member of parliament Dr Tan Cheng Bock appear to be shoo-ins as a candidates. The PEC's decisions on them should be straight forward given Dr Tony Tan's high office in government and chairmanship of Singapore Press Holdings, and Dr Tan Cheng Bock's chairmanship of Chuan Hup Holdings.

We're still holding our breath for Mr Tan Kin Lian on account that he was the chief executive officer of a co-operative and not a company, one of the stipulated requirements for eligibility to contest the presidential elections. That however has not stopped him from continuing with his campaign for the presidency. We can only wish Mr Tan the best in his effort to get the COE under a special clause.

The special clause is also going to be the basis of Mr Tan Jee Say's application for the COE. Mr Tan, the latest to declare his intention to run the race, was the principal private secretary to former prime minister Goh Chok Tong before leaving for the private sector and most recently, had contested the general elections as an opposition candidate. Mr Tan's entry into the race has apparently been well-received on account of him being a candidate who is not linked to the PAP.

The final possible candidate is failed 2005 presidential election candidate Mr Andrew Kuan, who had then been disqualified by the PEC on account of his not meeting the requirements for candidacy. Mr Kuan seems set to try his hand at the presidential race again but that all depends on him collecting and submitting the application forms for the COE.

Well, whether it going to be a straight fight between two candidates or a three, four or five cornered fight, the real winners, at least up to this point, are us, the voters. Primarily because we will actually have a choice after 18 years. We will be able to say that we have played a part in shaping the future direction of our nation and our future.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Plurality of Choices for Voters in coming PE

Wow! After nearly two decades since the last contested presidential elections, we could now possibly have five potential candidates fighting for the office of the president. This is truly unprecedented.

The latest to throw his name into the ring is Mr Tan Jee Say, who stood as an opposition candidate in the Holland-Bukit Timah GRC during the recent May general election. He is offering himself as the candidate whose independence from the PAP is clear, obvious and cannot be in doubt.

Despite being aware of the constitutional limitations of the office of the president, Mr Tan has plunged head on into the fray believing that "the office of the president is what the president makes it out to be". According to Mr Tan, "He can be as quiet and inactive as he chooses to be. Or he can be active." Quite obviously a dig at retiring President S R Nathan, whose two terms in office had been largely unenventful.

The former civil sevant and Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) member further said, "I want to be an active president, engaging the nation on issues of conscience and promoting worthy causes."

However, is Mr Tan truly the independent candidate that he claims to be? Can he win over the hearts and minds of the people of Singapore? Or is Mr Tan too partisan by virtue of his association with the SDP and his contesting the May general election?

Mr Tan may, for all intents and purposes, be the non-PAP candidate but I have my doubts about his partisanship. Having lost out in the general election, Mr Tan now appears to be pursuing his party's election agenda through the office of the president.

Would it not be better for Singaporeans if Mr Tan furthers the work of his party on the ground, building up both the party's and his political credentials so that they can offer Singaporeans an alternative choice at the ballot box, much like what the Workers' Party have been doing?

Of course, whether Mr Tan actually features in the presidential election depends very much on the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC). Like former NTUC chief Tan Kin Lian, Mr Tan will be applying for his certificate of eligibility under a special clause.

Meanwhile, the third of the Tri-Tans, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, has firmly committed himself to the presidential race, going by his Facebook posting this morning. He will be dropping by the Elections Department next week to submit his application for the certificate of eligibility (COE) to contest the presidential election.

It had also been reported yesterday that Dr Tan was taking leave from his medical practice of 40-years to focus on his election campaign - this after he had made arrangements to ensure that his elderly patients would be looked after.

I guess this was the programme that the former PAP member of parliament was referring to when he did not follow on the heels of Mr Tan Kin Lian and former deputy prime minister Dr Tony Tan when they submitted their applications for the COE on 7 July.

At least, to his credit, Dr Tan is making sure that all his personal affairs are in order before he goes full-swing into campaign mode.

No further word though has been heard about former JTC Corporation group chief financial officer Andrew Kuan's bid for the presidency following his declaration of intent earlier this week.

