Between now and sometime in September, we will have three presidents. Nothwithstanding Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s bid to stop Presidential Election 2017 from being a Malays-only affair, we do know who the first two of the trio are. Incumbent Dr Tony Tan will serve until his term ends on 31 August. Then an interim president – either the Chairman of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) or, if he is not available, the Speaker of Parliament – will stand in until the next President moves into the Istana.
Subject to the outcome of almost-elected Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s judicial challenge, who do you think will be the next (Malay) President, the third of the trio who will serve for the next six years? Who you want and what you think may not seem as important as what the powers that be would like to happen. But you must not let that happen. You do matter and must exercise your constitutional right and duty. This is how Singapore can progress – by you having your say and making a difference and not allowing an unsuitable outcome to emerge by default. So, no spoilt votes, please. I may come back to this in later columns.
For today, I just wish to offer some grist for your kopi tiam talk, lunchtime conversation and dinner tete-a-tete for the next few weeks pending Nomination Day.
There are number of possible scenarios up in the air.
First, there are no surprises beyond the current set of self-declarations of interest until Nomination Day. No one else is coming forward. We have only three candidates so far who have already announced their intention or indicated their interest – Second Chance Properties CEO Mohamed Salleh Marican, Bourbon Offshore Asia CEO Farid Khan Kaim Khan and Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob. A possible fourth candidate, Bank of Singapore CEO Bahren Shaari, has not ruled himself out of the election, saying it would be a privilege and honour to serve the nation.
The “Malayness” of some of the potential contenders? Maybe we should not dwell too much on this as they appear eligible, going by the definition already established by GRC rules on minority representation. (Madam Halimah has been a Malay MP for years). But, let’s say the first two are disqualified – because neither runs a $500 million company. No contest, straightfoward. Madam Halimah is declared our next uncontested but elected President as per the late President S. R. Nathan.
There is a variation of this scenario, which may also satisfy the establishment.
Let there be a contest. The first two are such “poor” candidates anyway that Madam Halimah is made to look far too good and HAS to be the choice for sensible voters, especially Malay Singaporeans. Same objective achieved. Better still, an election actually takes place. She comes in with a strong mandate and greater legitimacy. Two unserious candidates (one was reported to have said he would donate his presidential salary to charity, I wonder what he would do with our reserves) versus a fairly credible contender. Napshot. That is, provided everything goes or is expected to go according to script.
This leads us to the second scenario. Things can go awry. Think Chua Kim Yeow in 1993. With their ears very closely on the ground, the script masters will have to decide and act fact.
If they feel, for some reason, Madam Halimah is seen as becoming a liability among many Malays (because she is a woman or too establishment a figure), she may be withdrawn or she may say No and is replaced by someone more suitable. And you just have to look at Malaysia to understand the cultural heartland attitudes towards women leaders in the Malay world.
That someone else must truly be a substantial figure. He must qualify eminently on all fronts – race, cultural acceptability, good track record, preferably conversant with finances, being able to connect with all communities and so on. There is a growing feeling among voters that the less such a candidate has been associated with the authorities, the better because he is then seen as being the head of all Singaporeans, and not just a retired establishment figure not quite able to act or think independently. Stronger checker is the phrase we are looking for.
The third scenario is a really open Presidential Election. This follows the pattern of the last PE. Many good Malay candidates step forward to contest, all generally OK but with some borderline cases. The Presidential Elections Committee adopts a light touch, like in the PE in 2011 when the four Tans took part – Dr Tony Tan, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Tan Jee Say and Tan Kin Lian. It passes all but the more obviously flippant candidates.
Among these people in the more free-for-all PE would, hopefully, be candidates of calibre and integrity who will do the Malay community and ALL Singaporeans proud.
The “decision” to see such a genuinely open and serious contest instead of a staged show would, perhaps, be taken in extremely good faith and some hand in mouth anxiety. With a CPA to help and advise the President, it is hard for things to go wrong. This decision would be the right one.
I think Singaporeans are smart enough to judge. And their vote, anyway, is not a privilege, it is their constitutional right.
Don’t allow the Malays-only PE to deteriorate into a wayang kulit show. Let it be a robust best-Malay-President-for-all-Singaporeans contest, whatever your or my reservations or sympathies for Dr Tan Cheng Bock.
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.