It was PAP’s meticulous planning and execution that was again on display. But this time, it lost the plot. Just 11 days after President Halimah Yacob said she would not compete in the upcoming Presidential Election, came another announcement that Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam put up his name as a candidate for the coming poll.
That was not the way it was supposed to be. The politicians wanted a decent interval between the two events. But somebody decided to be the party pooper. South China Morning Post journalist Kimberly Lim said in a Facebook post on Thursday that she asked Tharman at a conference that big question: Are you going to contest? Tharman gave a non-committal answer: I would prefer to concentrate on the event. When pressed, Tharman used a familiar line that newsmakers have in their bag. No comments, he said.
That started a chain of WhatsApp messages with one of my friends saying there would be a press conference at 2.30 pm. The strategy to choreograph the announcements was in tatters, with both the Prime Minister and Tharman revealing the content of the official letters of Tharman’s intention to contest and PM’s agreement.
More about Tharman in another article; also about Halimah, 68, I want to write about today. Whatever the positive spin her supporters have put on her presidency, two sore points stick. Some believe both were intended to disqualify Tan Cheng Bock, a former PAP MP turned government critic, from winning this year’s Presidential Election. The government didn’t want a repeat of the 2011 result, which saw Tan giving a scare to former Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan by nearly winning that poll.
First, the sore point of race. The Constitution was changed to reserve the election for Malays. But Halimah walked into a storm of controversy when her identity card, which was leaked to social media, showed that she was Indian. She took on that racial identity from her father, who is an Indian Muslim. It even led to some Malays questioning their identity because their ancestors’ roots go back to countries like Indonesia and the Middle East.
Second, the second lock on Tan Cheng Bock with the government increasing the shareholder equity of potential candidates to $500 million in shareholder equity which blocked him from the race.
Many have high regard for Halimah. She impressed them when she was MP, NTUC deputy secretary general, and Minister of State for Social and Family Development, Youth and Sports. A source who worked with her at NTUC said: “She was like a breath of fresh air. She would speak her mind on issues that were close to her heart. She was so popular that she got the highest number of votes in an election to the central council.”
As a Minister of State, she shone as an advocate for the underbelly of society. She would not shy to speak publicly about the plight of the disadvantaged. A former colleague said: “Her desire to help poorer Singaporeans was genuine. At meetings, she would tell us that we must do everything possible to lift their standard of living.”
And as President, Halimah championed issues like mental health, gender equality, and inter-faith harmony. In a report in ST, she was described as a woman with a heart.
Now that she has decided not to contest the next Presidential Election, which has to be called by Sept 13, it is time for her to answer some disturbing questions about the hazy circumstances under which she took the highest office in the country.
Why did she agree to throw in her name for an election reserved for Malays? Could she not have said that Singapore need not go back to the days when minority candidates needed help to get elected?
Did she not think that the twin moves of increasing the shareholder equity and excluding non-Malays were an attempt to block Tan Cheng Bock from contesting? If that thought did occur to her, then how was she convinced to join the race?
And then a question related to her presidency itself. Were there occasions when Halimah questioned, for example, the proposed promotion of any top civil servant she was unsure about?
She had two other attributes that helped Singapore’s brand image. She was a practicing Muslim and so wore a tudung wherever she went. Add to that the point that she is a woman and imagine what it can do in a country where most of the top jobs, especially in the Cabinet, were manned mainly by men.
Halimah leaves the political scene with a dark shadow hanging overhead. If not for this stain on her presidency, Halimah’s would have been a glorious departure.