Well, no matter how many candidates ultimately feature in the elections, it will prove to be very interesting given the plurality of choices presented to voters.

Let us hope that we make the right choice, both individually and collectively.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

SBS and SMRT should stop "passing the buck" to commuters

Public transport operators SBS Transit and SMRT appear to have short social and institutional memories, judging by their applications to the Public Transport Council (PTC) to seek an adjustment in bus and train fares.

Wasn’t it just two months ago that we saw a beleaguered Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong address a lunch time rally at Raffles Place apologizing for the failings of the PAP-led government and the subsequent post-election ‘retirement’ of three ministers, including the then transport minister Raymond Lim.

Wasn’t it not too long ago in 2008 that the transport ministry stated that “public transport operators are not allowed to pass on to customers their direct costs, such as fuel and wage costs, or to base their fares on these costs”. Yet, this appears to be exactly what the two operators are doing going by statements articulated by both operators.

Based on reports in the mainstream media, SMRT claimed that its application for the maximum fare adjustment of 2.8 per cent was driven by rising energy and manpower costs while SBS Transit had indicated that it was facing cost pressures for fuel and energy on top of investments in its fleet renewal. Both operators also claimed that these cost pressures persist despite their efforts to lower costs and increase productivity.

No matter how much their try to dress up their applications and wrap it with the annual fare adjustment formula, their own words are a clear indictment of their willful attempt to undermine the position of the transport ministry on direct costs, and make the PTC complicit in this act of undermining the transport ministry by approving the fare increase.

To be clear, the annual public transport fare adjustment formula is pegged to changes in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the Wage Index (WI), which measures national average monthly earnings. What this means is that affordability of fares to the consumer should prevail over the need of the operators to manage their costs in order to improve their profit margin from operating a public service.

Given the continuing concern with cost of living issues among many Singaporeans, I am not surprised that many have reacted with disdain to the prospect of a further hike in public transport cost (in cost of living terms), even though the last adjustment to bus and train fares was implemented in 2008.

Back then in 2008, the fare increase of 1.7 per cent had been received with a sense of resignation but it would be a mistake for the transport operators, the PTC and the government to assume that the public would be so accepting of an increase in bus and train fares now. The transport ministry, now helmed by Lui Tuck Yew, would do well to remind the PTC of the ministry’s 2008 position.

Furthermore, economists have also forecasted a slowdown in Singapore's economic growth, which hopefully will be in the deliberations of the PTC chaired by Gerard Ee.

This new attitude of critical circumspection is also fueled by the general experience of commuters who have not seen much of an improvement in public transport services despite the previous fare increases. Ask anyone to think about public transportation and the images that come to mind are long queues, packed bus interchanges and MRT stations, crowded buses and trains.
The SMRT had also attempted to dress up its rising costs with the opening up of Phase One and Two of the Circle Line, but isn’t that to tantamount to passing the buck (the direct cost of operating the Circle Line) to the consumer? Wouldn’t opening the Circle Line lead to a new ridership base and a new revenue stream that over time would pay for the investment in the MRT network?

Such a fallacious argument is also inherent in SBS Transit’s linking of its cost pressures to its $268 million investment in 600 new buses to renew its fleet. Again, the purchase of the new buses is a direct cost to ensuring the continued ability of SBS Transit to deliver its services. Why should commuters have to bear the cost of the fleet renewal when it is the bus company’s responsibility to ensure that commuters are provided with safe and functional transportation?

Also, given the fact that both transport operators continue to report operating profits – SMRT made a profit of $161 million for the year ending 31 March while SBS recorded a profit of $54 million last year – no one can blame the average Joe for thinking that the applications to the PTC are but an attempt to line pockets of the shareholders of both operators instead of truly providing a world-class public transport experience to commuters.

This perception is borne out of the fact that both public transport operators are privatized entities instead of state-run corporations. Not surprisingly, many believe that both SBS Transit and SMRT would have no qualms about passing on the cost to commuters in their quest to boost their profit margin.

