Some Reflections on the Presidential Election 2011

~By: Dr Wong Wee Nam/~

The Presidential Election 2011 is interesting and intriguing for many reasons. For the first time in its 18 year history, there was no walkover and there were no reluctant candidates. In fact the candidates were so keen that what was expected to be a boring affair turned out to be a race as interesting as a general election. It was even ice-capped with a nail-biting finish.

The presidential election was supposed to be above politics. One candidate told me when he first threw his candidacy into the ring that he might not have a rally. We are not fighting on issues and there is no reason to attack the other candidates. During the rally we can only praise ourselves. The president should be above politics.

But it was not to be. The only election that I know that is truly apolitical is the first presidential election. In that election one candidate actually praised his opponent as the better candidate!

In this presidential election, it would not be possible to expect each of the four candidates to praise his opponents as better candidates. Three of them had gone through the hustings at general elections and the fourth had held his own rallies at Speaker’s Corner and also spoke at opposition rallies in the last general elections. In other words, they are not maiden politicians and this presidential election cannot be a sedate affair.

Right from the start, none of the candidates were willing to withdraw to avoid a multi-cornered fight. In fact, one after another they declared that they were going to dig in and fight. Such a mood signaled a battle looming ahead.

With such a prelude, it is too much to expect that soothing sounds and high praises (except for self-praise) would be sung during the nine days of campaigning. True enough the contest ended up like any other election — it was a pure political contest.

The four candidates who filed their nomination papers covered the whole gamut of the ideological spectrum from left to right. With such a contrast, how can the presidential election be above politics? The very differences between them are enough to create political situations. The disagreement of what is to change and what change to resist lies at the heart of politics.

Right from nomination day, the battle lines were drawn. Issues surfaced fast and furious. There was no sign that the presidential election is going to be kept above politics. How is it possible? Election is politics.

Unlike the first presidential election where one candidate conceded that his opponent is better than him, this election is one where candidates tried to show that his opponents should not be elected. One was accused of being confrontational and trying to go beyond the constitution, three were said to have slept, ate and breathed PAP, two were hinted as trying to buy votes and one accused another of letting him down. As the campaign progressed, confusion set in. Issues cropped up as if the election is about electing a supplementary government. Extending the retirement age of the taxi drivers, creating retirement funds for elderly, evicting the Prime Minister and other non-presidential occupiers from the Istana are some examples. Alas, this is the nature of politics.

Furthermore this was not just a gladiatorial contest where the contestants fought for our enjoyment. Not all spectators were benign onlookers. There were moments of viciousness. One candidate was heckled, another candidate’s helper had flyers thrown into the face, some posters were torn down or defaced and the tyre of a perambulator was slashed and the power steering tampered with.

Yes, politics is dirty even in an apolitical election.

The voters were also at the mercy of the mainstream media, which supplied ready-made judgments for the unthinking with bold letters, big photographs, unflattering pictures and repetitive words and labels that were calculated to stereotype. Subliminal messages were subtly incorporated. Organisations came out in full force and played on the emotion of fears and warned of impending economic doom if the wrong person is elected. What is the job of the Prime Minister and his cabinet if the election of a largely ceremonial Head of State spells doom?

Can a presidential election ever be above politics? It can never be. Human nature being what it is will ensure politics will rear its ugly head. Fighting will diminish the dignity of the office and the person who is going to occupy it. Perhaps we should go back to the appointed presidency. Prior to 1993, the government at least did its part to ensure that the person holding the office was of good standing and character. Under the old system, the government could choose to appoint minority candidates as the president, but under the electoral system, we can only get a minority candidate provided that one chooses to stand for election.

After such a bruising election and a divisive result, can the president still be above politics? Can he still unify the nation? I wonder.

In this presidential election, three of the candidates are my friends. The brother-in-law of the fourth candidate is also a good friend from school days. I was in a difficult position but things just sorted out by themselves. One did not want me to help, so I didn’t. Nevertheless, I did refer a couple of people to him. One asked me to write an article on him on the internet which I did. The third asked me to join his campaign team and I readily accepted. Both his and my parents were countrymen from Hainan and we belonged to the community in the Rochor area. I thought this was a presidential election that was going to be above politics and a friendly fray, so to speak. But I was wrong. When the dust had barely settled, one told me in no uncertain term, through a proxy, that he would never ever want to see me, speak to me or hear from me again.

The presidential election is supposed to be above politics. Yet such an election can destroy more than twenty years of friendship. Isn’t this very sad?

This reminds me of a piece of advice I received many years ago. I was told by a friend not to judge a baby show in the area where I work. “You make one mother happy but fifty mothers will be very angry with you.”

I don’t blame this friend. Presidential candidates are also human but I do hope he will take a look at two of the most illustrious emperors from China. The first is Emperor Tang Taizong from the Tang Dynasty.

Wei Zheng served as an adviser to Li Jiancheng the Crown Prince, the oldest son of Tang’s founding emperor Emperor Gaozu, who was locked in an intense rivalry with his younger brother Li Shimin the Prince of Qin. In 626AD, Li Shimin ambushed and killed Li Jiancheng, and then effectively forced Emperor Gaozu to yield the throne to him and he became Emperor Tang Taizong. Instead of punishing Wei, however, he was impressed with Wei’s loyalty to Li Jiancheng, and he made Wei his prime minister.

Another good example of magnanimity happened during the Warring States period. At the time the throne in the State of Qi became vacant, Duke Huan was in the State of Ju and his brother Jiu was in the State of Lu. Both brothers then led their men and raced back to Qi to try and claim the throne.

As it was found that Duke Huan was likely to reach Qi first, Guan Zhong, Jiu’s mentor, decided to race ahead and intercept Duke Huan before he reached Qi. Just outside the city, he met the Duke’s entourage, took out his bow and shot an arrow at the Duke.

As Duke Huan was wearing armour at that time, this did not hurt him at all. Nevertheless he led out a loud cry and pretended to be dead. Satisfied, Guan Zhong rode away. Subsequently Duke Huan managed to arrive in Qi earlier than Jiu and took the throne. On the recommendation of his adviser, Bao Shuya, he made Guan Zhong, the failed assassin, to be the prime minister.

Winston Churchill said, “In War: Resolution. In Defeat: Defiance. In Victory: Magnanimity. In Peace: Goodwill.”

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