SINGAPORE: While Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s decision to contest the 2023 presidential election has generated a mix of anticipation and excitement across the country, concerns have arisen about the ties between the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and the independent role of the President.
Mr Tharman could become the fourth ex-PAP minister and the third Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) to be elected as President out of the five presidencies to be directly elected by the people, since Ong Teng Cheong.
Mr Ong led the labour ministry and communications ministry before being made DPM, in a political career spanning 21 years. He resigned from politics in 1993 to contest the presidential election that year and became the first president to be directly elected in a popular vote in Singapore’s history, as presidents were appointed by Parliament before then.
His successor, S.R. Nathan was not a politician but was a prominent civil servant who had held key roles within Government ministries. He left the civil service in 1982 and was made Executive Chairman of the Straits Times Press – an appointment that was viewed dimly by journalists who felt that the Government was trying to limit the freedom of the press.
Former civil servant and opposition politician Tan Jee Say has said that it was founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew himself who placed Mr Nathan at Straits Times, as he was allegedly unhappy with the way the national broadsheet had covered the Anson by-election, which saw the PAP’s very first election defeat at the hands of J.B. Jeyaratnam.
Mr Nathan then went on to represent Singapore as an ambassador, before winning the 1999 presidential election unopposed after two other prospective candidates were deemed ineligible for the race. Mr Nathan was the longest-serving president in Singapore’s history.
In 2011, the presidency was won by a second ex-PAP Minister and ex-DPM Tony Tan, after a four-cornered fight at the polls.
Mr Tan himself said that “Witnessing Singapore’s first Olympic gold win was one of the highlights of my presidency,” when asked to reflect on his six years at the Istana, leading some to question whether the role of the president has become a “retirement job,” given the limited scope of the president’s authority.
Perhaps the most controversial Presidential Election was the one in which ex-PAP MP Halimah Yacob got the top job. Like Mr Nathan, Mdm Halimah walked over to the Istana unopposed after two prospective candidates were barred from contesting after failing to meet the revised criteria in the election that was reserved for Malay candidates.
She was widely speculated to be the PAP’s pick for president, months before she announced her intention to contest the election. In February 2017, half a year before she made public her decision to bid for the presidency, Minister Chan Chun Sing called her “Madam President” twice in Parliament instead of “Madam Speaker”, drawing laughter from the PAP MPs.
Mdm Halimah left a vacancy in her Marsiling-Yew Tee Group Representation Constituency (GRC) when she retired from politics to contest the presidential race – a move Mr Tharman is set to mirror, leaving a vacancy at Jurong GRC.
Aside from questions of electoral representation, Mr Tharman’s bid for the presidency has raised questions on how independent the president can really be if he had been deeply entrenched in the ruling party prior to his term as President.
While the role of the President of Singapore is largely perceived to be a ceremonial figurehead role, the position is intended to be independent of any political party.
The President is the head of state and serves as a symbol of national unity. While the President is elected by the people, the position is non-partisan, and the office-holder is expected to carry out their duties in a non-partisan and impartial manner.
The Constitution of Singapore provides for a system of checks and balances to ensure the independence of the President. The elected President has certain custodial powers, including the ability to veto certain government expenditures and key appointments. These powers act as a safeguard to protect Singapore’s reserves and the integrity of the public office. /TISG