The irony of the situation is that both companies are actually operating a public service and as such, should be operating on the basis of sustainability first instead of how much profit, which translates into dividends, they can deliver to their shareholders.

Instead of exploiting their duo-poly, as most commuters have no choice but to use the services of both companies, SBS Transit and SMRT should demonstrate how they are helping Singaporeans get from place to place efficiently and comfortably without adding to their daily cost of living expenses.

And only when they can deliver the quality of service that makes public transportation a truly pleasant experience will Singaporeans be more amenable to accepting increases in their bus and train fares.
As commuters, all of us are ultimately customers of these companies and I believe that it would be fair to say the following is a fair depiction of how we feel: “Show me and let me experience it, and if I appreciate and like it, I would probably be willing to pay more for it. Don’t tell me you are going to do it and ask me to pay more for it, only to disappoint me with less than what I had been promised.”

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

And then there were four . . .

Just when you thought the slate of potential candidates for the upcoming Presidential Elections had been settled, along comes another hopeful for the highest office, albeit a titular one, in the country.

The announcement by former JTC Corporation group chief financial officer Andrew Kuan that he is looking at making another bid for the presidency is set to turn the clash of the Tri-Tans into a four-cornered showdown.

Despite having failed to get a certificate of eligibility (COE) from the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) in 2005, Mr Kuan gets an ‘A’ for optimism and his belief that the Constitution, the JTC Act and his final year appraisal at JTC would provide ample evidence in support of his eligibility to be a presidential candidate this time round.

However, questions have to be asked as to why the 57-year-old Mr Kuan is stepping into the fray this late in the game and adding a fourth dimension to the choice that voters have to make on polling day.

Technically, there is still about seven weeks to go before the 31 August deadline for the presidential elections, so it is well-within Mr Kuan’s rights to decide to step forward to offer his service to the nation “to do something worthy and dignified for a better and more inclusive Singapore through transformation and healing”.

For all we know, even more candidates may come up to the plate when the Writ of Election is finally issued by the Elections Department, thereby giving voters a plurality of choices. It will then be up to the PEC to whittle down the field, leaving only candidates who actually qualify to stand for the presidential election.

But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding and the seriousness of Mr Kuan’s possible candidacy depends on whether he actually collects the application forms for the COE and submits them to the PEC.

So, what do we know of Mr Andrew Kuan, besides his stint as group chief financial officer at JTC Corporation?

Mr Kuan is best remembered for his unsuccessful attempt to contest the office of the elected president in 2005 and his withdrawal from contesting the Joo Chiat seat during the recent May general elections (GE2011) so as to avoid a three-cornered fight.

To be honest, Mr Kuan’s decision to run the presidential race is not totally unexpected and some political watchers had actually wondered not if but when he would come forward to make another bid for the presidency since he had graciously stepped aside to allow a straight fight between the People’s Action Party (PAP) and Workers’ Party (WP) in Joo Chiat during GE2011.

Cynics, however, have a more conspiratorial take on the matter and suggest that Mr Kuan’s possible candidacy is being orchestrated by the establishment to further split the votes and secure a victory for former deputy prime minister Dr Tony Tan, thereby ensuring a pro-establishment president in the Istana.

After all, didn’t Mr Kuan himself acknowledge, by his withdrawal from the Joo Chiat contest, that a multi-cornered electoral battle would ultimately favor the establishment by virtue of presenting the non-establishment voters with a plurality of choices? So, the obvious question that Mr Kuan needs to answer is why is he now seemingly contradicting himself? What are the key driving forces that have motivated him to run for president?

If his goal is to again seek “closure in a dignified manner” on the assumption that he does not win the presidential election, it could very well be a costly closure for Singaporeans, especially those who wish for a president who would truly champion the cause of the people, as it would almost certainly hand the presidency to Dr Tony Tan at the expense of former PAP member of parliament Dr Tan Cheng Bock and former NTUC chief Mr Tan Kin Lian.

