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Thanks But No Thanks, President Tan

Sense And Nonsense - by Tan Bah Bah

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And so, Farewell, President Tony Tan. There would be two opposing sets of reactions to seeing the end of his presidency  –  Thank You or Thank God. With all due respect, I would lean to the latter.

Mainstream media has painted him largely as a reluctant but duty-bound former establishment figure thrust into the fray knowing that he would be battling against an unfriendly, if not hostile, tide. There was a strong possibility that he could suffer the ignominy of a historic loss.

PM Lee alluded as much to that very quickly in his thank you farewell speech:  “It was just a few months after the 2011 General Election and public sentiments were still affected by the intense earlier contest. You were acutely aware that the presidential candidates would come under close scrutiny, especially a candidate like yourself, who had a long association with the Government. Yet you came forward to offer yourself as a candidate.”

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Dr Tan did – and almost lost. Many Singaporeans waiting for the results that night on 27 August 2011 could see on live TV that he was worried. There were alternately jubilant shouts of victory in both his camp and that of Dr Tan Cheng Bock. At one point, the word was that Dr Tony Tan was about to concede defeat and be gracious about his fate. But, as the final votes came in, he surged back and just nosed the main challenger, winning only 35.2 per cent of the votes versus Cheng Bock’s 34.8 per cent.

And Singapore ended up with a minority-vote president. Dr Tan Cheng Bock was denied that night and he continued to be cruelly denied even as we approach the next PE which has suddenly been turned into a Malays-only race, whether Singaporeans really want it and whether even Malay Singaporeans themselves really want it.

I do not believe that PE2011 was a blimp or an aberration or a dismissable after-effect of the momentous GE2011 which saw Aljunied GRC going into the hands of the Workers Party. Never mind the swing-back results of GE2015.

It represented the ongoing, intensifying and natural yearning of a sizeable number of Singaporeans for some credible and independent check or brake on the power of government. I use the small case for government because it does not necessarily have to be just the PAP Government which has to be held accountable but any dominant government of the day in possession of unchecked authority.

The big question then is: How would history judge Dr Tan’s presidency? Not that kindly, I’m afraid. At best, his six years would be seen by a number of people as part of the delaying of the inevitable. Call the holder of the last presidency what you may  – stabiliser, steadying hand, wisdom of establishment group-think experience, diplomat extraordinaire. These cannot hide the fact that an elected President must be seen to be a man with his own mind, with views that boldly resonate with the concerns of the common man. A ceremonial post with custodial duties does not mean the holder has to be totally colourless and uncritical.

On that last score, I cannot remember anything said by Singapore’s seventh President that was particularly noteworthy. The claims that he was a very distinguished chief diplomat were irrelevant. I think any of our heads of state would have had that label, it was a given. So would be qualities like integrity, humility and ability to interact with people from all walks of life. They would not have become HOS if they did not have these in abundance.

No, Dr Tan’s presidency was inherently a very forgettable non-event. It would be remembered for just three things, two of which had nothing to do with him. One is that during his office, Lee Kuan Yew passed away. Two, Joseph Schooling won our first Olympic gold medal. (Did he win because Dr Tan was in Rio 2016? I don’t think so). Third is that he nearly made history for the wrong reason.

But for many Singaporeans, his razor-thin victory would be regarded as a massive lost opportunity to refresh our socio-political landscape at the highest level. It would have ushered in a much needed breath of fresh air into the stale environment.

So, Thanks But No Thanks, Dr Tan.

Sun Xueling, a blast of fresh air

“It is unacceptable that a lift technician is nowhere to be found for 3½ hours. It is also unacceptable that right after servicing, the same lift breaks down again the next day.”:  An Opposition or NMP complaining about shoddy service standards?

No, it was Sun Xueling, PAP Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP, whacking the HDB for letting down residents of some blocks in Punggol West.

Residents of three precincts in the ward have had to suffer frequent lift breakdowns in recent months, prompting the MP to urge tougher action against Sigma, the lift contractor.

This is exactly what all MPs – PAP or Opposition – should be doing. Expose poor standards of public service – if they deserve to be exposed.  Sub-standard service response and frequent lift breakdowns are unacceptable in a country of high-rise living.

Well done, Sun Xueling.

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.

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