A four-horse race benefited Tan Cheng Bock

~by: Bhaskaran Kunju~

It’s been about a week since the Presidential Elections ended and Dr Tony Tan was elected as our seventh President by the slimmest of margins.

But the blame game for Dr Tan Cheng Bok’s narrow defeat hasn’t ceased. Most have pinned the blame squarely on the splitting of votes in a four candidate field. Others have been more specific in targeting Tan Jee Say or Tan Kin Lian, or both if you had felt really really hard done by, for taking away votes that (presumably) would have gone to Tan Cheng Bock.

Then there’s the small group who have targeted, supporters of Tan Jee Say for handing victory to President Tan nee Doctor Tan. Among those who got the brunt of it were Nicole Seah, Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss and the Singapore Democratic Party. Of course failing to recognise that everyone has a right to choose their own candidates is a mistake in itself.

But the problem here is that there’s a huge assumption that Tan Cheng Bock would have attained a larger share of the votes, had Tan Kin Lian and Tan Jee Say not contested at all, and hence be elected as the supreme Tan. The rationale is that, those who voted for the latter two Tans would have cast their votes for Tan Cheng Bock since they were presumably voters who weren’t supportive of a pro-establishment figure.

The rationale holds true, but the conclusion is false. The problem arises when one assumes that those who voted for Tan Cheng Bock would have still voted for him in a two horse race against Tony Tan.

Given the aspects working against Tan Cheng Bock in a hypothetical two-horse race, it is more likely that Tony Tan would have won by a more convincing margin instead of the current lament of a possible victory for Tan Cheng Bock.

Tony Tan received 35.20% of the votes cast, so that’s 64.8% of voters who chose against him. Taking into account that Tony Tan resembled the closest to a PAP endorsed candidate, the final tally seems odd.

Tony Tan did not receive an ‘official endorsement’ but that’s merely semantics at work. Prime Minister Lee’s exact quote was “We have decided it’s best we leave Singapore voters to choose. I have expressed my view – I think Dr Tony Tan is eminently qualified and a very good candidate. But I leave it to Singapore voters to make their judgement and I have every confidence that they will make a good judgement.” (see HERE)

Even Tony Tan did not disagree that that was an endorsement from the PM (see HERE).  Apart from the PM, several other Ministers and the former President Nathan himself stated their preference for Tony Tan.

So let’s get that out of the way, Tony Tan was the preferred choice by the PAP establishment, but the government stopped short of issuing an ‘official endorsement’ for his candidacy.  Tony Tan was the unofficially endorsed PAP candidate.

In a four horse race, each of the candidates took on a different role, or rather persona as mooted by the media. Tan Jee Say was the ‘opposition’s choice’ , Tan Kin Lian the ‘outsider’, Tan Cheng Bock the elder statesmen and ‘dissenting ex-PAP member’, and Tony Tan as mentioned previously, the ‘PAP’s choice’.

In a four-horse race, Tan Cheng Bock was able to inadvertently (or maybe advertently, only he would be able to personally confirm it) play the role of a moderate member of the establishment, someone who stood for the core principles of the institution that was already in place but had enough awareness to dissent against the shortcomings of the government.

That is an attractive proposition for many; people who do not like the threat of an overwhelming change from opposition candidates but keen on some reforms within the confines of PAP rule – something that in itself is a political play that has been cultivated and preached by the PAP for decades.

People often forget that there is a potent silent majority. The largest core of our electorate is the silent majority, a common phenomenon in a lot of democracies.  In the most vocal of General Elections since the 1980s, where opposition parties attracted rally attendees by the tens of thousands while the incumbents had to largely resort to ferrying in their own supporters, the PAP still managed a relatively comfortable 60.1% share of the total votes cast. Needless to say that is where the votes for PAP came from.

There is an assumption that there are such groups of people as hardcore PAP supporters, or hardcore opposition supporters. They may exist but they are merely outliers. Most who fall into the silent majority category will fall into the group of people mentioned earlier who would have opted for Tan Cheng Bock or Tony Tan.