The breadth of interest in becoming a presidential candidate hopeful is surprising given the many clarifications from the government on the limitations of the role and powers of the president. Notwithstanding this fact, there has been a sliver of hope of late, with the possibility of a constitutional review that may see an evolution of the president’s role and powers. But that bridge has yet to be crossed, so let’s not count our chickens yet.

For now, our immediate concern, assuming all four hopefuls get their COEs from the PEC, is to think about whom among the four deserves our vote of confidence to be the nation’s unifying figure, to be the nation’s conscience, to be the nation’s protector of the reserves, and to be the president that we can take pride in.

This presidential election is not just about voting the best qualified candidate for the job; it is about putting our confidence in the person who we feel will best represent the interest of Singaporeans and Singapore.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Race is on as two Tri-Tans apply for eligibility certificate

Amidst rumblings of possibly being ruled out of the presidential race on account of a technicality, former NTUC Income chief Tan Kin Lian tried to gain first mover advantage by being the first prospective presidential candidate to file his application for the certificate of eligibility (COE).

Confident that his application would be approved by the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC), Mr Tan’s motivation seemed to be driven by the need to demonstrate to Singaporeans his commitment to the race for the office of the Elected President.

Mr Tan’s trip to the Elections Department to submit his application was closely followed by that of former deputy prime minister Dr Tony Tan. Both presidential hopefuls were apparently unaware of each other’s intentions to fulfill a requirement for contesting the presidential election.

Interestingly, both of them had filed their applications even before the issuance of the Writ of Election by the Elections Department, whereupon prospective candidates have three days to submit their application for the COE.

Given this development, I would not be at all surprised if the presidential election is called this month as I had earlier suggested.

In the meantime, the third potential candidate, former PAP member of parliament Dr Tan Cheng Bock, when contacted by the media, had said, “I work along a set programme and I am on course.” Whether this means that the doctor is waiting for the issuance of the Writ of Election or he will do so in the next few days remains to be seen. In any case, watch this space!

Discussion forums had been rife with speculation that Mr Tan may have to sit out the coming presidential election as the organization where he was the chief executive officer (CEO) was not in fact a company but instead a co-operative. Mr Tan has since sought legal advice and will be applying for the COE to contest the election under a special clause.

Under this clause, anyone who has served 'in any other similar or comparable position of seniority and responsibility in any other organization or department of equivalent size or complexity in the public or private sector which, in the opinion of the Presidential Elections Committee, has given him such experience and ability in administering and managing financial affairs as to enable him to carry out effectively the functions and duties of the office of President' could be eligible to contest the election.

Over the past days, Mr Tan has also taken great efforts to distance himself from the PAP, a party where he was a cadre member until 2007 when he retired from his position at NTUC Income. Ironically, in an effort to shore up his chances as a credible contender, Mr Tan shared that he had been approached twice by the party to contest the 1979 and 1985 elections on a PAP ticket.

During a media briefing prior to submitting his application, Mr Tan had been quick to underscore his independence on the basis that he had never been a minister or a member of parliament and was therefore free of any association with the PAP-led government’s policies. In keeping with the platform of being the voice of the people, he hoped to present views that are alternative and different from those of the government, while still working with the government.

Mr Tan’s positioning is reasonable as he is staying the course in terms of giving a voice to the aspirations of the people and the difficulties they face, and yet at the same time he is also indicating that such a stance need not mean an adversarial relationship between the elected president and the government. It does however mean that as president, Mr Tan would not remain largely silent or compliant if he saw fit to speak his mind.

The race to the Istana is certainly heating up as the contestants approach the starting line and wait in anticipation for the starter’s gun to go off. And as we wait for that moment, I am sure that what each of the candidates have to say to us will begin to sound similar – what else can we expect them to say – and possibly make it a little harder for us to choose one over the other. But I guess at the end of the day, who we finally choose to give our vote to will the person who we honestly think will be the one to truly have our interest in his heart.

Well, for me, one good thing that has emerged in the run-up to the presidential election is the expectation that the next presidency is definitely going to be different from what we had seen over the past 12 years. The bar has been set and whoever gets elected president will have to bear in mind the much higher expectations Singaporeans have of the president.

