SINGAPORE: As Singaporeans eagerly anticipate the results of the 2023 Presidential Election tonight (1 Sept) with a keen interest in how the race will shape the nation’s future, academic Donald Low has expressed his hope that establishment picks Tharman Shanmugaratnam will win big as he compared his rival Tan Kin Lian to former American President Donald Trump.
Prof Low was the Associate Dean of executive research and education at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) at the National University of Singapore (NUS) before he resigned in 2018. He now teaches at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
In a Facebook post this evening, Prof Low delved into the possible implications of a victory by each of the three presidential candidates: Mr Tharman, Mr Tan and Mr Ng Kok Song.
Prof Low said that if Mr Tharman secures a significant victory, receiving well above 60 per cent of valid votes, it would signify several important trends in Singaporean politics. Firstly, it would indicate that a substantial majority of Singaporeans are comfortable with a non-Chinese leader, highlighting a growing inclusivity in the nation’s politics.
Moreover, a large Tharman win would suggest strong support for the idea of a more redistributive state and a fairer society characterized by greater income equality. Mr Tharman is portrayed as the most left-leaning figure within the PAP, advocating for progressive changes even within the constraints of the party.
Prof Low said: “Now as President, Tharman has few substantive powers (and maybe that’s why he was asked to run for President).
“But we shouldn’t underestimate the power of the message that the electorate sends by giving the most left-leaning former senior member of the PAP, one who has been mostly sidelined in recent years, a big win. It’d be a significant boost for the few progressives in the ruling party.”
He added: “A small Tharman win (say he wins with just 40/50+ percent of the valid votes), on the other hand, has more depressing implications.”
Prof Low said that a strong Ng Kok Song win will represent “a win by the conservative/neoliberal wing of the PAP — the wing that became dominant in the 1990s under GCT and remains very powerful due to the enduring presence of the 3G ministers in key positions.”
Prof Low said that this group prioritizes economic competitiveness over progressive policies, has reservations about the significance of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives, and tends to favour capital over labour. He argued that this neoliberal view, which should have waned after the global financial crisis, still predominates within the PAP.
Notably, Prof Low highlighted the irony that the candidate who has never been a PAP member, Mr Ng Kok Song, aligns more closely with this mainstream neoliberal view than the other candidates. According to Prof Low, this has led to Mr Ng’s difficulty articulating a coherent vision for Singapore.
The academic said, “Now let’s be clear, Tharman was hardly the ideal candidate to challenge the neoliberal hegemony of the PAP. But he was the one-eyed man in a PAP of blind men and women.”
Prof Low went on to suggest that a Tan Kin Lian win may be the most disastrous for Singapore. Drawing a parallel to former U.S. President Donald Trump, Prof Low said that Mr Tan represents a form of populism that appeals to nativism and potentially racism.
He added that Mr Tan’s appeal lies in portraying himself as an anti-establishment candidate, which masks his right-wing and conservative leanings, particularly on social and cultural issues.
Prof Low said: “To me, TKL represents Trump in Sg. Trump didn’t bother too much with the conventional left/right, liberal/neoliberal divide. He is/was a populist who appealed to the base instincts of the ethnic majority and working class males of America. His appeal was his claim to represent the silent majority and those who were/felt (economically and culturally) dislocated by globalisation and immigration.
“For me, TKL’s appeal was similar: nativism with a tinge of racism. I’m not saying he’s a nativist or racist, but he affects that orientation and so he appeals to such voters. The second irony of this PE was that the supposedly most anti-establishment candidate (TKL) was more right-wing and conservative (socially and culturally) than today’s PAP.”
In a race that Prof Low characterized as highly imperfect and extremely flawed, Prof Low expresses his hope for a resounding victory by Tharman Shanmugaratnam, viewing any other outcome as potentially detrimental to Singapore’s future.
He said: “In this highly imperfect, extremely flawed PE, I hope Tharman not only wins, but wins big. Anything else is bad for Sg.”
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