Friday, August 19, 2011
In Singapore, 4 Tans and a Rare Contentious Election
Singaporean concerns about rising inequality, public infrastructure pressures associated with foreign workers and the scarcity of political accountability are manifesting themselves in what usually is a tame election for the country’s mostly ceremonial presidency.
Campaigning is under way for the Aug. 27 election with the People’s Action Party (PAP) still smarting from a 6.5 percent downward swing in national elections on May 7. In this election, a candidate with opposition party links has met strict eligibility requirements to compete with PAP establishment figures, and debate has opened up over the limits and possibilities of a president’s mandate.
Under Singapore’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the opposition’s 40 percent share of the national vote in the last election translated into just six of 87 seats in Parliament. The difference in levels of support and formal representation, combined with new confidence among PAP critics, is influencing the way the presidential campaign is being conducted.
Four Tans will fight it out. The blue-chip PAP establishment figure endorsed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is Tony Tan, a former deputy prime minister. The others are Tan Cheng Bock, a PAP member of Parliament from 1980 to 2006; Tan Kin Lian, former head of the insurance cooperative NTUC Income and a PAP member for 30 years; and Tan Jee Say, from the opposition Singapore Democratic Party.
Constitutional changes in 1991 creating the elected presidency were explained as the need for custodial powers as a check against specific executive actions through veto power over the spending of past reserves, and key public service appointments.
The clear target was any non-PAP government that might find itself elected. A pro-PAP president could limit its fiscal options and capacity to remove PAP apparatchiks in the public service, statutory bodies and government-linked-companies (GLCs).
PAP critics seemed excluded from presidential candidacy. To qualify, a candidate must have held senior office for no less than three years in a government role, including responsibility for paid-up capital of at least S$100 million.
Tan Jee Say has establishment roots. He spent five years as principal private secretary to former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong before working with various banks and investment houses, including AIB Govett Asia, which enabled him to satisfy election eligibility requirements.
His move away from state capitalist networks reinforced an independence of mind that ultimately led him to opposition politics. Tan’s pitch for a non-PAP president includes checking the PAP’s absolute parliamentary control with “moral pressure on the PAP government.”
He claims that his campaign can “raise the profile of all non-PAP forces, and this will help in our outreach to the people in the run-up” to the 2016 elections.”
Countering the notion promoted by state-controlled media that Tony Tan is a “unifying force,” Tan Jee Say says, “To discharge his unifying role, the president must address the fundamental causes of the deep social divisions in Singapore.”
Tan Jee Say says the problem is state capitalism. If elected, he intends to lobby government to disband the state’s investment holding company, Temasek Holdings. He would also urge the government to build more hospitals and schools, increase medical workers and places for Singaporeans in local universities. Veto powers might also be exercised to question salary bonuses to senior GLC managers.
Not afraid to politicize the president’s office, Tan Jee Say contentds that: “The PAP view is dominant in Singapore. There is a need for an alternative view to be expressed.”
But Law Minister K. Shanmugam cautioned candidates that the president “can speak on issues only as authorized by the cabinet; and he must follow the advice of the cabinet in the discharge of his duties.”
Undeterred, Tan Jee Say argues that it would be his duty to speak on behalf of voters if the government fails to deliver on its promises. Being elected affords the moral authority to do so.
While the PAP’s preferred candidate will likely prevail, the campaign is already a victory of sorts for the PAP’s opponents. Tan Jee Say has pressed the case for more effective means of holding the government accountable. Lectures from the law minister are unlikely to change that.
Tan Jee Say’s candidacy also throws into sharp relief the rationale for installing PAP establishment figures to scrutinize the political executive’s processes. As voters are presented with someone genuinely independent of the PAP, suddenly the other three Tans are working overtime to bolster their non-PAP credentials.
By Garry Rodan an Australian Research Council professorial fellow at the Asia Research Center, Murdoch University.