And despite all that has been said with regard to the limits of the power of the president, a Pandora’s box of sorts has been opened based on the various narratives and discourse that have emerged in the run-up to the coming presidential election, especially in light of comments made by Dr Tony Tan as well as President S R Nathan on the possibility of broadening the scope of the president’s powers.

And if that does happen, it may truly be a victory for the people.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

When will the Elected President election be held?

With 56 days to until the deadline for the presidential election, thoughts should have begun to shift to when the elections will be held since the question of whether there will be an election has somewhat been answered with the race of the three Tans.

This, of course, assumes that none of them get disqualified by the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC), whose task is to “ensure that candidates for the office of President have the qualifications referred to in Article 19 of the Constitution.”

I had earlier suggested the possibility of a July election due to a confluence of factors (see Writ of Presidential Election to be issued soon?). However, I would not entirely rule out an August election based on what transpired during the 2005 presidential election.

Dates for July Election
Supposing a July election is called, it will probably be held on Saturday, 30 July, with Nomination Day falling on 20 July. The issuance of the Notice of Contested Election will probably be on the same day as Nomination Day, giving candidates nine clear days for campaigning prior to the Cooling-Off Day on the day before Polling Day.

According to the Presidential Elections Act, the date of the poll must not be earlier than the 10th day, and not later than the 56th day after the publication of the Notice of Contested Election.

Based on the above, the latest dates for the issuance of the Writ of Election and Notice of Election would be 15 July and 16 July, respectively. This would give the prospective presidential candidates sufficient time to apply for their Certificate of Eligibility from the PEC and have the COE issued to them not later than one day before Nomination Day.

It would be a tight schedule for the PEC but given the amount of time the prospective candidates have been in the media spotlight, the PEC should be able to complete its work quickly in terms of ascertaining their credentials and qualifications.

Of course, there is the possibility of issuing the writ earlier to give the PEC more time to deliberate over the prospective candidates’ eligibility. This would suggest that the writ could be issued as soon as this Friday, 8 July.

Dates for August Election
If the government decides that the presidential election is to be held in August, it will most probably be held on Saturday, 27 August, similar to the date of the 2005 presidential election. Nomination Day will fall on 17 August and the Notice of Contested Election will be issued on the same day.

If this is the chosen presidential election timeline, the latest date for the issuance of the Writ of Election and Notice of Election would be on 12 August and 13 August, respectively. During the 2005 presidential election, the writ was issued on 5 August.

July Dates
August Dates
Writ of Election
15 July
12 August
Notice of Election
16 July
13 August
Nomination Day
20 July
17 August
Notice of Contested Election
20 July
17 August
Polling Day
30 July
27 August

July or August?
A July election would enable the government to ‘cash in’ on the feel good factor of civil servants having just received their mid-year bonuses. Let us not forget that the civil service is the biggest employer in Singapore.

A July polling date would also avoid the traditional Chinese Hungry Ghost Month which starts on 31 July and Muslim fasting month which starts on 1 August.

However, both the Hungry Ghost Month and the Muslim fasting month may offer opportunities for the candidates to attend events associated with both observances to build their rapport with the ground, especially if the goal was to build up their credentials and be seen as the people’s president.

And going by the dates for the 2005 presidential election, it would appear that the government had no hesitation about calling the election during the Hungry Ghost Month, in fact the issuance of the Writ of Election fell on the same day as the start of the Hungry Ghost Month. The only difference then was that no election needed to be held as President S R Nathan secured his second term of office by a walkover.

Considerations over a July or August polling date could also be tied in to the coming National Day celebrations in August. The celebrations could be used as an occasion for the nation to say its final farewell to President S R Nathan since his term of office expires on 31 August.

However, it could be argued that it is still possible to have the elections in July and have a president-in-waiting until the expiry of President Nathan’s term. It may be odd to have two presidents for a period of about one month but the new president will not assume his responsibilities until he is sworn in anyway.

