George Goh: A Man For The People?


There is nothing particularly surprising happening to George Goh when it comes to the opposition he is facing.

First, they criticised him for his mediocre command of the English language. Because apparently, heads of state are preferred for their anglophonic aplomb than for their character or their contributions to country and community.

Then, they questioned his charity work and faith. Because apparently, armchair critics with an irreligious bent are best positioned to judge a reputable man of faith who practices charity.

Then they had some incoherent mumblings about the separation of church and state. Because apparently, Tony Tan, Halimah Yacob, S R Nathan, Lee Kuan Yew, and Shanmugam are all ardent atheists.

Then, Goh, who is actively running on an independent, non-partisan platform, was suddenly ‘found’ to have links to the People’s Association and also had his independence questioned in view of his ambassadorship to Morocco. All this would have been accurate if we had only one ‘George Goh’ in Singapore, and if service to the nation as an ambassador is an ‘establishment’ role.

All this shows is that the people making claims like these online are politically inept narcissists who think of themselves more highly than they ought. These people believe that they are the arbiters of whether a person’s charity, religion, hobbies, career and track record are valid when they make pronouncements on whether one is a worthwhile candidate.

Questions No One Is Asking Yet

That said though, there are questions around a prospective Goh presidency that are worth asking.

Let’s park the anti-establishment theories about Mr Goh being a puppet candidate to validate Singapore’s functioning democracy for just a second. That doesn’t quite make sense in light of the fact that the PAP is averse to engineering political risks after the previous General Elections. Second, it was an open secret that George Goh was going to run. Political watchers knew and so did the PAP’s strategists. It’s not every day that the public gets treated to the political theatre of a published exchange of letters between the PM and DPM, and the Thar-bomb getting dropped.

Bombs don’t drop themselves.

Is He Really Independent?

Some question if there are other interests behind Goh’s candidacy and what they mean for Singapore if they did exist. As far as we can tell, the mainstream media has not broached this question. It’s just been assumed that Mr Goh has been entirely independent, aside from his preparation team up till now.

Confirmation of Goh’s independence will speak volumes of his courage and conviction, especially given the illustrious profile of his electoral opponent. On the other hand, Singaporeans should know if a prospective elected leader was representing the interests of actors beyond the veil.

Notwithstanding, the same goes for DPM Shanmugaratnam. To what degree should we believe that his resignation from political office bestows ‘independence’ from a team he has spent the last twenty-two years working with? This also applies to the technocratic community he is intimately acquainted with. As a member of the World Economic Forum’s Board of Trustees, how will the ex-DPM bifurcate between the WEF’s prerogatives in “The Great Reset” and Singapore’s interests?

Campaign Platform

Presidents usually choose several social issues to champion. What will these be for Mr Goh and DPM Tharman?

Thus far, both candidates have remained silent on their campaign platforms, as have the mainstream media speculations on their priorities. Presumably, these await the Presidential Elections Committee’s qualification of George Goh as an eligible candidate, as well as the DPM’s notice period to run itself out. (Isn’t it remarkable that the DPM of a nation needs only to serve one month’s notice?)

As obscure as the President’s community-related duties may seem, they are central considerations for a voter who is deciding between the candidates. After all, what are we voting for if not to choose between the candidate’s values.

Was George Goh Politicising the Presidency or Reinvigorating the Power of the Office?

In his first doorstop outside the Election Department on June 14th, George Goh spoke strongly about how Singaporeans have a history of awarding strong mandates to ‘non-establishment candidates’, saying, “People want change.” He also touched on the high cost of living and urged people to “think for the young people… can they afford (homes) in the future?”

Admittedly, his comments on their own and in the absence of any background context could be construed as appealing to populism, thereby politicising the presidency.

Was this a dog-whistle or an innocent statement that has since been clarified?

In an interview with Zaobao on 17th June, he clarified that when he spoke about “change’’, he was referring to the office of the elected Presidency, which had always been occupied by former members from the political and public sector class. “If the President is from the private sector, he may have a different approach or a different way of working,’’ he said.

It is unclear what any of that has to do with the cost of living, though. Furthermore, it is unclear how a primarily ceremonial presidential office would even begin to offer tenable solutions as well.

On the evening of the 21st however, Mr Goh struck a markedly different and conciliatory tone on how a future president should work with the Prime Minister and not operate as a check against the government.

Perhaps Mr Goh had Prata just before this interview.

What Does Singapore Need in a President?

In his comments on how he hopes to serve Singaporeans, DPM Tharman mentioned his desire to be a unifying figure for the people in increasingly fractious times.

George offers an alternative value proposition – a political outsider who could finally decentralise the power bases of the country, moving the elected presidency toward a more convincing independence.

But when asking what our President should be, it may be worth considering what they could be.

The established narrative is that the president fulfils ceremonial, community and constitutional functions akin to a monarch with symbolic and in some cases, actual discretionary power. This is what DPM Tharman presumably brings to the table most naturally – as has those who have come before him.

Read more about our thoughts on the Elected Presidency HERE

What is not valid, however, is an activist president who goes beyond his mandate to oppose decisions proffered by the executive branch. That is the job of the Leader of the Opposition, Pritam Singh, if he can keep his job after the Public Prosecutor decides what to do. Since the Leader of the Opposition already exists, there is less need for an antagonistic president operating at the political level.

Funnily enough, George’s campaign messaging thus far, is to vote for a president with a heart for the people, and not just for the famous one. This may or may not be a convincing plea for you, but it seems that both men would be apt at the arduous tasks of pressing down on buttons to launch campaigns, cutting ribbons, staring at the sky on the 9th of Aug, kissing babies and taking the occasional stroll to coffee shops to shake hands for photo-ops.

Since both seem amply qualified, why would someone vote for George Goh?

  1. They value the candidate on his merits: Business acumen, charity work and civic consciousness.
  2. They are just anti-PAP. Nothing more nothing less.
  3. They want to decentralise the power of the PAP and giving the office of President to a political outsider is a prime way to do just that.

On the last point, one thing seems apparent. The presidential election will become a proxy battle for the PAP and its supporters. The proceedings of this election will be a leading indicator for the General Elections of 2024.

Who Will Singaporeans Vote For?

George Goh’s life story is not one to be scoffed at. Born a kampung boy, he tells the story of being in poverty well into his teenage years when he dropped out of school to work as a sweeper in a shoe factory, where he subsequently learnt the art of shoe-making. A humble start in life by any stretch. Since then, he has done well for himself and today, is a self-made man – philanthropist, serial entrepreneur, diplomat and youth mentor. His is the quintessential pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps rags-to-riches story.

Tharman’s origin story is slightly different. The son of a prominent doctor, his spoon was a tad more silver. First a sportsman at ACS, he then made his way to LSE, then to Cambridge… you know the drill. He started his career as a civil servant at MAS and worked his way up the ranks to eventually transition from socialist-leaning political dissident to G-Man in a centre-right party which had virtually captured the reigns of state power. Never was a more radical transition made, yet made it he did, and for twenty-two years now, he has served Singapore’s interests both as a politician and technocrat.

As they go, both men are walking clichés, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing in this case. One, the resilient, savvy and service-oriented underdog, the other, a veritable emblem of the grand Singaporean endeavour for diligence, service, knowledge and respectable excellence.

Both are Singapore stories. One of overcoming the odds to make a name for one’s self, the other of careful and responsible stewardship of privilege to make a mark on the world stage.

How will Singapore vote, and what message will that send about the Singapore story that we value more?

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