Singapore: Presidential contest - panic in the PAP?

Posted by under Election Watch on 11 August 2005

Ever since Andrew Kuan announced his intention to seek the presidency, Singaporeans have been treated to an unaccustomed spectacle the PAP coming out with all guns blazing, almost as if they're in panic.

Daily since Andrew Kuan was first mentioned by the Straits Times on Friday 5 August, PAP politicians and the media have been badmouthing him. He has been described as arrogant, too full of himself, and now dirt is being dug up by the New Paper about something that might or might not have happened at a condominium.

Minister Lim Swee Say today was quoted by the Sunday Times as saying that Singaporeans should not hope for a contest in the presidential election just for the sake of it.

What matters more is whether those who want to run for president have the qualities to perform the duties of the highest post in the land, the Sunday Times reported him to have said.

Lim was reacting no doubt to a heightened interest on the part of the public in the presidential contest that had just days before looked like it would be another walk-over.

Of course, the rejoinder is: who is going to decide whether someone is qualified? Shouldn't it be the electorate? Isn't that what elections are for?

But not in Singapore though. Like in Ayatollah-ruled Iran, interested candidates must first be prequalified by unelected guardians of the faith (the PAP faith in Singapore's case). Only safe candidates can be presented to voters.

Was Lim preparing the public for a disqualification?

Andrew Kuan has to obtain a COE not a certificate of entitlement to buy a car, but a certificate of eligibility before he can stand for election. Two issues now appear to possibly stand in his way.

The committee determining eligibility has to decide firstly, whether his previous job (2001-2004) as the Group Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of Jurong Town Corporation (JTC), which Kuan says has $11 billion in assets, is equivalent to management experience leading a company with at least $100 million in paid-up capital one of the statutory requirements for eligibility.

Secondly, whether he is a person of "good character and standing" the other statutory condition.

It is possibly difficult to persuade the public that a CFO of JTC is not sufficiently experienced, and thus to disqualify him on this ground would create a credibility nightmare for the PAP and for future presidential elections. Having said that, we should remember that the PAP has often enough undermined electoral systems and state institutions whenever their party fortunes were at risk, so if they're not confident that Nathan can win reelection, I won't be at all surprised if Kuan's CFO experience is ruled as insufficient, never mind what people in the street think, never mind the damage it does to already low public respect for the electoral system.

The less nightmarish course would be to disqualify Kuan on the ground that he is not of good character. Hence, the determined effort you see now to dig up dirt on him.

Even if he passes the eligibility test, any dirt unearthed (or any simple issue spun as dirt) will prove useful in the campaign itself.

Of course, the whole affair begs the question of why we need such stringent eligibility standards anyway, but I shan't get into this here.

It is a little ironic that Kuan is being described adversely as stubborn, sure of himself and so on. When the elected presidency was first proposed in the early 1990s, the PAP government argued that it was necessary to have a person with enough toughness of character and the mandate from the people to stand up to whichever government of the day it was that wanted to spend the reserves. "Sure of himself", stubborn even, were what the PAP would have described as necessary qualities in the elected president.

Of course, that was then - when the PAP feared a steady erosion of voter support that would one day lead to a non-PAP government. As everybody knew, the elected presidency proposal was meant to be a second line of defence to stymie the plans of whichever opposition party might form a government.

As things turned out, the PAP had enough trouble with one of their own - Ong Teng Cheong, the first elected President, who was to prove to be too independent of mind.

Now the prospect of Andrew Kuan, someone not endorsed by the PAP, becoming president over the PAP government must be as comfortable as eating cacti.

From the panic we see, the prospect is real.

Singapore has only seen one presidential contest before, in 1993.

That year, the government gently persuaded Chua Kim Yeow, a former auditor-general (a civil servant) to contest the election against Ong Teng Cheong. Chua was a total unknown. In his few speeches on television, he lived up to the image we all have of civil servants dowdy, overcautious, scripted, completely uninspiring.

In contrast, Ong was well-known, having been in the public eye for more than a decade, first as head of the National Trades Union Congress, then cabinet minister and subsequently Deputy Prime Minister.

Yet, Chua polled 41% of the vote. Just about everyone (and more) who had a gripe against the PAP took the opportunity to register his displeasure.

Now, if we have a Kuan vs Nathan contest, the odds must be too difficult to call. Despite having been president for 6 years already, Nathan has no natural warmth with people. He says little and is generally unspontaneous. At 80, age may count against him. But most worrying of all, he is not Chinese.

Kuan is 51, Chinese, and showed up to submit his papers for eligibility with the former Archbishop of the Anglican Church in tow. Immediately, he has the advantage with those voters who prefer to factor in Chineseness, relative youth and Christianity.

Of course, one can - and should - argue that it isn't good for Singapore's future that some people still vote along racial and religious lines. However, it's a reality (among some voters) we can't dismiss.

Keep your seatbelts fastened. It's going to be a rough ride.

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Yawning Bread Presidential contest - panic in the PAP?

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