With the shamelessly choreographed election of President Halimah Yacob now over, has the government won the battle but lost the war for the hearts and minds of thinking Singaporeans? It may have. No script master can anticipate every audience reaction. So expect more of the same skin-saving manoeuvres in the years ahead.
The whole thing was a massive calculated risk, not just for the ruling People’s Action Party but also for the long-term interests of the country. Will it now backfire badly?
Will the 1.37 million Singaporeans who did not support the previous President Dr Tony Tan in 2011 feel they have been deprived of their constitutional right and return to bite the government even more painfully in either the next General Elections or Presidential Election? Or will we end up with a population of apathetic citizens who are at the same time increasingly cynical about their ability to have any say in affairs of the state?
Government leaders seemed to have acknowledged the risk. Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said it was highly controversial and he noted the “unhappiness” surrounding the electoral process. How right he was.
Minister in the PMO Chan Chun Sing said: “We are prepared to pay the political price, because we think the future of our country is much more important than any political capital that we may have.”
So, what have we just witnessed these past few weeks? Were we watching a bite-the-bullet act of altruistic heroism by a rather-be-right-than-popular government? Entirely admirable. Three loud cheers, if that’s the case. Or were we the victims of yet another ram-down-your-throat exercise of authoritarian overkill? Unacceptable today. A thunderous boo.
I think neither.
This is not an entirely confident government, surprisingly. Otherwise, the Malays-only PE could just have been carried forward to 2023, to allow another open competition for 2017. Whether Dr Tan Cheng Bock could make it to the Istana this time, we cannot be sure. There may be better candidates. But the democratic right of Singaporeans to exercise their vote should not have been denied.
Madame Halimah Yacob, her undoubted abilities notwithstanding, is, unfortunately, merely a pawn in a high stakes gamble. It is not the so-called risk of losing some votes or popularity that the government is worried about. It is the possibility of having a non-team-playing head of state who, at best (from the current government’s point of view), asks too many inconvenient questions or, at worst, is simply too disruptive in his articulation or posture for the PAP’s liking.
Such a risk would be considered much too big to take. A mechanism to check a rogue regime inadvertently becomes a completely different animal and would upset the original idea of having a wise in-sync custodian holding a second key to the reserves and keeping watch over key public appointments. This was what Dr Tan Cheng Bock was more or less prepared to do – to question and speak up. He or someone else outside the trusted establishment would be considered disastrous for the government’s game plan.
Now, how has the government come to such a stage that it cannot command enough respect to take on all comers in an open contest with whomever they anoint as their candidate? It has the best talents. It should have its finger on the popular pulse, always quick to address grievances. It has a track record of achievements. It has the whole mainstream propaganda machinery under its wings. Why is it so lacking in confidence? Didn’t it win 70 per cent of the votes in the last GE?
My theory is: It had no choice. Do something or die. The Elected Presidency in the last election – in fact, during Ong Teng Cheong’s time – took on a life of its own and became something the government did not envisage. So everything went back to the drawing board. And out came a couple of changes, including stronger eligibility rules and an enhanced Council of Presidential Advisers to “advise” the President. Plus might as well throw in a Malays-only race to buy some time before the next PE.
But, despite PE2017, the Elected Presidency may yet become an albatross around the government’s neck in the long term. The desire to check unbridled authority will find its way to the Istana.
The pent-up sense of frustration and insult – among Malays and non-Malays alike – that has surrounded the pseudo-Melayutrocratic PE 2017 will build up towards the next GE or PE and shock the scared-stiff establishment.
That’s my Big Bang prediction.
Cheers to Garbine Muguruza, boo to F1
What’s the link between the F1 SIA Singapore Grand Prix and Garbine Muguruza? Both like to come here.
But I am more excited about one of the world’s top women players coming to the Republic next month than the F1 circus that has invaded the city over the weekend.
The stunning looking Spaniard Muguruza will be making her fourth appearance here. She seems to have developed a love affair with us. Muguruza, the current Wimbledon champion, said she was pleased to qualify for the WTA Finals: “Every season, one of my main goals is to qualify for Singapore.” Only the top eight singles players and top eight doubles teams will get to come here.
Muguraza, originally from Venezuela but moved to Spain at the age of 6, has been called the Spanish Russian: “Women from Eastern Europe and Russia, they’re taller and they hit hard and they’re very aggressive. Spain is completely different. I’m tall [6 ft.] and have long arms and hit the ball hard. So they were calling me the Spanish Russian because they didn’t understand why I was playing like that.”
We look forward to seeing her, long arms and all, but dread the F1 which has totally disrupted the traffic downtown – inconveniencing uninterested Singaporeans to no end.
Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.