Chess politics, or just my imagination?

Howard Lee /

It unfolded almost melodramatically. After a period of aspiring candidates indicating their interest to run for the Elected Presidency, the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) decided to give what amounted to a provisional endorsement of Tony Tan, the candidate of choice of the ruling People’s Action Party and the out-going President SR Nathan.

The next day, almost as if on cue, the Prime Minister issued the Writ of Election, starting the official process by which the next President will come into office.

One can almost imagine the excruciating angst that NTUC president John De Payva had to go through in coming to that position. NTUC’s support for former President, the late Ong Teng Cheong, was almost by default, given the man’s long contribution to the labour movement. But this Presidential election was different. The choice unionist candidate, Tan Kin Lian, was not the candidate of choice of the ruling PAP. Tony Tan was, but he has contributed little, if any, to the labour movement.

You might see it this way – NTUC had to choose between its core tradition and what it is supposed to stand for (the labour movement), and its realistic position and what it really stands for (alliance with the political elite).

But this move by NTUC is essential in order for the ruling PAP’s well-manicured chess-game to move forward. NTUC represents the “working class”, and by all counts, this traditional group accounts for the vast majority of the electorate. NTUC’s endorsement, even provisional, is supposed to be a signal to the “working class” on which candidate serves their interest best, and by logical deduction, which candidate they are encouraged to vote for.

NTUC’s position has always been easily aligned to the tripartite relationship encouraged by the ruling PAP’s representative in the labour movement. Not any more, not this election, it would seem.

This one fracas reminds us precisely how politicised the Presidential elections really is – not of candidates raising themselves up for the populist vote, but of the partisan politics that surround them. For all the calls to make this Presidential election a tussle befitting the stature of the office, this round is starting to sound like it could be another general election slug-fest.

Such endorsements smell familiarly of the US Presidential elections, with one key difference: the US President holds an executive appointment, not a ceremonial one.

So we have political parties and the trade union giving nods and nays, thus far. Who will we have next joining the endorsement bandwagon? Captains of industry? NGOs? Church leaders? Celebrities?

Snide aside and in reality, if such power play is not just of my imagination, the endorsement by NTUC is unnecessary, for two reasons.

The first is the psyche of the “working class” and their willingness to buy into such endorsements by NTUC. In the times of Ong Teng Cheong, the labour movement drew heartstrings with him. My father can still recount the famous incident in our history when Ong sanctioned a strike, even when he was a Cabinet Minister. Ong spoke of an interest for the common man, and the people would have gladly rallied behind him.

Ong represented an NTUC of a nearly forgotten era of worker rights that people aligned with and remembered him for. An era where the tripartite relationship was not the support structure for efforts to make us “cheaper, better, faster”; for improving the productivity of locals to exploitative extremes; for slashing employer CPF contributions during bad times that were never restored; for wage increases during good times that come across as “encouragements”…

Since Ong, the workforce has evolved, the NTUC is now better known for its business franchises and social club status, and the power of influence once accorded the labour movement, even if it only applied to the traditionalist, has waned. To begin with, many eligible voters who just entered the workforce might even have doubts about what NTUC can do for them in the short or long term, apart from offering competitive insurance plans.

The second reason is that attempts to steer public opinion in favour of one candidate is not going to work. If the professed independence of all the candidates themselves is anything to go by, there is reason to suspect a clear ground sentiment that the people have grown weary of the official position.

In other words, NTUC’s endorsement of Tony Tan could very well backfire on him, since its affiliations with the ruling party is now taken as a matter of fact. Not least to note, a number of new PAP candidates fielded in the latest general elections proudly professed former ties with the trade union body.

There seems to some factions in our political landscape who think that this particular election, like the general election, can be sculpted and controlled to reflect the preferences of the status quo. Whether the outcome on polling day re-establishes the status quo or not is of little consequence. What is key to note is that, instead of learning from the general elections and starting to listen to the ground, the political elite has chosen, once again, to influence the election environment by trying to (re)define the boundaries of play.

What could have made the Presidential elections a “clean and fair fight”, without encouraging the intentional blurring of executive and ceremonial functions of government, would be if the executive functions have been clearly resolved before the Presidential elections. The general elections have given a clear indication on the key areas of policy that need to be addressed, but almost three months after, Parliament has not convened and no major policy changes have taken place. And if the political elite believe the last trump card is the eligibility certificate, think again – playing blind to the problem does not remove it.

Failure to recognise this is failure on the part of the political elite. There is no one else to blame if the Presidential elections turns out to be a brawler house of executive evangelism vs creaky ceremonialism. And attempts to manage public expectations will only have as much effect as attempts to manage public preference.

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