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PE2023: Lights out at the Istana

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Yesterday, I was in the middle of preparing George Goh for his next door stop interview that would take place at lunch time when the news came. Some team members, including one who was holding on to his phone, had huddled outside his home’s music room which doubled as campaign HQ. 

They streamed in, just as I was talking to him about expanding on his platform, One Chance for Change. Someone told him to look at his WhatsApp. I couldn’t tell immediately that they had already seen the message from the Elections Department, so I tried to peek over his shoulder to catch the words. He said one word: unsuccessful. 

He was reading the ELD note informing him that the PEC had rejected his application for the certificate of eligibility. I think I was the only idiot who asked why and what and so forth. The rest already knew the answers. 

Across the music room were several gigantic boxes containing his campaign material, including flags, umbrellas, balloons and badges. Just an hour before, he and his wife had been posing with the materials for the social media team. He was shouting out his slogan One Chance for Change. 

George kept his smile on although it got harder and harder for him to maintain his facial features as the minutes wore on. It was a chance he took, which the PEC did not give. There was silence as all of us tried to absorb the news.
Last week, the PEC had asked him for more information than what was in the three bundles of documents he had submitted to the Elections Department. It wanted to know if the companies had been profitable from the time he became its CEO. So George dug up the old balance sheets. One company he founded was already 17 years old.  The answer, thankfully, was yes. All five had been profitable since he became CEO, he told them in yet another thick bundle of documents. 

We couldn’t tell if asking for more information was a good sign or a bad sign. But what was clear was that a CEO hired for three years to run a company which already had $500 million shareholder equity had a better chance of becoming Singapore’s president than an entrepreneur who had businesses in several sectors which he had built up over the years with his own two hands. 
In the music room, we asked George some questions, rather tentatively since we weren’t sure how he was taking the news. One question was whether he had been given bad advice. The automatic qualification under Article 19.4(a) has three factors: three years as head honcho, three years of profits and a company with shareholder equity of $500m. 

How then should Article 19.4b should be read? This specifies that “having regard to the nature of the office, the size and complexity of the private sector organisation and the person’s performance in the office, that the person has experience and ability that is comparable to the experience and ability of a person who has served as the chief executive of a typical company with at least the minimum amount of shareholders’ equity’’. 

George had already found out why past presidential hopefuls didn’t meet the criteria. He wasn’t about to make the same mistakes with shareholder equity or profitability.  In fact, eligibility was one of the first things I had asked George about when I was brought in to help out – he said yes, qualified. He had been checking with his lawyer, chief financial officer and accountant and building up his shareholder equity over the years. More importantly, he had another line of checks: by a retired judge, a Senior Counsel and a constitutional law expert. 

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Despite what they thought and advised, the PEC said he could not aggregate his companies to qualify under the deliberative track. Lawyers he had consulted found the PEC’s decision incomprehensible. They declined to be named although I am hoping that their minds would be changed because their credibility is being attacked.

I recalled how emotional George got when he told reporters that he had spent six years making sure that his companies could meet the $500 million shareholder equity when he submitted his forms to the ELD. The effort was almost derailed when Covid-19 hit in 2021 crippling many business operations.  But they all turned in profits. It was a boast and he took great joy in telling us that even the government companies could not say the same.

While we were digesting the news, phone calls kept coming, from the media, from friends and assorted kaypohs. We decided to cancel the lunch time doorstop interview as well as an interview scheduled for  the afternoon. Of course, that made the media even more determined to know why. 

We decided, however, that they should wait for the Elections Department to announce the results first while we settled on next steps. Then came a message that the ELD wanted to know if he had read the notice. He said yes and about 10 minutes later, the news was made public. We presume that the ELD wanted to make sure the candidates knew the results – before the media did.

Apologies and condolences started streaming in, even though nobody died and we were the only ones who felt sorry. Most of us put off responding to messages until we could come up with a way for George to express his disappointment at the outcome. 

He was like a smouldering volcano. For him, it was so much time and energy down the drain. “Can’t be helped,’’ he said to the disappointed faces in front of him. 

Of course, we had a tonne of imprecations for members of the PEC, an unelected group of people telling the electorate who is electable as president. And whose decision cannot be appealed. 

Of course, there were mutterings of outcomes that were “pre-ordained’’ and other conspiracy theories alleging a fixed election. Various incidents were trotted out as evidence, like Mr Ng Kok Song’s relatively late entry into the fray.

There were even suggestions that we had “offended’’ the PEC in some way or that George had posed a threat to the large mandate that the Government had in mind for Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam. 

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You may say that these comments are unworthy, even scandalous. That we must trust the PEC. But open your ears and hear. Justifications by the book or by the clause isn’t going to convince people who think the playing field is tilted in favour of an elite group of people who move in the political and public circles. 

The clearest indication is the ease with which public appointees can walk automatically into the contest, like a Speaker of Parliament with three years of service or a minister who came up through the civil service route and heads a smallish ministry. The rules were not changed despite the Constitutional Commission’s suggestion that the years of service be doubled to six years. The Government’s rejection of the proposal revolved on the need to be conservative and take things slowly. In the meantime, the private sector qualifications were jacked up – with a clause that allows the PEC to recommend even higher limits which can be passed by a resolution in Parliament. 

We had always known that the odds were stacked against a “pure’’ private sector candidate going by the Constitutional criteria alone. Few would qualify and even fewer would put themselves up for battle against the Establishment. Commercially, George had nothing to lose because he wasn’t encumbered with government contracts nor beholden to government investments. He was an outright outsider who thought that too many levers of power were in the hands of a small circle of people. They are in the same box, he always said, with the same mentality and culture.  

No, he did not shed a tear, at least not in front of us. His wife, Lysa, sat beside him. Someone called his children suggesting that they come home quickly. A few volunteers cried, yes. I was most concerned for those who had followed him for the past year, arranging his 50-plus hawker centre visits, meetings with groups and who had even sorted out a walkabout schedule after Nomination Day. 
One important member of our team who was taking two days’ leave said she would be back by 2.30pm. We settled on a media statement and a 4pm meeting with the media at his home. 

By then, George had rested, washed up and changed into a red shirt for the media conference. Someone suggested he wear black. Except that red is the colour of his now non-existent campaign. He was fairly jovial, making jokes about how he would respond to questions from the media. I got worried because I thought he was going to be flippant. 

But he outdid himself at the press conference, with his wife and children behind him and his team of volunteers around the room. It was his best performance, unscripted and from the heart.

You may find his comments about how August 18 is a historic day because Singapore lost its chance to put a different type of person into the presidency melodramatic. You may deride his lack of fluency in English, even though he speaks other languages perfectly well. You may even baulk at the thought that a barely-educated man would be greeting other heads of state.

But you cannot fault him for his commitment, his courage and his compassion. 
Asked what he would do with the campaign paraphernalia produced, he joked that the media could keep some of them and that they could be valuable in time. He also said that some would be sold off to anyone who wants a “collectible’’ with proceeds going to charity. Asked how much these preparations had cost him, he would only say “a lot, a lot of money’’.

It made me think about how he had tried to navigate “the system’’. He knew that there was very little time between getting a COE and Nomination Day, so he had all his campaign materials ready. I suppose it was the entrepreneur in him – very goal-oriented. 

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I don’t know if we will get another person like him, someone who doesn’t have to be persuaded to contest in an election rather than yet another reluctant politician who has to weigh the “sacrifices’’ that come with public duty.  I think we have lost this chance for change.

PS. This is one of the best things we did during the run up. You’re welcome to it

Written By

An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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