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Tharman’s landslide win: Singapore’s Obama moment

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Just as Americans made history by electing Mr Barack Obama to the White House, so did Singaporeans, transcending race, religion and creed to elect Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam as President.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. After the recent divisive controversies, Polling Day (September 1) was a breath of fresh air as Singaporeans came together to elect Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam as their new President.

In the first presidential broadcast by Channel NewsAsia, Mr Tharman and his opponents, Mr Ng Kok Song and Mr Tan Kin Lian, were asked how they intended to unify the nation. Mr Tharman demonstrated how at the polls, when Singaporeans elected him President by a landslide, with more than 70 per cent of the votes cast.

Analysts are reportedly surprised by the magnitude of Mr Tharman’s victory. That’s because they parse everyday realities. It didn’t prepare them for a magical moment like this when virtually the entire nation voted as one, for one candidate.

Singapore just had its Obama moment. Just as Americans made history by electing Mr Barack Obama to the White House in November 2008, so did Singaporeans yesterday (September 1). In a resounding show of unity in diversity, Singaporeans transcended race, religion and creed to elect a minority ethnic Indian as their President.

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Modest and gracious, Mr Tharman said he was “truly humbled” by the strong endorsement. “I believe the vote for me and what I stood for is a vote of confidence in Singapore itself, a vote of optimism in how we can progress together and support each other as Singaporeans,” he said.

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He was right. It was a positive, not a negative, vote. People voted not against someone or something but for him and what he represents. September 1, 2023, in Singapore turned out to be what November 4, 2008, was in America.

Just as Americans voted for Mr Obama not because he was black or out of a desire to make history but because he was such an inspiring figure, so did Singaporeans vote for Mr Tharman not because he was a minority candidate or from a wish to set a historical precedent but because he has been so impressive and endearing a figure.

Mr Tharman is one of the most popular politicians in Singapore and one of the best qualified, so highly regarded internationally that he was chairman of the International Monetary and Financial Committee (IMFC), the policy advisory committee of the International Monetary Fund, from 2011 to 2014.

With the benefit of hindsight, analysts are now attributing the electoral landslide to the “Tharman effect”. The spectacular scale of his triumph is “a reflection of his personal popularity and showed that voters did not treat this election as a referendum on the ruling People’s Action Party, said political analysts,” reports the Straits Times.

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Indeed, Mr Tharman is accustomed to winning by huge margins. He led the People’s Action Party (PAP) to a thumping victory in the Jurong GRC with 74.62 per cent of the vote in the 2020 general election.

One could say the people voted in the presidential election on his terms. Standing as an independent like his opponents, he asked voters to judge candidates not by their political affiliations but by their character and track record, and the voters did just that.

Mr Tharman clearly had the most impressive track record, having served as education minister, finance minister, deputy prime minister and senior minister, and distinguished himself in every capacity. He abolished streaming at the primary level, was finance minister when the Government tapped past reserves for the first time in 2009 during a recession and played an important role as Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies.

But now is not the time to look back on his past achievements. Singaporeans have done their bit of retrospection before going to the polls and handed in their verdict — and what a verdict it has been! Seventy per cent!

It’s a victory not just for Mr Tharman but for Singapore as well. The people have laid division aside in an overwhelming show of support for Mr Tharman.

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One key (there may be more) to his popularity is his ability to be so informal. He smiled, waved and spoke freely to people while waiting for the election results. There was no palpable tension. It was as if he knew Singaporeans were going to vote for him again as they had done every time since he first stood for election in 2001. Whatever the reason, he was at his ease with the crowd, as always.

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That’s also like Mr Obama — his ease with the crowd.

Singaporeans clearly want Mr Tharman to remain in public life. Now, with him elected President, we are assured that Mr Tharman will be making news, meeting people and working with the Government for six more years. The voters have had their wish.

It’s a happy day for democracy for which Mr Tharman’s opponents have to be thanked, too. Like Mr Tharman, we have to thank Mr Ng Kok Song and Mr Tan Kin Lian for coming forward as candidates. Only because of them did we have  this election that gave Singaporeans the opportunity to demonstrate how united they are.


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