Guest writer P N Balji and TOC’s Choo Zheng Xi offer two contrasting perspectives on the strategy behind Mr Tan Kin Lian’s announcement that he is willing to stand for elections if he can gather 100,000 signatures.

Just run, Mr Tan

P N Balji / Guest Writer

There are at least two simple and unwritten rules for those wanting to enter politics, especially Singapore politics.

Never reveal your cards so early in the game. Never use buts and ifs.

CEO-turned-consumer activist Mr Tan Kin Lian has broken both rules. The presidential and parliamentary elections are some way away, unless the government springs a surprise on us. For Mr Tan to talk openly about thinking of throwing his hat in the election ring when both elections are not due soon is strange, to say the least.

Unless his plan is to test the waters.

Testing the waters, hmmm… that’s the other intriguing issue. Why say you want 100,000 signatures of support before making up your mind on taking the plunge? And why say it could either be a shot at Parliament or the presidency.

You go into politics to try and right a wrong. Mr Tan did identify the wrong: the widening income gap and high ministerial salaries, both good causes to champion, especially during the hustle and bustle of elections.

You also go into politics for ideological reasons. In this case, Mr Tan feels the PAP, of which he was a member for the last 30 years, has taken an ideological turn for the worse.

“When I joined the party, it was the party of the people. It carried out many remarkable projects, such as building HDB flats, and created a transparent economy. But as the years go by, I think the party has lost touch with the ground,” he said pointedly in an interview with The Sunday Times.

Mr Tan has given good enough reasons to go for it and the 100,000 signatures are really unnecessary.

On whether it should be for Parliament or the presidency, I thought the decision was simple to make.

The only squeak of a chance of success he has in a parliamenary elections is in a single constituency. Since he has said he will fight as an independent candidate, he is very likely to split the votes in a single constituency since that is a prize the opposition parties will want to aim for. The nine single seats in the last three elections were all contested.

So the presidential elections are Mr Tan’s best bet.

Unless the government throws a spanner in the works and puts up Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, as the presidential candidate. Their relationship goes back to 1977 when Mr Goh chose the former NTUC Income CEO to test-bed the setting up of block committees, which eventually morphed into residents’ committees.

What can he throw at Mr Goh or at the elected presidency that will create a swing in his favour?

I can think of only one weapon: The need for an independent voice to keep the government on its toes. That tactic might just work for a citizenry that wants a President with no links with officialdom but at the same time a PAP government to deliver the economic dough.

By the way, there is another that can make him change his mind: A call to say “stay away.” In his august years, Mr Tan has only his credibility and reputation to guard.

Whether it is candidate Goh or the “stay away” call, the hope is that Mr Tan will stay true to his cause.

Go for the presidency, Mr Tan. No need for signatures, no need to mull over which elections to fight.

*Picture taken from Straits Times.


A strong political gambit

Choo Zheng Xi / Editor-in-Chief

“There is a tide in the affairs of men /When taken at the flood, leads on to fortune,” said Shakespeare’s honorable Brutus. Mr Tan Kin Lian, the ex CEO of NTUC Income, has taken this to heart and hoisted his electoral sail, announcing that he will run for elections if he gathers the support of 100,000 signatures.

Wait, elections? What elections?

The current term of Parliament expires in 2012, and presidential elections are not due until 2011. While there has been some speculation about a snap election next year after the Budget is passed, that is still very far from being a foregone conclusion.

This has led to some saying that Mr Tan has made a false start off the block. However, when put into perspective, there is much to gain from his head start, and surprisingly little to lose.


In politics, timing is everything. On this count, it is Mr Tan-1, Establishment-0. If his announcement had come closer to either election period, it would have to compete with a slew of other election related news.

In terms of relative newsworthiness, an off-peak declaration of interest is far more surprising than someone throwing his hat in the ring during election season.

That Mr Tan’s first goal saw nothing but net is evident by the front-page news splash. Mr Tan’s smiling face looks out at 2 million subscribers of the Sunday Times, above a story about Minister for National Development Mr Mah Bow Tan (too bad, no picture).

The early announcement also neutralizes a familiar arrow in the People’s Action Party (PAP) quiver: that their opponent is a ‘Johnny-come-lately’ politician, making an appearance a few weeks before nomination day. Now, even if a snap election is called in the first half of next year, there is a good 3-9 month window for him to gather support.

Which leads to the next question that must be on the minds of doubters: what is the point of asking for 100,000 signatures? Why not formally throw your hat into the ring?

Mr Tan, being an experienced investor, might be drawing some lessons from his financial background. Always have an exit strategy. In the event that he falls far short of 100,000, he can always withdraw before facing the brickbats of an actual campaign. If it is a respectable number a strong case can still be made for him continuing.


While keeping the option of an honorable withdrawal on the table, the petition allows him to prepare for a possible election campaign without actually having to campaign.

Already, Mr Tan has a link on his website for potential volunteer petition gatherers. Leveraging the organizational experience he gathered turning NTUC Income into Singapore’s largest insurance company, 100,000 isn’t a pie in the sky number.

And if he does reach this number, his petition machinery can nimbly be converted into campaign machinery after passing its baptism of fire.

Flexible options

The early announcement and petition drive also gives Mr Tan the benefit of gauging which race to enter. It is apt to note that the petition is left intentionally vague: to request Mr Tan to run either for Parliament or the presidency. Very different political calculations will go into either.

A presidential bid will mean being put to a threshold test by the “three wise men” of the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC). Mr Tan should easily pass the requirement under Article 19(2)(g) of the Constitution which requires a candidate to have been the CEO of a company with a paid up capital of at least $100 million.

However, under Article 19(2)(e), a candidate has to pass a highly subjective threshold. He has to satisfy the PEC that he is a ‘person of integrity, good character and reputation’.

These are early days and the knives have not been drawn: as many have pointed out, the PAP’s penchant for character assassination is brutally effective. A concerted negative media bombardment might be enough to cast doubt in the PEC’s minds about his suitability to stand.

If signs of this were to materialize, Mr Tan will be able to change gears quickly. If a green light from the “three wise men” looks doubtful, a direct appeal to the wisdom of the electorate might be the path he takes.

In a General Election, the PAP’s “shock and awe” tactics might just backfire against them.

In the 1991 General Elections, Mr Jufrie Mahmood’s Worker’s Party (WP) team in Eunos Group Representative Constituency (GRC) won 47% of the votes despite the PAP’s attempts to characterize him as a Malay chauvinist. In the 1997 General Elections, Tang Liang Hong’s team won 45% of the vote in Cheng San GRC despite being cast as a Chinese chauvinist. James Gomez too came under the PAP’s fire in the 2006 GE. He was called “liar” and “cheat” by the PAP, among other not-so-nice adjectives for the infamous minority form debacle. His WP Aljunied team eventually received a respectable 44 per cent of the votes, nonetheless.

Given Mr Tan’s track record in NTUC Income and his earnest demeanor, making him a lightning rod for criticism could well translate into lost votes.

While he has indicated he is willing to stand as an independent, he has notably not closed off the option of running on an opposition party platform.

Anyone hoping to run against the PAP starts with being dealt a poor hand: there is never a good time to enter politics against them. Mr Tan has played his opening boldly and without fumbling. It remains to be seen if he can keep the momentum going without being forced to fold.

To sign and to help get signatures for the petition, please visit Tan Kin Lian’s blog.


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