Well, your guess is as good as mine, and I guess only the Elections Department really knows.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Nathan campaigns for pro-establishment president

Despite having ruled himself out the soon-to-be held presidential election, President S R Nathan appears to be playing an active part in the Elected President race.

What’s interesting is how President Nathan seems to be "campaigning" on behalf of the establishment for Dr Tony Tan's bid for the presidency. What more can Tony Tan ask for than having the incumbent campaigning for him as potential successor?

Interesting but not surprising since any overt campaigning by the PAP-led government or any of its associated party machinery could scupper Tony Tan's chances in the race to the Istana, as such a move would only confirm in the minds of voters that Tony Tan, despite his claims of being an independent candidate, is the government-endorsed (and by extension, the PAP-endorsed) presidential hopeful - not that voters don't already know this to be the case.

Following his ringing endorsement of Tony Tan's candidacy, President Nathan over the weekend 'warned' of the danger of having a leader who bows to populist pressure and once again reminded Singaporeans to look at the big picture in relation to government decisions that had proven to be for the good of the nation in the end.

No one is begrudging the government the good work it has done for Singapore but recent history has shown to Singaporeans that there is a need to ensure more checks-and-balances on the government to ensure that you and I can proudly continue to call this place ‘Home’ instead of feeling like strangers in our own homeland.

This dissatisfaction with the government and its unpopular policies had translated into a 6.5% vote swing in the May 2011 general election and six parliamentary seats going to the opposition.

But with still only a minority voice in the nation's law-making body, it comes as no surprise that there would be a ground swell for another channel to hold the government accountable for its actions. The elected presidency is quite obviously thought to be the most appropriate vehicle for achieving this goal.

As an apolitical office, it is able to look at issues beyond party lines and offer an objective assessment of the issues of the day. And, as an office that has the mandate of the people, one could argue that it is the one office of state that can be the most representative of the wishes of the people. These two factors offer a unique channel to check-and-balance the powers of the government without the presidency becoming a centre of power unto itself.

President Nathan's warning about the dangers of populist leaders follows up on his retirement statement where he had said that Singapore needed leaders of "strong character and vision who resist populist pressures and the temptation to sacrifice the long-term interests of the nation in response to those who merely snipe without having to take responsibility".

No matter how you dress it up, I feel that this was quite obviously a plug for Tony Tan in the run-up to the contest between the potential presidential candidates, namely Dr Tony Tan, Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Mr Tan Kin Lian. President Nathan’s public endorsement of Tony Tan's candidacy only adds weight to where his allegiance lies.

The narrative used by President Nathan is all too familiar, couched in the all too familiar language of the PAP public relations machinery. And I am inclined to think that more opportunities will be created by the mainstream media in the closing days of President Nathan’s presidency to allow him to lend his weight to the promotion of one presidential candidate over the others, namely Tony Tan.

In arguing against a populist leader, President Nathan is essentially calling on Singaporeans to accept the status quo, to go for the familiar, to support the establishment. But is that what we, as citizens, want? Is that going to be good for our future and the future of this nation? The recent general election had offered Singaporeans a glimmer of hope that change for the better can be achieved by exercising our right of choice at the ballot box and I am optimistic that Singaporeans will continue to exercise this right with great consideration.

If, however, we accept President Nathan’s argument of not going for populist leaders, are we indirectly signaling that the so-called promised transformation of the PAP can remain as only that, a promise? This would be ironic because hasn’t the PAP had to adopt a more populist approach since the last general election to demonstrate that it is listening to and considering the views of the people? I can only hope that everyone continues to share my view that we cannot go back to ‘business as usual’ for the PAP-led government. Change is a must and change, they must.

After 12 years of a largely silent and compliant presidency, I believe that Singaporeans are looking forward to a change, to having a president who is not cut from the same cookie cutter as the government’s core leadership, to having a president who would take the time to listen to and consider the people’s views, and after having aggregated and assimilated those views, articulate them to the government within the larger context of the governance of Singapore and within the limits of his prescribed authority.