by Dr Chee Soon Juan
SOMETHING STRANGE HAPPENED in 1993. Mr Goh Chok Tong, then prime minister, appeared to have caught a bug, mild as it was, that threatened to infect the entire PAP. It was a pathogen of the bacillus democratus strain.
Mr Goh first exhibited symptoms in Parliament when he said: “In introducing [the Elected-President] Bill, the present Government is, in fact, clipping its own wings. Once the constitutional amendment is effected, this Government will have some of its powers checked.”
The PAP had decided to turn the presidency, hitherto a ceremonial position, into an elected post with executive, albeit limited, powers. Its new role requires the president to oversee the country’s reserves, approve the national budget, and ratify key civil service appointments. The caveat was that the candidates have to be approved by the government.
The late Ong Teng Cheong, who was then the deputy prime minister, was pushed forward as the PAP’s candidate. His opponent was retired accountant-general Chua Kim Yeow (now also deceased).
The two candidates weren’t exactly opponents because to be opponents they had to, at the minimum, have different ideas and approaches to the presidency. Mr Chua’s candidacy happened only because he was persuaded to run by former ministers Dr Goh Keng Swee and Dr Richard Hu – it was not nice if the first presidential elections turned out to be a damp squib of a walkover.
As it happened, the two men ran such decorous and polite campaigns that they made Empress Michiko sound like Miley Cyrus. In fact, candidate Chua may hold the record for the most somnolent campaign run ever – not a poster was put up and hardly a hand shaken. His veneration of Mr Ong was so complete that he endorsed his opponent – he really did – as the “far superior candidate”. (The joke that went around after the election was that the accountant-general demanded a recount when he learned that he had won.)
Whatever that infected Mr Goh had obviously spread to Mr Ong. Duly selected, President Ong actually thought that he was going to be a check on the government and proceeded to ask for financial records of the country’s reserves. But he was told that it comprised a list that would take 52 man-years to compile. In other words, literally as well as vernacularly, “You wait long, long.”
But the President fought back: “I know you don’t like my interference and busybody checking up and so on. But under the Constitution it is my job to do that.”
Therein lay the problem. The president had committed the ultimate sin in Singaporean politics: he resorted to using logic. “You see, if you ask me to protect the reserves,” he explained, “then you’ve got to tell me what I’m supposed to protect.”
And why did the government not want to give him the information? “Don’t ask me, because I don’t have the answer,” Mr Ong said.
But Mr Lee Kuan Yew did. “[I]f you’ve to clip your wings, then you are in trouble, you cannot govern,” the Senior Minister boomed, “I cannot remember [what Goh Chok Tong said] but I would not have used that phrase because the executive powers of the Government should not be clipped.”
So chastised, Mr Ong was dropped as the PAP’s candidate for re-election because the truth, according to the government, was that the president was suffering from cancer. But the truth, according to Mr Ong, was that that his cancer was in complete remission and that he had not ruled out running again although he was inclined not to. He later revealed that, “Then the cabinet met and they decided that if I were to stand again, they would not support me.”
So there. Anti-dote administered, crisis averted.
Then came 2011. The candidates this time were PAP-backed Dr Tony Tan versus Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Mr Tan Jee Say, and Mr Tan Kin Lian. The virus had, apparently, not been completely eradicated. In fact, it had come back stronger than ever as the non-PAP candidates asserted their independence and laid out policy positions.
As it turned out, the race ended in a photo-finish: Dr Tony Tan took home 35.2% of the votes, just 0.35% more than runner-up Dr Tan Cheng Bock – a result that extracted more than a few drops of perspiration in the Istana.
This led to Mr Lee Hsien Loong reiterating in 2016 that the “President has no executive, policy-making role”. We spend millions of dollars and expend tons of energy to mobilise the entire country to vote for someone who has no powers. A Smart Nation, here we come.
But close as it was, Dr Tony Tan’s win in 2011 bought the PAP another six years which gave the party enough time to come up with Plan B. The task fell to the PM who, in a eureka! moment, came up with the idea to further restrict the qualifications of presidential candidates. This time, only Malays need apply.
And not just any Malay but a Malay who has run a business with a paid-up capital of $500 million (up from $100 million previously).
Either that or if she is the Speaker of Parliament.
Enter Ms Halimah Yacob, Speaker of Parliament.
Only there was a not-so-slight problem. Ms Halimah is ethnically not a Malay. Her father is Indian and as such, according to the PAP’s book of phylogeny which states that a citizen’s race is determined by the father’s ethnicity (heads up, AWARE), Ms Halimah doesn’t qualify.
But in the PAP’s delicious world of exceptions this is only a technicality as Ms Halimah, for all intents and purposes, is someone who is “accepted by the Malay community” as a Malay.
How is the government going to measure “accepted by the community”? By a government-appointed sub-committee, of course.
But isn’t this racialisation of politics unhealthy? Of course, it is. But only if non-PAP-thinking citizens bring it up. When a group announced that it was organising a protest at Hong Lim Park to address the PAP’s move to racialise the Presidency, the government responded by warning that it is illegal to conduct any activity that may disrupt harmony “between different racial or religious groups in Singapore.”
It gets madder. Questioned about her independence from her political alma mater, Ms Halimah trumpeted: “I have the track record to prove my independence.” That record, as one might imagine, is rather skimpy. She was pointing to an incident where she abstained from voting for (as opposed to voting against) a bill – and only after the party whip was lifted. This in the midst of a 16-year career as an MP with the PAP. Beggars, a wit once pointed out, can’t be choosers.
But if Ms Halimah sincerely believes that she can independently exercise her powers as president, then there’s a bottle of medicine labelled “Remember Ong Teng Cheong. To be taken once every six years” sitting on the table for her.
And so spins the mad, delusional world of PAP’s Elected Presidency.
This post was first published on Dr Chee’s blog and republished with permission.