Five Thoughts About September’s Presidential Elections… if we even have them.


SM Tharman has thrown his hat into the ring for the presidency.

Some might wonder why there is a need for anyone else to contest any longer, given his outsized influence and stature with Singaporeans of all creeds.

Not only has he served Singapore with diligence his whole life, demonstrating consistent excellence, but he has also repeatedly put Singapore on the global map as a key contributor to several high-level global panels, benefiting the shared economic concerns of nation-states worldwide. Perhaps he should consider running for ‘President of the Universe’ next.

Post-pandemic Singapore will undoubtedly benefit from SM Tharman’s election as president, especially considering the need to reinforce our reserves after the pandemic’s drawdown.

What else, then, is there to be said about this episode in Singapore’s history? A few things…

Do We Automatically Value Only Certain Kinds of Merit for Everything?

1.The majority of netizens on the ground fully approve of SM Tharman’s candidacy, reflecting what Singaporeans value: domestic excellence, international recognition, and the technocratic class. These values perfectly align with our meritocratic ethos.

In a swimming competition, the fastest swimmers are usually the crowd favourites. But is the election more like a swim meet or a talent contest where everyone gets to bring their own unique contributions to the Singapore story to the platform?

An Elite Meritocratic Appointment, or a Recognition of Our Diverse Contributions?

2.Will there be room to recognise contributions to Singapore beyond politics and the civil service? Apart from President Wee Kim Wee, a journalist turned diplomat, Singapore has never had a president who was not a politician or civil servant at some point.

Civil servants and politicians in Singapore have a deep connection to the service of the nation. Fortunately, these institutions have largely remained untainted by private interests and radical partisanship, as seen in other nations.

But what about other classes of Singaporean achievement? What about Singaporean innovators and scientists who make breakthroughs for human welfare, those who dedicate their lives to serving the vulnerable, or notable businessmen and women of character who use their wealth to further society’s interests? What about educators who dedicate their lives to serving the nation’s children? Will we ever become a country that recognises the diversity of contributions to the nation in the highest ceremonial office, beyond the conferral of service medals?

Guardian of the Reserves? Why?

3.Some may argue that the stringent qualifying criteria for the presidency are appropriate considering the discretionary task of guarding the reserves. However, it is worth asking a more structural question: Why is the Elected President the designated role for reserve guardianship in the first place? This is a larger question that requires viable alternatives to be proposed and a retrospective evaluation of previous presidents’ suitability for such a task.

For now, perhaps we should question whether the strict requirements of the office of the President hinder the representative potential of the office, where our people have the option to choose the kind of leaders they want and the values they stand for, beyond high-level technocratic excellence, a career in the civil service, and involvement in domestic politics.

Credibility of The EP in the Event of Another Walkover

4. Given the strength of SM Tharman’s candidacy, does the possibility of a walkover diminish the credibility of the Elected Presidency?

Not necessarily. Just because the odds are not in one’s favour does not mean someone with gumption cannot play the game. Besides, everyone loves a good underdog story and it would be interesting to see if Singapore in 2023 would swing David or Goliath. However, it would also be understandable if a qualified individual chooses not to run against an ex-government candidate who has enjoyed decades of favourable coverage in the public eye and now has endorsements galore from the establishment, civil society organisations, and the media.

The possibility of a walkover (which we think will be unlikely but still possible) should give us pause to reflect. Since 1993, when Ong Teng Cheong was first elected, there have been five general elections for presidents. Of the five, three (Nathan x2 and Halimah x1) were walkovers. Having an unelected “Elected President,” more often than not occupied by well-liked former party-linked candidates expected to be trusted as authentically impartial, even though they were establishment figures until recently, is a sure-fire way to breed cynicism about the office, as Han Fook Kwang pointed out in his recent CNA commentary.

But beyond that, a walkover denies Singaporeans the opportunity to vote for a president who represents their values. Should Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh have been eligible to run for office, he would have appealed to a specific segment based on the causes he has previously supported. Likewise, the question remains: What causes will SM Tharman champion if elected? A contested presidency would allow Singaporeans to cast a vote signalling their approval or disapproval of a certain candidate’s causes and background.

Most Importantly

5. But perhaps, the most important reason to have a contested election is so that we can kenna a public holiday in September when Singapore will be suffering from a public holiday drought between National Day and Deepavali.

Despite these questions, the Elected Presidency remains an important office and, as SM Tharman has articulated, holds vital unifying potential in a turbulent geopolitical and social landscape. Let us hope that the upcoming office-bearer, whoever they may be, will continue to serve the people with integrity and strength, both at home and on the international stage.

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