It’s the final day of campaigning today. The last day of every candidate trying to convince us that they will be independent while maintaining good relations with the PAP-dominated government, that they will be a check on power while also acknowledging serious limits to the president’s discretion, that they will be the “people’s President” despite coming from a very narrow band of the city’s elite.
I’ve been a self-identified PE grinch throughout this entire campaigning period, while keeping an eye on what people are saying about their choices. Very few people I’ve encountered are actively or enthusiastically voting for a candidate. That’s not to say that no one is doing this—I’m pretty sure there are lots of voters out there happy to vote for their favourite—but most of the people I’ve seen commenting online, or who I’ve spoken to, seem to be voting against a candidate or trying to figure out the most strategic move they could make to send a message to the ruling People’s Action Party. This has made PE2023 more interesting, but also infinitely more annoying, than a straightforward election for Singapore’s head of state.
Since this is a wrap-up post to mark the end of the campaigning period, I’m going to consider the options available to Singaporeans on Friday. But first… what are we actually voting for?
What are the stakes, even?
One thing that’s clear is that Singaporeans—actual presidential candidates not exempted—don’t always have a good grasp of what the president’s powers actually are. This is understandable, because there’s very little consistent civic education, plus things have got more convoluted as amendments were made to the elected presidency ahead of the last (non)election.
There are matters in which the president has no discretion, and is required to act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or the relevant minister. One example of this is in the granting of clemency to death row prisoners; although it’s known as a presidential pardon, the president isn’t actually the one deciding whether or not to show mercy. That power lies with the Cabinet.
Then there are matters where the president does have some discretion, like vetoing budgets that draw on past reserves or key public service appointments, but even then they still have to consult the unelected Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA). If the president and the CPA disagree, it goes back to the government, who can send it to Parliament to vote with a two-thirds majority (which the PAP currently has) to overrule the president. You can consult this handout that was distributed in Parliament in 2016, when the PAP government sought (ultimately successfully) to make amendments to the elected presidency.
This makes the presidential election very different from a general election. A general election is key because it’s about choosing legislators who will speak in Parliament, ask questions and make law. There’s a direct and serious political impact. In contrast, the president’s powers are significantly constrained, so the stakes are much lower regardless of the quality of the candidate.
Still want to learn more about the elected presidency?
Catch up on this session with Kevin Tan and Cherian George on Academia.sg.
Now that we've established how clipped the president's wings are—regardless of who occupies that position—let's move on to the candidates...
From the moment he announced his intention to run, Tharman has unsurprisingly been seen as the frontrunner in this election. What Tharman has working for him is familiarity and a track record. He has immense personal popularity; even regular opposition voters have expressed admiration and respect for the man. When he was in the PAP, the GRC he led was among the best performing in the general election. In this PE2023, he has the most well-resourced campaign. Even without opinion polling to inform us, I think it’s fair to say that there are plenty of Singaporeans who sincerely believe he is the best person for the position and will vote for him without hesitation.
But the presidential election is that rare political (and no amount of “let’s not politicise the presidency” is going to hide the fact that it is political) event in Singapore where being too close to the PAP could turn out to be a liability. The role is severely constrained, but given our limited options Singaporeans want to make the most of any and every opportunity to correct the power imbalance. No matter how much Tharman insists upon his “independent mind”, no one is forgetting that he only just left the PAP, and that he had been deeply embedded in that party for the past two decades.
Ng Kok Song
Ng Kok Song has generally been making the right (or at least inoffensive) noises on a variety of subjects, and he has a cute cat. He’s a big believer in meditation. That’s what he has going for him.
On the other hand, people aren’t that familiar with him, and he seems to be a guy who suddenly popped out just because he wanted to prevent a PE2023 walkover. How much does he actually want to be president? Because wanting to give people a choice is not the same as truly wanting to be the head of state. Also, Ho Ching seems to be fairly enthusiastic about him, and makes me wonder how close to that tight-knit establishment circle he is. All the candidates claim independence. But how much evidence of this independence have we actually seen?
Still, people who can't bring themselves to vote for Tharman and let the PAP have the way, yet are turned off by Tan Kin Lian, will end up seriously considering Ng Kok Song as a sort of compromise.
Tan Kin Lian
Of all the three candidates, I probably believe Tan Kin Lian the most when he makes claims of independence, mostly because he’s been moving in opposition political circles for years now. He’s also been endorsed or supported by opposition figures like Tan Jee Say, Tan Cheng Bock, Lim Tean and Chee Soon Juan. Even if they say these are personal endorsements and not reflective of the party position, it’s clear that people like Tan Cheng Bock are signalling their party supporters to vote for Tan. If you’re a firm opposition voter, the message being sent is that you should line up behind Tan Kin Lian, and that it will (somehow) be good for advancing Singaporean democracy, or at least send a message to the PAP.
