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A presidential circus

This week: The presidential campaign is underway. Everyone says they're independent.

It’s the last week to pre-order my book ahead of the official launch on 1 September! I’d really like to thank Constance Singam and Jom for a lovely review this week. 🥰


I knew I would be annoyed by the presidential election, but hadn’t expected to get as angry as I did earlier this week when there was suddenly Discourse about whether it’s okay to take photos of women and post them on social media—with comments about “pretty girls”—without their consent (newsflash: it's not okay). I wrote a special issue about Tan Kin Lian’s creepy social media behaviour, the role of the Presidential Elections Committee and what I’m thinking of doing with my vote. Tan Kin Lian has since walked back (well, kinda) his claims of an “orchestrated smear campaign” against him.

Tan Kin Lian

The three candidates had their first broadcasts on Thursday. Tan Kin Lian’s speech ran into some trouble, as the Elections Department and the Infocomm Media Development Authority took issue with “inaccuracies” in his speech. They said that his original speech had “suggested that the President can provide guidance on the reserves' investment strategies and influence government policy”, which the president doesn’t actually have power to do.

Tan wasn’t happy with this editing, saying that the three paragraphs that got cut were the “most important paragraphs” of his message. He argued that IMDA didn’t have the authority to interpret the Constitution and demand those edits, and insisted that he wasn’t misleading voters with his campaign promises, like trying to get the government to suspend the upcoming GST hike. This is not something that’s within the president’s power to do, but the impression I get is that Tan thinks that, if he’s president, he can just call the prime minister in for meetings where he’ll deliver monologues about the hardship of the people and convince the PM to U-turn on the government’s policies on the back of his impassioned speeches. Maybe I’m a jaded and miserable party-pooper, but that’s just not going to happen yah.

Still, it is debatable whether the ELD and IMDA should have demanded edits to his speech, or if they should have put out statement or clarifications separate from his speech. If a candidate is making false promises or saying things that misrepresent the office, then something has to be said to inform the public. But how it should be done is something that I’m still thinking about.

While on a walkabout on Friday, Tan Kin Lian tried to appeal to the nativist vote by introducing both himself and his wife as “blue-blooded Singaporeans”, which he defined as people with “a long-standing and respected lineage within Singaporean society, often implying a strong connection to the country's history, culture, and traditions”. He’s trying to sell this as something that puts him ahead of his competition: Ng Kok Song’s fiancée was born in Canada, while Tharman’s wife was born in Japan to a Japanese father and Chinese Singaporean mother.

The idea of “blue-blooded Singaporeans” is horrifying. It’s a dangerous path to go down, to start policing people’s ‘Singaporean-ness’ in this way. It’s also stupid, considering the increasing number of transnational marriages between citizens and non-citizens. What sort of “unifying” president can Tan possibly be if he’s going to express such xenophobic and exclusionary views about who is ‘real’ Singaporean?

Tharman Shanmugaratnam

Meanwhile, Tharman is trying very hard to present himself as possessing “independence of mind”, his best response to having spent the past two decades cosily ensconced in the PAP’s warm embrace. Now that voters are looking for someone who can actually be a check on the PAP—despite the presidency being a pretty poor checking mechanism in the first place—he needs to distance himself from the party and project a different image. So enter: Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the student activist.

The headline from a CNA article on Tharman and his campaign.
The headline from a CNA article on Tharman and his campaign.

(But of course, not too activisty; he’s the “practical idealist” who has now seen the light that, as CNA paraphrased from his interview, “a fair and progressive society can be achieved not just by the actions of the state but also by transforming lives on the ground”. This is basically the PAP line on “resilience” and “personal responsibility”, no?)

This is just rich. Tharman has spent his entire political career contributing to and legitimising the very party that put other activists—including his friends!—behind bars without trial. He might not have directly participated in the most vindictive and hostile attacks against critics and civil society, but he’s been complicit for decades with his continued participation in the PAP, whitewashing their image with his individual popularity. We didn’t see any evidence of his “independent mind” when Tan Wu Meng, a member of his GRC team wrote a hatchet job article for the party website attacking Alfian Sa’at.

No matter how much Tharman tries to sell himself as “independent” or pander to Singaporean fantasies about a kinder, more progressive political elite, the fact is that a vote for Tharman will be seen as a victory for the PAP. If not a direct endorsement of them and their status quo, then at least as yet another sign that they can continue to get mileage out of Tharman’s star factor.

Ng Kok Song

Unlike the other two, Ng Kok Song hasn’t bothered to put up campaign posters. He says it’s because he has very limited resources, and finds it to not be very environmentally friendly to put all these things up only to take them down not long after.

Ng has also been hard at work portraying himself as independent. He points out that he isn’t as close to the PAP as Tharman is. And to take on Tan Kin Lian… well I guess Ng just has let Tan dig himself into holes. In any case, Ng is pushing this narrative that he’s the only truly non-partisan candidate in this race.

Although we all seem to agree that this a farcical election, it’s hard not to talk about the PE whenever I meet people. The thing that’s struck me is that very few people seem to be enthusiastically voting for a candidate that they actually like. Most people I’ve spoken to are twisting into all sorts of mental gymnastics to figure out what’s the most tactical way to use their vote to send a message to the ruling party while not harming Singapore. I can’t vote for Tharman because I don't want to let the PAP have their way, but oh my God, how to vote for Tan Kin Lian?! So maybe Ng Kok Song? But I don’t really know much about him and he also seems very tied to the establishment like he’s their back-up candidate… so maybe Tan Kin Lian? But oh no how can…

This is an inner turmoil that comes from the desire to protest against the elite, only we’re stuck with a process that was designed by the elite to favour the elite. What we’re trying to do here is dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. It has turned the role of head of state, and this election, into a complete mess.

Lee Hsien Loong’s looooooooong succession plan

Now that Covid is ‘over’, Lee Hsien Loong says that his succession plan is “back on track”. This has been a super long track, but Lee says that the 4G team is “setting the pace” more and more. Still no actual timeline, though.

Got some more…

💣 The police said that bomb threats were made at 18 locations across the island on Wednesday, but nothing was found.

❌ The government has been issuing POFMA orders to a TikTok user. It doesn’t seem to be working super well, because they've had to issue multiple ones for different things and he doesn't seem deterred.

👨‍👩‍👧 A Vietnamese woman is asking for shared custody of her child with her Singaporean ex-husband. The argument is that, if they have shared custody, then both she and her child should be permanently allowed to live in Singapore. I think it’s ridiculous that her kid doesn’t automatically have citizenship, and that it’s so difficult for the mother to be able to live in Singapore.

The latest issue of Mekong Review, the quarterly Asia-focused literary magazine that I edit, is now out! You'll find it at places like Books Kinokuniya, Wardah Books, Thambi Magazine Store and more (including at the WH Smith in Changi Airport!) but you can also buy a copy online at Mekong Review’s webstore. We ship worldwide too.

Sharing a song that I've been listening to on repeat. I love it so much. Turn on the captions to get the English translation of the lyrics, then hug your pets.

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