Well! That was a pretty short campaign! It’s the usual nine days because the G doesn’t think we should be spending too much time thinking about who to vote for, whether it’s the general election or presidential election. Cabinet ministers have probably made up their minds before the race kicked off. We should be able to do so as well.
I am, however, having great difficulty.
I backed Mr George Goh because I thought that if the entrepreneur got elected, it would be a small shock to the system that is dominated by the PAP and like-minded allies.
Anyway, that adventure of mine is over.
By that yardstick, I should vote for Mr Tan Kin Lian as he is now the furthest away from the Establishment if independence is measured by distance from the government. But what about opposition politicians who are on his side? Is he both independent of the Government and independent of the opposition – or does the second limb not matter at all because the President is supposed to be a check (albeit limited) on the Government of the day?
The Constitution doesn’t say a candidate should be “independent’ but non-partisan. At the most superficial level, it means you cannot be a political party member if you want to run for president. Mr Tan isn’t, although he is usually identified with the opposition camp because of his vocal opposition to some G policies.
Nor is Mr Tharman since he has quit the party. But he too can never be rid of the PAP affiliation because he was so immersed in it. He quit just last month for goodness sake! ( When Mr Tharman said that even Mr Tan Cheng Bock couldn’t qualify if past political affiliations were brought into the picture, I presume he was referring to PE2011. By then, Mr Tan had already been out of the party for years and a pain on the PAP’s side.)* This is incorrect. Mr Tan left politics in 2006 but left the PAP in 2011.)
In the television broadcast earlier, Mr Tharman stressed that he had never been “partisan’’. I don’t know what to make of this statement unless he is saying that he joined and stayed in the PAP because it was the only way he can do good for the people.
Which leaves us with Mr Ng Kok Song, who pointed out in the same broadcast that taking off your party badge is just paying lip service to the Constitution – technically correct but not meaningful enough. And how Mr Tharman’s emphasis on his experience as ex-Finance Minister, Deputy Prime Minister puts him at the best advantage compared to the other two. But Mr Ng tackled this point too by pointing out that such deep connections might actually hinder independent thinking.
It seems to me that Mr Ng has been racking up plenty of points in these few days by stressing non-partisanship as an important criteria. He is doing a much better job of it than Mr Tan’s take about being independent of the Government.
But then again, many people believe that Mr Ng has been set up by the Government to provide some kind of foil for Mr Tharman, that is, a contest for credibility. Mr Ng’s investment firm, which was started with funds from Temasek and GIC, would also tick the conflict of interest box although he said he would divest his shares if elected.
If Mr Ng was really a plant, then he can hardly be said to be independent even if he is non-partisan. The truth will probably appear sometime much later in somebody’s memoirs. In the meantime, we have to take him at his word that he sincerely wants to serve the country.
So what if all of them were NOT independent?
No man lives alone. His history would be filled with connections to interested parties and with work (voluntary or otherwise) for interest groups. His religion would play a part in his outlook and whether he is on the left, centre or right side of the political spectrum. His upbringing and past interactions would mould him as a person.
Independence is being uttered for the simple reason that the president is a check on the Government. Mr Tharman hates it. He thinks the definition of independence as distance from the G is artificial and contrived. But then again, he would. Was he independent-minded when he was in Government? He says he was and that people know this. Perhaps some people could see this many years ago, but it cannot have escaped political observers that he has been rather subdued of late in local affairs.
When he says “what you see is what you get’’, I wonder what it is I don’t see. What sort of deal was struck for him to make a run for the presidency? After all, he has said he had always been more comfortable as a behind-the-scenes policy maker. Being President would crimp his rather expansive abilities I would think.
That’s the trouble with Mr Tharman’s candidacy. If you respect him, you will wonder why he is making a bid for a job that wouldn’t use him well. Maybe a Tharman presidency was conceived as a mentor-mentee double team to assure Singaporeans that the country is in safe hands because the President and the 4G Prime Minister can work together? That’s a thought.
Or is Mr Tharman taking one for the team, so to speak, because he would be the one most able to fend off PAP-unfriendly challenges? If it was a move for loyalty reasons, do we expect him to morph into an Ong Teng Cheong? (Note that when Mr Tharman was managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, Mr Ong was at the tail end of the presidency kicking up a fuss about being stymied by civil servants.)
Mr Tharman has so much “history’’ with chapters that can be read positively or negatively in relation to the elected president. Likewise Mr Tan, whose social media activity has painted him as sexist and racist, traits that the Presidential Elections Committee missed in certifying him as a man of good character, honour and integrity. He spent a few minutes atoning for his posts on the television broadcast, adding that he won’t do it again.
That leaves Mr Ng, unknown to the public except as a person the Lee family looks to for meditation classes. His past as Chief Investment Officer in GIC isn’t common knowledge, neither is his private company a household name.
But he seems to be an Establishment figure whom the Establishment folk will know of. They move in the same circle, so to speak. You can’t CSI his social media because he hasn’t any to boast of (before the campaign) and the media itself can’t be bothered to do any due diligence on our behalf. Their reports merely repeat what he says, as they do for everyone else. You draw a blank or kosong with Ng Kok Song.
What about expertise?
Does a former Finance Minister trump an ex-GIC man and a former insurance head honcho? When the candidates talk about how much they know about finance and the reserves, I wonder how current president Halimah Yacob would respond to them if she was running for a second term. She didn’t have financial expertise but she did unlock the reserves five times.
The candidates’ answers on questions they would have posed to the Government if asked to unlock the reserves don’t seem like rocket science to me. Serious.
In fact, I wish that they had talked more about their power over key public sector appointments. Let’s face it. We all know the questions to ask of them but we’re too polite to do so.
So here goes: What would be your considerations if a minister’s spouse or relative is up for appointment in a key position? How would you balance meritocracy and public perception of impartiality in deciding whether to concur or disagree? Can you give an independent assessment when you are so immersed in the political and public sector circles – or can you say you understand the qualities needed for this appointment when you have no public sector experience?
This is the most opaque part of the president’s powers even though such calls for the president’s concurrence are far more frequent than an attempt to unlock the reserves. But it is, in my view, more important because top leaders define the culture and ethos of public service, which was called into question recently over the Ridout Road saga.
What other yardsticks are there to measure the candidates? Ceremonial and community role? But that’s not what we elect a president for surely?
Mr Tharman is making a big push on this front about the need for stature on the international stage (meaning him). It was strange having to watch him ownself-compliment-ownself about the positions he has held on the international front over the years.
His case is that the planet is becoming an ever more dangerous place in which big countries vying for power could well trample over a little red dot. This is the vulnerability narrative amplified.
It is true that his experience dwarfs everybody else, except the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. But if he becomes President, it will be an experience of “form’’ not “substance’’ as he will never be able to exercise the prerogatives of a Cabinet member abroad. He will be hemmed in by protocols even as he stands tall on stage. But you don’t hear that.
In any case, is this asset more important than the ability to face up to the Government when there is a need to? If it is, why don’t we just appoint the President since we can’t tell what’s going on behind-the-scenes between President and Cabinet anyway?
I don’t even know why I am voting – much less decide on who to vote for.