I started writing the little e-book, Lights on The Istana, during the run-up to the Presidential Election. If Mr George Goh had been eligible, I would have continued to write more chapters after the last one on Polling Day, especially about the Council of Presidential Advisors.
When people say that the President can do little, they are not wrong. He can say no, but his CPA can say yes, and he’s out in the cold. Even if he says no, and the CPA agrees, the Government can go to Parliament to override the veto. (I am putting it simply.) I remember how exciting it was when the proposal was first mooted in the early 1990s that the President could call for a referendum should he face a roadblock.
But his powers of dissent have been whittled down considerably especially after the 2016 Constitutional changes.
Two unelected groups of people now wield more powers than what was originally envisaged – the Presidential Elections Commision and the CPA. So far, the composition of these groups has not been surprising, all members of the Establishment who have never said an untoward thing about the Government. We’ve also never bothered much about the other presidential councils, on minority rights, religious harmony and on Internal Security detentions. They are not seen and not heard.
You can say that they are quietly doing their jobs and we trust them. You can say you don’t know, much less care. You can say that the fact that they are quiet is a sign that all is well. That’s what the political climate is like in Singapore, a bochup attitude of learned helplessness. In Singapore, power is in the hands of a small group of people who call the shots in so many sectors of life that raising a peep against them could attract a POFMA for being potentially misleading or omitting crucial facts or simply making trouble – rather than being plain false.
The Singapore Establishment lives in a protective bubble, so much so that they would rather cut ties with somebody who seems to be taking on the Government, or at least put some distance between them. Rescinded invitations are sometimes accompanied by “sorry’’ and justifications that they simply couldn’t afford to get on the Government’s bad side: “You know right? This is Singapore.’’
Even those lower in the pecking order are infected by this need to quarantine themselves. Businesses are afraid of losing government business or facing difficulties with contract renewals. It might not be due to any kind of directive from the top. It’s just people trying to second guess what very important people will think about them. It is not an attitude that the Government discourages.
I was glad when Mr Goh came out of the blue to announce that he was running for president. This is a very different sort of man than any I have been used to. He does not walk to the beat of someone’s drum, he just tries to get there on his own steam. He knew full well that he had to work “within the system’’ if he wanted to contest.. He started his outreach way before the PE was even talked about. He got his campaign paraphernalia ready even before he got his certificate of eligibility.
The PEC went by the book when it disqualified him. Going by the book is Singapore’s way. Nobody asks if the book should be torn up and written anew. Whichever way you read the book, the presidential election is tilted in favour of an Establishment candidate, not an outsider. That could account for why Madam Ho Ching was so insistent initially that the President need not know what the reserves comprised, a ridiculous comment in my view. I thought this was probably because those in the elite circle already know and there’s no need for anyone below their station to be privy to the same info.
Breaking into that charmed circle is precisely why I decided to support Mr Goh. The Singapore I used to know has changed into a mean-spirited one with too many people cowed by the criss-cross of laws to advance a different point of view in public. Over the years, they have become conditioned into thinking that the status quo cannot and should not change. You would have thought Mr Goh was trying to overthrow the Government when the fact is that the President is a very compact and contained office.
When people questioned Mr Goh’s competence over safeguarding the reserves, I thought to myself that he probably knew a lot more about finance than the current President, who actually unlocked the reserves five times. That an entrepreneur who built his businesses from scratch would be viewed different than a hired CEO of a big company. Fewer people, however, talked about the president’s power to screen key public appointments – those very places occupied by members of the Establishment.
Mr Goh will pave the way, I thought, to show courage in the face of adversity and advance new ways of looking at things. To show that someone outside the charmed circle can make it to the top. That you do not have to come from a good school, get good grades and work in a traditional job as an employee to make it in life.
This is the age- old story of resilience and survival which many Singaporeans will identify with. In the aftermath of the Ridout Road saga and the corruption probe, I thought he would be a good example of someone who kept himself grounded. Simple words. Simple ideals.
He wouldn’t be able to articulate himself well in English, unlike the better educated who can justify every action intellectually and cite chapter and verse. But he will not make others feel that they are worthless, with misplaced or irrational views. He will not be contemptuous of public sentiment.
If he had qualified and been elected, he would have shaken the perception that the elite have it all their way in locking down every powerful lever in society.
Today is Nomination Day. Nothing will change.