Singapore to vote on new president amid rumblings of discontent

Former finance minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam is leading the field of three candidates chosen under strict criteria.

A view of Singapore and the Merlion statue with water thundering out of its mouth. People are milling about.
The presidential election is slated for Friday and is the first contest for the position in 12 years [Roslan Rahman/AFP]

Singapore – Polling stations will open their doors across Singapore on Friday, for the country’s first contested presidential election in 12 years.

The vote will provide an opportunity to gauge the mood of Singaporeans after a number of rare political scandals in the city-state.

Outgoing President Halimah Yacob was the sole candidate for the last election six years ago, with nobody else able to meet the strict criteria Singapore enforces over nominations for the position, which is largely ceremonial and has limited although potentially significant oversight powers.

This year, voters will decide between three men: Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Ng Kok Song and Tan Kin Lian.

All three are independent, which is a prerequisite for anyone wanting to be president.

A fourth, Malaysian-born businessman George Goh, was deemed ineligible by the body that assesses each candidate against the eligibility criteria.

Outgoing Singapore president Halimah Yacob who is stepping down after serving a single six-year term
Three men are vying to succeed Halimah Yacob as the city-state’s president, a largely ceremonial position [File: Wallace Woon/Pool via Reuters]

The rules are particularly demanding for those from the private sector, with applicants required to have led a company for three years or more with at least 500 million Singapore dollars ($369m) of shareholders’ equity.

Goh heads five companies, which he claims have a combined shareholders’ equity of 1.5 billion Singapore dollars ($1.1bn).

Singapore’s Presidential Elections Committee said it was “not satisfied that the five companies constituted a single private sector organisation”.

Speaking after his rejection, Goh said the decision was “shocking” and marked “a sad day not just for me, but for Singapore”.

‘Corporatised government’

The decision has resulted in some criticism of the way candidates are chosen from the presidential nomination process.

“Singapore’s system works with basically corporatised government and government in business,” said Michael Barr, an associate professor in international relations at Australia’s Flinders University.

“George Goh was properly in the private sector and that’s what they don’t want”, Barr added.

In a letter to Goh, the Presidential Elections Committee said his experience was “not comparable to the experience and ability of a person who has served as the Chief Executive of a typical company with at least $500 million [Singapore dollars] in shareholders equity”.

The stringent eligibility rules also apply to prospective candidates from the public sector, further narrowing the potential pool of applicants.

“It does limit the options that we have in Singapore”, Felix Tan, a political analyst from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, told Al Jazeera.

“Unfortunately there might be some good candidates with a good heart who would like to participate but have been eliminated because they could not fulfil the criteria”, said Tan.

Tharman Shanmugaratnam. He is walking into the nomination centre and waving.
Former Finance Minister and People’s Action Party stalwart Tharman Shanmugaratnam is the frontrunner in the presidential race. He resigned from the party in June [File: Roslan Rahman/AFP]

This year’s election was open to applicants from all ethnicities, unlike in 2017 when only ethnic Malay candidates were permitted to run.

That was the result of a constitutional amendment designed to ensure Singapore’s ethnic minorities had a chance to be represented at the presidential level.

Almost 75 percent of Singapore’s population is ethnic Chinese, with just over 13 percent of Malay origin and 9 percent Indian.

Tharman, a former deputy prime minister and finance minister​​, has emerged as the frontrunner in this year’s race.

The Singaporean of Indian origin was once touted as a potential replacement for long-serving Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

In a 2016 survey of nearly 900 Singaporeans, Tharman was picked by almost 70 percent of respondents as the man to replace Lee. Such a course of events could have seen Singapore elect its first non-Chinese prime minister.

Instead, Tharman ruled himself out of the running for the country’s top job in 2016.

“I know myself, I know what I can do, and it’s not me”, he told reporters.

Victory in Friday’s election would see him back in the political spotlight after a long career with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). The veteran politician resigned from the party in June ahead of launching his presidential bid.

“I think he has a certain support from those who still see him as someone from the government,” Tan told Al Jazeera.

But perceived links to the PAP may prove a hindrance rather than a help.

Rare scandals

The ever-present ruling party has been hit by a number of scandals in recent months, a rarity in a country known for its political stability and within a party that has long campaigned on its integrity.

Tan Kin Lian with his wife. He is waving and smiling.
Former insurance company boss Tan Kin Lian is portraying himself as a ‘man of the people’ and could benefit from discontent at the ruling party  [File: Roslan Rahman/AFP]

Transport minister, S Iswaran, was arrested in July and is suspended while under investigation from the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau; his monthly pay reduced to 8,500 Singapore dollars ($6,300). Singapore ministers’ basic monthly salary was set at about 55,000 Singapore dollars ($40,670) in the last adjustment in 2012.

In the same month, two government legislators, including Speaker of the Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, resigned over a relationship that Lee described as “inappropriate”.

Those scandals came just months after some disquiet about the rental of state-owned colonial-era homes by two senior government ministers. Questions were raised over how the ministers obtained rental contracts for the properties, which are awarded through a bidding process, and how much rent was being paid.

After an investigation, both were later cleared.

Lee has attempted to draw a line under the scandals – in a recent speech he pledged to do his “utmost to keep the system clean” – but the fallout could spill over into Friday’s vote.

“There will clearly be a bigger anti-PAP, anti-establishment vote that will advantage Tan Kin Lian”, said Bilveer Singh, the deputy head of political science at the National University of Singapore.

Tan, who spent 30 years heading the insurance company NTUC Income, is marketing himself as a man of the people who can provide an alternative voice to the government.

But the 75-year-old’s social media history has sparked controversy after several of his old Facebook posts went viral.

They included numerous references to “pretty girls” and a deleted post from 2015 that showed a picture of passengers on a bus with the caption, “I boarded SMRT 857 and found that I was in Mumbai”.

He later apologised to his “local Indian friends” for any offence caused by the photo.

Ng Kok Song waving. he looks very happy.
Ng Kok Song used to be the chief investment officer for Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund and is running a low-key campaign [File: Roslan Rahman/AFP]

Tan’s share of the vote will be closely watched on Friday for any indication of anti-establishment sentiment from Singaporeans.

A good showing for Tan and fellow candidate Ng could also mean a smaller margin of victory for Tharman, who remains the frontrunner.

“If he [Tharman] gets far less than 50 percent of the vote, as happened to Tony Tan in 2011, then that will be a big slap in the face to the government”, Barr told Al Jazeera.

With much of the attention centred on Tharman and Tan, 75-year-old Ng has gone somewhat under the radar.

The former chief investment officer of Singapore’s GIC sovereign wealth fund has stayed away from plastering his face on posters around the city-state, instead focusing solely on social media.

Much of the build-up to this election has been of a virtual nature, with in-person rallies discouraged by Singapore’s Elections Department for their potentially “divisive” nature.

“I don’t know how you’re supposed to campaign, when you can’t rally, you can’t basically do anything, you just kind of get the media’s attention and be nice and smile”, said Barr.

Al Jazeera contacted all three candidates for an interview but all approaches were declined.

The winner of Friday’s election will settle into a six-year term after Halimah, who decided not to run for a second term, steps down in mid-September.

The president acts as head of state but is granted minimal powers. They attend official functions, oversee the country’s financial reserves and can veto key public service appointments.

Source: Al Jazeera