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It’s President Tharman and whew, that’s over.

This week: the PE2023 reaction issue.

This is going to have to be a bit of a quick one because it’s 2am and I’m knackered. There's really only one news item that we’ve all been preoccupied with this past week. Not that nothing else happened, but I’ll try to cover those in the next newsletter, and keep this one as a PE2023 reaction issue.

A big win for Tharman

And so the PE2023 night came to an end with this final count:

Tharman Shanmugaratnam — 1,746,427 votes

Ng Kok Song — 390,041 votes

Tan Kin Lian — 344,292 votes

Invalid — 50,152 votes

This sees Tharman sailing to victory with 70.4% of the valid votes. It comes as no surprise that he won. Tharman is a familiar figure to Singaporeans, and has long enjoyed huge personal popularity, above and beyond anyone else in the People’s Action Party. Even among the people who would usually vote opposition, many like Tharman because of his charisma and gravitas. There’s a strong narrative around Tharman of him being more progressive, more liberal and perhaps even more leftist than the rest of the PAP. I feel like quite a lot of this is often wishful thinking on our part, but wishful thinking can also be powerful.

Click to read the full thread.

That said, I had expected Tharman to win with a smaller margin. There were assumptions that he would pay the price for his PAP affiliation, but this doesn’t appear to be the case. Of course, it’s hard to tell from the vote count alone whether this pro-Tharman result can also be read as pro-PAP sentiment on the ground. As I said, there are people who can’t stand the PAP but think of Tharman as different and better, so this could easily (and actually quite likely) be validation of Tharman’s popularity rather than a reflection on the PAP.

Still, the PAP might interpret this as endorsement of the party as well—it’s not like them not to hao lian whenever an opportunity presents itself. But if the PAP interpreted this as affirmation and acted accordingly, might they be in for a nasty surprise at the next general election? At this point, I don’t think any of us can say for sure, and anyone who claims otherwise is either truly clairvoyant or pulling predictions out of their backside.

I’d expected Ng Kok Song to do better, because I thought people might have voted for him as the compromise candidate between the PAP-endorsed man and the opposition-endorsed man. So it’s come as a bit of a surprise that he polled so low; perhaps his (over-)reliance on social media campaigning has come back to bite him. At least he hasn’t lost his deposit?

Tan Kin Lian did lose his deposit back in 2011, but he’s safe this time ‘round. He got 104,095 votes in 2011—this year’s is over three times more of that. I suspect this says more about Singaporeans’ view of his competition rather than him improving as a candidate or viable choice, because I don’t think much has changed on that point (if anything, there seemed to be a lot more gaffes this time than last time). He, more than Ng Kok Song, was seen as a the protest vote candidate. But it doesn’t seem as if Singaporeans wanted to protest against Tharman that much.

I had hoped for a higher spoilt vote count, but I don't think the discourse on spoilt votes really made it out of a particular segment on social media to reach a wider range of Singaporeans. Still, Tharman's margin is such that it wouldn't have changed anything even if fewer people spoilt their vote, so I have no regrets about my choice.

Now we’ll have to see if Tharman can live up to the things he said while campaigning. Speaking to the press tonight, he said that his campaign had been about “optimism and solidarity”. It’s not entirely clear to me what he’s in solidarity with at this point, but he’d also signalled some openness to civil society so we’ll see if he follows through. Personally, I suspect he was referring to a very narrow band of 'acceptable' civil society, and I’m not convinced that he’ll do much to expand the space for dissent and activism (it’s not like he as a lot of real power to do that, anyway). But I’m a PE2023 grinch who will be happy to be proved wrong if it means that we do gain more space for activism and expression in Singapore.

One question: now that Singaporeans have demonstrated that we are perfectly capable of electing a minority candidate, where does this leave us with the reserved election system? Suddenly this whole “Singaporeans are less likely to vote outside of their racial group and therefore we need to do something to make sure minorities have a shot” narrative is nowhere to be seen. So how?

I still lowkey wish Max Lemon Ng could have run for president, ‘cos I think a cat could very effectively unify Singaporeans with cuteness. But I’m mostly glad that this presidential election is over, because it was very tiresome and frustrating. I still hope that this will be the last presidential election and that we transition to something that works better in the future.

Thank you to everyone who attended the launch of my book last night! Almost 200 people showed up on the Polling Day public holiday, using their precious Friday night to listen to Teo You Yenn and I talk about the themes in my book and the choices I made while writing.

My book, The Singapore I Recognise: Essays on home, community and hope is now available in bookstores! We’ve also got some other book-related events in the pipeline, so watch this space.

A photo taken just before the launch kicked off. Photo: Ethos Books

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