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PE2023: It’s not a vote for Tharman but…Thar Man

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When Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam tells the media that his great win was “not about me’’,  I disagree. This is an election in which the person loomed large, not the presidency, not his platform nor the political party he came from. The 70.4 per cent mandate was down to familiarity and popularity – and how as President, he will definitely not disgrace Singapore on the international stage. 

His personality is so strong that he seems to have put paid to the view this was a polarised election with him as the Establishment figure versus an anti-Establishment figure and someone purportedly standing for the people in between. 

Although he has a public profile, Mr Tan Kin Lian lost abysmally with just 13.88 per cent of the vote, but higher than the 12 per cent which would have cost him his $40,500 election deposit. Despite his lack of profile, Mr Ng Kok Song pipped Mr Tan by just 2 per cent, with 15.72 per cent.

It says much that Mr Tan took so little of the vote despite so many opposition politicians banding together for him. Even the weight of two past presidential candidates didn’t seem to have moved the needle. I hope Mr Tan does not respond to the results by claiming that a smear or disinformation campaign had sabotaged his chances. I firmly believe that most people did not think he had the right character for the job, even if they agree with his views that more can be done on the cost-of-living front. Plus, he was up against …Thar Man. 

Arguments about the independence or non-partisan credentials of a President who might have to stand up to the Government of the day seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Or have they? The answer would depend on whether the electorate understood the role of the president, especially his custodial functions. Or whether they think that the president’s most important feature is to stand tall, talk well and look good on the international stage. 

When some people look back to the first election in 1992 between Ong Teng Cheong and Chua Kim Yeow, they wonder how a retired Accountant-General could have swiped more than 40 per cent of the vote from a Deputy Prime Minister who had just stepped down from office. Some people put it down to anti-Government sentiment. But it also might well be because of how the elected presidency was put to them in the first place.

In its original form, the president was a significant check on the Government. This was an Lee Kuan Yew initiative – and you know he held a lot of sway. The people were told there would be referendums if the two sides disagree. The “power of the people’’ was part of the rhetoric. Given this, a vote for someone who is not from the Establishment seems like a logical result. 

The results of the 2011 presidential election were also explained away as the anti-PAP vote, especially after a bruising general election for the ruling party. That a former PAP candidate, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who at that time was as popular as Thar Man, was standing, provided the electorate with a real choice. Despite his party credentials, Dr Tan was well known as a critic who fought tooth and nail to make his point in Parliament, which he left five years before. He lost to Dr Tony Tan by a sliver of the vote. 

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And that was when the narrative about the elected president started to change, with an emphasis on his limited powers, tighter pre-qualifications for private sector hopefuls and an enlarged and more powerful Council of Presidential Advisers. The changes were madebefore the next presidential election in 2017, which also included a new idea for a reserved election to preserve the multi-racial image of the president. Madam Halimah Yacob walked into the job and had to spend much time and energy to erase the  #notmypresident moniker. 

Such is the ragged history of the elected president.

The best thing that happened in this 2023 election is that more people have begun to understand the presidency with all its inherent contradictions, which are tilted to favour the Establishment candidate. If the candidate was not Thar Man, but a mere minister, and the qualifications were not so tight, the independence ideal might have a better chance of being embedded in the public consciousness. 

Why? Because it’s such a no-brainer, at least to me, that the second key to the nation’s past reserves should not be entrusted to a former Cabinet minister who was involved in drawing up financial policy and who would be dealing with former colleagues, both subordinates and superiors. 

But…this is Thar Man. And he’s not even…Chinese! (Hurray for multi-racialism!)

Now that PE2023 is over, what can we expect from a Tharman presidency? His supporters laud his cerebral qualities and how he had always taken an independent stance even from his student days. While in Cabinet, he was known as the minister who was on the left of the spectrum and who thought hard about making people’s lives better with his now famous “trampoline’’ analogy. He was perceived as not as hardline as some of his Cabinet colleagues. (Note that this is all about perception. Evidence is far harder to find because the Cabinet operates on collective responsibility for decisions.) In recent years, however, he seems to be much more muted, despite calls for him to be installed as the next Prime Minister .  Or maybe because of…?

What’s not in doubt: he is a rational, courteous and fair person who rarely mis-spoke. There is a calmness about the man that is as soothing as meditation. In fact, there is much to like about the man, and even more when his personal life was showcased in the election. 

He will do us proud on the international stage. His intellect, I reckon, will match any statesman. His erudition and expertise will hopefully(!) lead foreigners to think that we are all as brainy and eloquent as he is! Who dares to mess with us then?

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But I have to admit feeling a bit disturbed by his slogan. He is using it to cut across the demographics, race, religion and socio-economic class rather than in terms of different political persuasions and the relationship between the governed and the government. Over the years, I think the political leaders have become more disrespectful of the sentiments of the electorate, as exemplified by the recent sagas in Parliament. I take heart, however, in what he says about finding commonalities in diverse opinions, which are fast disappearing in a pliant State-subsidised media and the use of Parliament as a “clearing house’’ for all issues. 

My question is: How is he going to do so given the constraints on his ability to speak up, much less change or initiate policy? More importantly, how will he correct the impression that the presidency is a flawed institution that is structured to benefit the government of the day? 

He has a huge mandate. When he figures out how he can speak or act, he should make use of it. The people are solidly behind him. And now that he is my president, I am too.

It remains for me now to congratulate Mr Tharman on his win. May you have a fruitful presidency. 

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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