It was the reunion of the Tans of the PE2011 – minus the one who won that election. Once-again presidential candidate Mr Tan Kin Lian was flanked by Dr Tan Cheng Bock, leader of the Progress Singapore Party, and Mr Tan Jee Say, of the now defunct Singaporeans First political party at a press conference this morning.
All eyes were on Dr Tan, who had hitherto been coy about revealing his own preferred presidential candidate. Clearly, all rivalries had been put behind to repeat the performance in PE2011 when the trio garnered close to 65 per cent of the vote.
So there I was hemmed in at the back of a tiny second floor office in a Chin Swee Road block, contemplating the irony of it all. Both TCB and TJS took the larger share of PE2011 votes but could not contest this time because they wouldn’t be eligible. On the other hand, TKL, who had lost his election deposit, qualified.
TCB was in his element, appealing to voters to return the focus of the presidential campaign away from what he called “gutter politics’’ and on to which “independent” candidate could best guard the reserves and the impartiality of the civil service.
Independence is a mantra that has been uttered by each of the three candidates that you could almost meditate on.
Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam says he is “independent-minded’’, despite serving a lifetime in public and political office. Past affiliations shouldn’t be a big deal, he added.
Mr Ng Kok Song says he is non-partisan, but has conceded that he was only running because he feared a walkover, rather than running to win. And no, he is not pulling out although TKL would be providing Mr Tharman the contest he wants.
TKL says he is “truly independent’’ while sharing the same stage as opposition politicians. Add the fact that TKL’s seconder is Mr Lim Tean of People’s Voice and the team looks more like a political alliance formed for a General Election.
TCB said that he was supporting TKL in his personal capacity, which I suppose also goes for the PSP members who were milling around. “The presidential election should be apolitical… but issues quite political do appear. So that’s why I say we must always focus — what is this election about?” he said. TJS maintained that TKL has always had his own mind and way of doing things.
I have met TKL only once or twice before and was interested about the person behind the Facebook posts. I was not so much offended as amused by the amount of blowback he was getting with his comments on pretty girls, blue-blooded Singaporeans and the lack of public toilets.
I have read news reports on his musings about the presidential role, about offering the Government advice on investing the reserves and reducing the cost of living. Over the days, however, his hard talk has been reduced to the soft power of the President in private discussions with the Cabinet. In my view, he seemed to have finally got the point that the powers were fettered.
When the invitation to attend the press conference was conveyed to me, I decided to go kaypoh.
Do you regret this, I asked at the press conference, referring to his rather despondent remarks at NUSS yesterday on what the president can or cannot do. Rather strangely, he replied he always knew the powers were limited. Nevertheless the powers were still “powerful’’, he added.
He had to concede that there was little he can do if he couldn’t get his way with the Government. He noted that he had been required to sign a declaration not to make public his discussions with the Cabinet.
So how will he assure transparency and accountability then? The answer went back to trusting that he had not changed his independent ways.
As the press conference wore on in the stuffy little room, I thought to myself how the candidates were beginning to sound very much alike. The president’s role is so amorphous that the candidate cannot really put up an agenda for action.
Given the narrow scope, all three candidates have had to go on their track record to differentiate themselves.
Look at competence and character? But all of them cleared the Presidential Elections Committee’s hurdle, as TCB said.
“This is an approval stamp by the committee in charge, so what else can we say?Then you better question the authorities who approve the candidates how come there are still slip-ups, and so on,” he added.
This sounded like a discordant note to me given TCB had made clear earlier what he thought about the private sector eligibility criteria that ruled out entrepreneur George Goh. TCB spoke of the high bar for private sector candidates compared to political appointees who want to run for the presidency. He was complimentary of Mr Goh.
He was asked if he would have plumped for the entrepreneur rather than TKL if Mr Goh had cleared the PEC. But he didn’t get a chance to answer because TKL cut in to say that he would have kept his pledge to stand aside if Mr Goh was eligible to contest.
That is just so much water under the bridge, I thought, as I wiped my brow with a George Goh tissue paper.
What are we, the voters, left with? Still a PAP man, a G man who looks like a PAP plant and an Opposition man. We should have dispensed with the presidential election and gone straight to the GE. Because that’s how voters will vote no matter what you tell them.