A two-horse race is inherently more divisive, it is a yes or no option, and in that scenario, Tan Cheng Bock is the man who’s standing against the establishment.  In a two-horse race, regardless of how Tan Cheng Bock positions himself, he would always be the candidate who’s running against Tony Tan, the PAP’s choice. In other words he would be the opposition.

Keep in mind that Tan Cheng Bock was the first candidate to state his intention to run for office. At that point in time, he was in for some mild rebuttal from PAP MPs who felt it would be “very awkward” for Tan Cheng Bock to run without the official endorsement of the PAP government. – http://www.tanchengbock.org/peoples-comments/pap-mps-surprised-by-dr-tan-cheng-bocks-intention-to-run-for-president

Additionally the PAP not ‘officially’ endorsing a candidate worked in favour of Tan Cheng Bock as it freed voters to vote for a moderate PAP candidate, without feeling like they were voting against the PAP. There is no saying that the PAP would have decided to ‘officially’ endorse a candidate in a two-horse race, though that is something they had done in the past and had been expected prior to the current one.

The same machinery that was perceived to be at work in promoting Tan Jee Say and/or Tan Kin Lian would also have been presumed to be propelling Tan Cheng Bock to victory. Given such prospects would the voters who have stated a preference for the establishment still stood behind Tan Cheng Bock?  Most certainly not.

The votes that Tan Cheng Bock received almost certainly came from the PAP voting bloc. Hence the surprising outcome of the final tally, where Tony Tan was deemed victor by a mere 0.35% margin.

The total share of votes attained by Tan Cheng Bock and Tony Tan was 70.05%, just over 10% more than the votes that PAP received at the 2011 GE. That would make sense as a number of voters who identified themselves as non-PAP supporters voted for Tan Cheng Bock as well. The final proportion of the votes in favour of Tan Cheng Bock and Tony Tan versus Tan Kin Lian and Tan Jee Say seems about right when compared to the GE results.

Of course the Presidential Elections and the General Elections are two distinct processes but the political dynamics cannot be escaped, especially when there is an unofficially endorsed PAP candidate in the running. The divisions are set regardless of what’s at stake, even if that may be a limited scope of power in the role of a President.

It would seem more likely that the votes that were split were not the votes against establishment candidates but the votes for. In other words, those who would have voted for Tony Tan in a two-horse race, ended up splitting their votes with Tan Cheng Bock and gave him the unexpected boost to push the final tally to a much closer finish than expected.

The presence of Tan Jee Say and Tan Kin Lian was more beneficial to Tan Cheng Bock’s campaign than what many others are willing to give credit for.

It allowed Tan Cheng Bock to position himself in a manner that attracted voters who would not have voted for him in a direct two-horse race against Tony Tan. Tan Cheng Bock even asserted during the initial stages of his campaign, prior to the entrance of the other three Tans, that he was a good alternative and would not be a ‘yes man’ for the PAP (see HERE)), a stance that quietly softened as the campaign progressed.

With each additional rival candidate, Tan Cheng Bock was forced to refine his position further, and it pushed him towards a moderate stance that was appealing to both sides of the partisan divide. Hence contributing to the larger than expected share of the votes, a scenario that would not have occurred in a two-hore race.

Ultimately, we can only make educated guesses on what the possible outcomes would be in a hypothetical situation, and the scenario argued for in this article is one. So I certainly hope at the very least, everyone will stop speaking in the absolute sense, an imaginary victory for Tan Cheng Bock should there have been no contest from Tan Kin Lian and Tan Jee Say. That is simply presumptuous and furthermore disrespectful towards two men who had only the best of intentions in wanting to help their countrymen.

Nevertheless, what the end results of the Presidential Elections do show, is that there is a significant proportion of the electorate which does not agree completely with the PAP ethos. But as mentioned earlier, dissent only within PAP terms seems to be the preferred option. That should be the takeaway from this latest exercise in democracy.

Bhaskaran Kunju is a recent political science graduate.

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