Elected Presidency may be Tony Tan’s toughest challenge yet

By Joshua Chiang/

I ran into an academic/blogger at Toa Payoh Stadium in the wee hours of Sunday morning. The recounting was ongoing, but by then it was becoming clear that Dr Tony Tan would win the Presidential elections by the narrowest of margins. So we talked about what was the foremost thing in our minds – did Tan Jee Say’s entry into the race cost Dr Tan Cheng Bock the presidency?

“Tony Tan may still win even without Tan Jee Say in the race,” came the unexpected reply. “In fact, Tan Jee Say’s entry may actually have helped bring down Tony Tan’s votes and bring up Tan Cheng Bock’s votes.” How so? I asked. The academic/blogger explained that for many people who might have otherwise voted for Dr Tony Tan out of familiarity, Tan Jee Say’s campaign – which runs on a message almost contrary to the government’s prescribed role for the president – made them question if they truly wanted someone so closely associated with the establishment in role which isn’t nearly as powerless as the government would have them believe. But at the same time, they might have been uncomfortable with Tan Jee Say’s bluntness and picked a more moderate alternative – Dr Tan Cheng Bock.

I also spoke to a Tony Tan supporter who told me that her second choice – interestingly – was Tan Jee Say. His passion and firm convictions impressed her, she said. She wasn’t the first voter I knew to narrow down her choice to one that’s between Dr Tony Tan and Tan Jee Say. I wouldn’t know if the numbers of such voters are statistically significant, but it does point to one thing – it is overly simplistic to presume that all the votes that had gone to Tan Jee Say would have gone to Dr Tan Cheng Bock if the former didn’t run. And more importantly, just like what the General Elections have shown – where some highly unpopular ministers retained their seats –  people are more likely to use their votes to put who they want in office rather than kick who they do not want out of the office.

A growing liberal voice?

I wrote an article two weeks ago opining that if anything, this Presidential elections – just like the previous one – will be a referendum on the People’s Action Party, and also would give a clearer picture of how Singaporeans are spread across the political spectrum.

What’s obvious to see is that without the fear of their housing estates turning into slums should they vote in an opposition team, nearly 65% of Singaporeans voted against Dr Tony Tan. If the May General Elections sent a clear signal to the PAP that it cannot be business as usual, this Presidential Elections confirmed it.

But what’s less obvious, is the growing number of people who are willing to give a more liberal voice – in the form of Tan Jee Say – a chance. While it is tempting to assume that only hardcore opposition supporters vote vote Tan Jee Say because he is the least connected to the ruling party (and they would even vote an orang-utan as long as it doesn’t wear white), my observations suggest otherwise. Not all people who voted for Tan Jee Say are comfortable with his ‘confrontational’ image, but his clear stances on certain issues – abolishment of ISA, anti-mandatory death penalty, no discrimination of minorities, including homosexuals to name a few – appealed to them.  The fact that Tan Jee Say was with the SDP for short while had very little to do with their decisions.

In contrast, Dr Tan Cheng Bock remained an enigma. Alex Au summed up their discomfort with Dr Tan nicely:

Pealing away his gentle, avuncular demeanour, I find a troubling hole I cannot fathom. I cannot find an answer to a fundamental question: What does the man stand for?

‘I endorse Tan Jee Say’, Yawning Bread

Dr Tan Cheng Bock lost this group of voters not because of his past associations with the PAP but because he wasn’t very clear what he stood for on such issues. It isn’t only liberals who think so. As I had described earlier, there are voters for whom the choice is between Dr Tony Tan and Tan Jee Say. Which is strange because I actually believe that there are always more people in the centre of the political spectrum than there are in the left or right, and it wouldn’t be difficult to choose Dr Tan Cheng Bock to represent their voices… unless they weren’t sure IF he was really the guy in the centre.

In other words, it isn’t nearly enough that you are a kind person. People want to know exactly how you plan to translate this kindness into concrete actions and clear stand on issues – which Tan Jee Say has.  To add a new twist to a familiar saying, “Better the angel you know than the one you don’t.”

No longer a walk in the (Istana) park

Despite the fact that Dr Tony Tan wasn’t my favored candidate to win the elections, I think it’s overly pessimistic to presume he would ‘pull a Nathan’ on us. For once, he actually fought hard to get into office. (But to be fair to S.R Nathan, no one else stood up when he ran for both terms) And the result – 35% of the total votes – is a sobering reminder that he has his work cut out for him if he wants to remain president for more than one term.

The Tony Tan presidency is likely to be one that is far more accountable and transparent than the one that preceded it. I have a hunch as well that if Dr Tony Tan were to aspire to be the next Ong Teng Cheong, the government is less likely to get in his way than they did the former president, for a very simple reason: It would cost them votes in the next GE. And so would a presidency that is too closely aligned with the interests of the government. Dr Tony Tan HAD to be independent. Any less than that and it would likewise affect what happens in 2016.

But the biggest challenge for Dr Tony Tan is not in the guarding of the reserves. It is whether he can truly play a unifying role. In today’s political climate, it goes beyond lending a face to charities and social causes. It even goes beyond making speeches to sooth nerves when disagreements between different segments of society threaten to tear apart the social fabric. It is in the exercising of his other presidential powers – such as vetoing of key appointment holders and budgets that will only serve partisan interests for example – that will demonstrate if he is indeed committed to unifying the people.

If he can do that, then in all likelihood, he will have a clearer mandate in the next Presidential elections. And maybe it would be an easier walk in the (Istana) park for him if he does get a second term.

Heck, he might even get to stop for a game of golf or two.

President-elect Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam’s media release HERE.

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