Singapore’s Divisive Seventh Presidential Election

Memo #101

By Netina Tan – netina.tan [at] utoronto.ca

Singapore’s recent presidential election (PE) was unusual as it was a highly politicized contest for an apolitical post. Unlike the previous two uncontested PE, this PE saw four candidates vying to be the country’s largely ceremonial, highly paid head of state. While three presidential hopefuls were former People’s Action Party (PAP) members, one was an opposition candidate in the general election (GE) held four months ago. On August 27, 2011, the government favoured candidate, former Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Tony Tan was elected the seventh president by a razor thin margin.

Turn of Tide: Singapore’s Watershed Election 2011 (Memo #82)

Dr. Tony Tan addressing supporters at his rally (Source: The Straits Times)

Like the GE, the PE was driven by a new political consciousness and activism. For the first time in Singapore’s history, the candidates held public rallies and debated candidly on national television and public forums. Candidates displayed distinctly different campaigning styles and capitalized on social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter to mobilize support.

Pre-Election Singapore Clamps Down on Social Media (Memo #58)

Supporters at Dr. Tan Cheng Bock’s Rally (Source: The Online Citizen)

A politicized campaign for an apolitical presidency divided Singapore. Voters were torn between supporting status quo and changing the presidential office. Dr. Tony Tan’s affiliation with the PAP and his sons’ preferential treatment to disrupt from national service while he served as the defence minister riled the netizens. Emboldened opposition candidate Tan Jee Say lobbied for wider presidential powers to check on the government.

After nine days of heated campaigning, Singapore’s first-past-the-post system threw up a winner with no clear mandate. Despite endorsements from union and government leaders, the highly eligible Dr. Tony Tan won by a small margin of 0.34 per cent or 7,269 votes, over runner-up, Dr. Tan Cheng Bock. While Tan Jee Say attracted support from the regular 25 per cent of anti-PAP voters, Tan Kin Lian lost his S$48,000 electoral deposit after receiving less than 12.5 per cent of votes cast. If it were a two man race with Dr. Tan Cheng Bock, Dr. Tony Tan would have lost.

Presidential Election Results (Source: The Straits Times)

The Economist was quick to label the result a humiliation for the PAP. While voters were disappointed with Dr. Tony Tan’s indecisive win, the result shows that Singaporeans are not ready for a proactive president. The highly politicized PE has prompted calls for run-offs in future tight races or to abolish the direct PE. It is unlikely that future PEs will rise above the political fray. It is time to reform the elected presidency scheme before it turns into a populist political circus that erodes confidence in democratic governance.

Netina Tan – SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow, Asian Institute, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. Memo #58Memo #82.

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