The catch is that almost every time Tan opens his mouth, there is a problem. First there was his stubborn defence of his “pretty girls” social media posts (he has finally given a half-assed apology to “some… ladies” who “think that they are uncomfortable” after reading his posts). Then there was the racist post about Indians on the bus. Saying that LGBTQ+ people should be LGBTQ+ in private. The nativism of “true Singaporeans from birth”. The terrible optics of introducing his wife, then telling the press to only ask her questions about raising kids, caregiving and going to the market (omg even if she doesn’t want to talk politics, let her be the one to draw that boundary). The cringe when he said his wife wore green because they were going to Geylang Serai market and that’s the colour Malays like (this response is very funny, btw). Saying that he thinks Singapore would be better off if half of the women chose to be housewives. There’s probably more, but I think you get the idea.
This might not be a dealbreaker for many people. Some don’t see the problem at all. Then there are those who think of voting for Tan Kin Lian as the only choice to stand against the PAP’s attempt to control any and all levers of power in Singapore. (That’s how Chee Soon Juan explained his decision.) For this camp, a vote for Tan is not an endorsement of his views; it’s purely a vehicle, albeit limited, to resist PAP power. And we can’t forget those who don’t care what he’s like, and are voting for Tan as a form of ‘scorched earth’ protest against the PAP. Like the notion of a “fuck-it expense”, you can think of this as fuck-it voting.
Spoil your vote
I’m not going to fake neutrality and pretend that this isn’t my favoured option this PE2023. I’ve seen the posts and comments—many from friends—pleading with Singaporeans not to spoil their votes on 1 September. One prevalent argument is that spoiling your vote doesn’t achieve anything, because the vote-share percentage only comes from valid votes. The fear is that invalid votes will simply be ignored, or that spoilt votes would not be interpreted as intended. There’s also the concern that spoilt votes actually benefit the frontrunner, which might lead to Tharman not only winning, but possibly winning with what will look like a big percentage.
I hear these arguments. I get where they’re coming from; I’d probably even make similar arguments in the context of a general election. But as we’ve already established, the presidential election is not like a general election. PE2023 is a meaningless process in which an unelected committee vetted candidates, presented us with three options—all not ideal—and we’re supposed to pretend that we’re exercising our democratic rights. Whoever wins will not have real power. This is a wayang that we’ve been forced to participate in.
I don’t see the spoiling of one’s vote as inherently pointless or useless. It’s not the same as giving up. It’s significantly different from not showing up to vote, in which case you’ve truly opted out and your vote won’t be counted at all. But spoilt votes are a deliberate political choice, and are still counted and reported. They previously came in around 2% of the total votes cast, so anything higher than 2% is saying something. A higher-than-usual invalid vote count indicates that this can’t just be dismissed as people accidentally marking their ballots incorrectly in the booth; instead, people are deliberately submitting blank or invalidated ballots. That means something.
One can argue that this might not automatically be interpreted as a protest or rejection of the entire process, but you could say that for all the other scenarios too. Without independent opinion polling and voter research, we won’t be able to divine from the vote count alone whether a vote for Tharman is pro-PAP or just pro-Tharman, or whether a vote for Tan Kin Lian is meant as a protest against the PAP, or an endorsement of his comments about “pretty girls” and “blue-blooded Singaporeans”. What the vote count means is another conversation or debate that is going to have to be had in the aftermath of PE2023, and it will be up to us to make the case for our decisions.
That said, I’m pretty sure of one thing: no matter what the PAP might say publicly, they will be keeping an eye on the number of votes that Tharman doesn't get, regardless of whether it went to another candidate or if it was spoilt. Even if Tharman came out with a decent-looking percentage, if that percentage was gained due to a large number of invalid votes, they’ll still take note. That’s how a referendum on the PAP—which is what this presidential election has become—works: it’s the PAP guy, or not.
What they’ll do after receiving the message is a separate matter, but once again, there is no real way we could vote that would guarantee a specific PAP course of action, because they already have so much power that will allow them multiple options. Regardless of how things turn out, the work to continue pushing for more political rights, more democracy, more accountability and transparency will have to continue.
Is there really a right answer?
As always with an election, there are many, many opinions about how one should vote. I’ve seen people lay out all sorts of predictions and strategies and calls for others to act one way or another. But the most important part of an election is that your vote is yours. You can read all the think-pieces and social media posts you want, but at the end of the day you should be the one deciding what you want to do.
We’re all just trying to do the best we can. If you’re feeling frustrated or anxious about all this right now, it’s because you care about what’s best for Singapore, yet have been placed in an unfair position. This is a crappy situation: a waste-of-time election with candidates vetted according to arbitrary and exclusionary criteria, for a post with severely restricted powers, and the PAP able to change the rules of the game with constitutional amendments. The elected presidency has become a monster, where candidates are almost required to make promises they cannot keep and that the public cannot truly evaluate post-election.
On 1 September, we’ll go to the polling booth and make choices that are, hopefully, most in line with our values, principles and conscience. It doesn’t matter whether others will agree or disagree, as long as we’re satisfied that we’ve made the best choice we can given the circumstances.
The results will turn out to be whatever they are. It might be shocking. It might be disappointing. Whatever. Regardless of how it turns out, we shouldn’t start blaming others for voting this or that way. We should remember that ordinary voters weren’t the ones who politicised and twisted the elected presidency.
Vote for someone on 1 September. Or vote for no one. The only thing we can control in this whole clown show is the choice we make in that booth.
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