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Nope: The presidential election edition

Campaigning for the presidency officially kicked off today, amid controversy over Tan Kin Lian's social media posts. It's all infuriating and farcical... leading to me wondering whether to spoil my vote.

We didn’t need to wait for the presidential election campaigning period to officially begin before controversy reared its head. While he’s qualified to run for president for the second time—and seems quite optimistic about his chances—Tan Kin Lian’s social media posts are now catching up with him.

Over the years, the guy has been known for inane social media posts that veer into the creepy, such as talking about how he goes for walks to look for “pretty joggers”, or publishing videos of “pretty girls” without consent. He clearly knows that women don't like having their photos taken without their permission, because he even made a joke about it before. "This pretty chick does not object to her photo being taken," he wrote in the caption of a 2021 Facebook post with a photo of a chicken. "Why some girls object?"

These were cringe ‘aiyoh cheekopek’ posts before, but they’ve taken on extra significance and relevance now that Tan is trying to become Singapore’s head of state. Whether they surfaced organically, or were seeded by a rival’s campaign (which is par for the course in politics), the fact is that he did post these things and behave in this way. And let’s not forget the racist stuff too:

Such posts are highly problematic, but they don’t make the situation instantly unsalvageable. The key is how one deals with the resulting (and valid!) criticism. Tan had the power and agency to decide how he wanted to respond. He could have listened to women’s views on objectification and unwanted attention in public spaces (there’s a reason why ‘subway shirts’ or ‘MRT jackets’ are a thing), apologised and promised to do better. He could have shown a willingness to learn and improve, and probably won over some sceptics in the process. That would have been a much better way of reacting to the backlash, instead of what he did, which was to dig himself into a deeper hole.

“What’s wrong with looking at pretty girls? Actually the girls would prefer attention,” he claimed on video. He’s characterised criticism as “malicious” and expressed the belief that it’s part of an “orchestrated smear campaign” against him. He’s accused the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE)—who described him as having a “history of objectifying women” and argued that he should not have been certified as eligible to run for president (more on that later)—of playing “gutter politics”.

“I totally reject AWARE’s allegations and insinuations that social media posts I have made ‘objectify’ women,” he wrote on Facebook. “I do not objectify women since I have many in my family. I have been happily married to my loving wife for nearly 50 years.”

Can it really be a “smear campaign” if the one making him look terrible is him?

Should he have qualified?

Amid this controversy, the role of the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) in certifying prospective candidates has also come under fire. In their statement, AWARE questioned the PEC’s decision to clear him to run in this election. “The granting of a Certificate of Eligibility to such an individual doesn't only reflect on him but suggests a systemic endorsement. It signifies that these views and behaviours are not just acceptable, but perhaps even agreeable enough for a potential presidency,” they wrote. “We urge the Presidential Election Commission to thoroughly consider the broader implications of such endorsements in the future. The assessment process should not only take into account financial and management qualifications but also wider societal impacts to ensure our leadership truly upholds the values of respect, equality, and dignity for all Singaporeans.”

In response, the PEC said that they had not been aware of Tan’s social media posts before they certified him, and that they cannot now revoke his certification. In any case, the committee said, a certificate of eligibility does not equate to endorsement of his social media posts.

I understand the frustration over the fact that a man who’s now doing his best to demonstrate a complete inability to accept criticism and learn from it has been certified to run for the presidency. But AWARE’s comments about the assessment process aren’t the answer, and could instead lead to even more headaches and problems. Do we really want an unelected elite panel to be vetting candidates according to even more criteria, especially criteria that will inevitably turn out to be ambiguous and subjective? What does it mean for a candidate to “uphold the values of respect, equality, and dignity for all Singaporeans”? Who gets to define what this means? How do we draw these lines? What if someone argues that the PEC should refuse to certify candidates who have expressed support for LGBTQ equality, because that goes against upholding “family values”? (You just know that there’ll be someone who’ll kick up a stink about this if we open this door.)

The vetting process—and, let’s be honest, the entire elected presidency—is fundamentally flawed. Why should we have this unelected committee vetting candidates based on criteria that restrict the presidency to only a privileged few? We should be working to dismantle this system, not expand its footprint.

Ultimately, this whole thing is a clown show

The elected presidency isn’t working. The PAP kicked this off because Lee Kuan Yew was fixated on the idea of a “freak election” where Parliament would no longer be in his party’s control. They want the presidency to be a guard against a situation where the PAP might no longer be calling the shots, which is why they take steps like establishing restrictive qualifying criteria and relegating power to the Council of Presidential Advisers. But Singaporeans now want the presidency to be a guard against the PAP, which is why voters will use the election as a referendum on the ruling party.

The presidency is not meant to do either of these things. But the whole system has been manipulated into a position that’s essentially set up to disappoint.

The proposal that we return to an appointed presidency and set up a separate institution to guard the reserves and review appointments makes sense to me. Right now we’re tugging the presidency in multiple directions: wanting it to be a unifying role yet subjecting it to elections that inevitably get mired in local politics, having campaigning periods but not allowing rallies, talking about the importance of voting while reminding ourselves that the President doesn’t actually have a lot of discretion when it comes to key decisions like whether or not to grant clemency to death row prisoners.

So how?

I’ve been thinking about my options for this presidential election. People talked about spoiling their votes during the last presidential election, when there was widespread disgruntlement about amendments that led to an election reserved only for certified Malay candidates. The debate was moot in the end because no one got to vote, but we can this time. So the question is: what to do with this vote? Should I spoil it?

This is what I know about spoilt, or invalid, votes. They aren’t included in the reported vote-share; when it’s said that Candidate A won, say, 35% of the vote, they mean 35% of the valid votes cast. Invalid votes don’t factor into the vote-share from which the winner is determined. But that doesn’t mean that invalid votes aren’t counted or reported. As we can see from this table taken from the Wikipedia page on the 2011 presidential election, there were over 37,000 invalid votes—1.76% of the total votes cast.

There’s an argument that you should never spoil your vote, because that’s just removing yourself from the decision-making process, doesn’t achieve much and works to the advantage of whoever the frontrunner is. Don’t spoil your vote, I’ve seen people say online. It’s just going to help the PAP. If you want to send a message, cast a protest vote for the non-establishment candidate.

There’s something in that argument. I’d actually say the same in the context of a general election, where each seat and each constituency matters, and those voted in have a very direct impact on parliamentary debates and policy-making. Even if I’m not a fan of my options, I still wouldn't want to spoil my vote in a general election because I ultimately believe in the importance of the process. But what about the presidential election, where the president’s powers are much more circumscribed and I don’t even believe in the elected presidency as a whole?

In this specific context, looking at a flawed system that I don’t believe in and at candidates I don’t like, I just want to nope out. I’m not interested in voting for a protest candidate. In fact, I’d like to protest against the protest candidate too. Because, in all seriousness, what the fuck sort of choice is this?

I also believe that a significant number of invalid votes can also send its own message, and I'd like to contribute to that number. Others might disagree, but to me, spoiling my vote is as much a political choice as picking a candidate. It signals disillusionment and displeasure with the status quo. It’s a rejection not just of the establishment candidate(s), but the entire stupid, infuriating process. A victor will still emerge without my help or participation—but perhaps, in this presidential election, that is precisely what I want. To register my refusal to be forced into choosing between these candidates, and to have my invalid vote be counted as an act of protest against not just one or two candidates, but the entire elected presidency.