Can a politicised President’s Office truly unite Singaporeans?

Joshua Chiang/

The first time I learnt that the head of state of Singapore is the President, he was already dead.

I was six years old when Benjamin Henry Sheares, our second President passed away. I remembered watching his funeral procession on television. I remembered the flag flying at half-mast, and the 21-gun salute. Most of all, I remembered feeling very sad. I didn’t know about what the President does then of course, but it was enough that a very dear person to Singaporeans had passed away. It was truly a day of mourning.

Such is the paradoxical power of the ceremonial head of state. By virtue of being nearly powerless, and hence above politics, he becomes a uniting figure, a living symbol to rally around regardless of political views and affiliations.

Flash forward thirty years later, three days after the most closely fought Presidential Elections which saw the victor getting only 35% of the popular mandate, and I begin to wonder if the person who first floated the idea of an Elected President with limited powers had anticipated that the President’s office would become yet another battleground for the tussle of political power.

It didn’t use to be like that. The oft-heard rationale for the Elected President was so that a rogue (read: non-PAP) government would not be able to spend the country into bankruptcy if there was a responsible President to hold the second key. Or so the logic from the smartest brains in the country goes. What the logic fails to account for is that in order for the ‘rogue’ party to come to power, it would already by then have the support of a large number of the population. And that in doing so, that same population would likewise want a President that best represents them. The government must be truly naïve to believe that people with partisan interests would not be interested in capturing an office that has the power to influence key appointments of public officers and control how much it can dip into the reserves.

And quite frankly, neither could it just sit back and watch. Dr Tony Tan might truly have made up his mind on his own accord to run for the presidency, but it is plain for all to see who the government really prefers to be President of Singapore, and conversely, who it doesn’t. Afterall, every government of the day likes to carry out its work with as little impediment as possible.

So we can assume that the government can heave a sigh of relief that it gets a President who has shown an understanding and respect for the role of the President that isn’t too unlike what it has in mind. But perhaps it also realizes the Catch 22 situation it has created for the President – how can an office that is seen as politicized, that it has had a hand in politicizing, act as a unifying force?

The ceremonial presidents before had no such problem. (In fact, I don’t recall any of them making any promises that they will unify the people.) Also, the mere fact that the ceremonial presidency was largely powerless means that the government could always appoint someone that is largely seen as non-political into the role. Not so anymore.

In fact, it is deeply ironic to have all four candidates in the latest Presidential Elections claiming they will unify Singaporeans when elected. What they forget is that Singaporeans have to want to unite behind their President as well. Unfortunately, the past twelve years has made people cynical about a Presidency which has become identified with the PAP. That a former PAP minister is now the next President doesn’t help. Dr Tony Tan has his work cut out for him.

Like any institutions, the Presidency has evolved from its original purpose, and not always for the better. There is little doubt that the office has become politicized, and will continue to be politicized. We have to re-evaluate the Elected Presidency, and decide what can be changed to allow for an office that will not be used for partisan interests.

The nation used to mourn together for the passing of its Presidents. It would be a crying shame if we don’t feel the same way for future Presidents because they have become synonymous with politics.


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