by Alfian Saat

While it’s understandable that discussions of the Halimah Presidency might focus on issues of race, gender and meritocracy, I think that those are the side issues. In fact, this whole debate over Halimah’s ‘Malayness’ is a convenient distraction from the fundamental issues at stake.

One of the things to note is that even though Ong Teng Cheong was elected (58.69% vote share), the subsequent SR Nathan Presidency was a walkover presidency – not once, but twice, in 1999 and 2005. In both cases, a three-member Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) declined to grant eligibility certificates to potential contenders.

It is also worth remembering that the General Elections in 1997 and 2001 were also walkover elections. Things started getting interesting only in 2006, when for the first time since 1988, the People’s Action Party (PAP) was not returned to power on Nomination Day. And of course there was the ‘watershed’ elections of 2011, where all constituencies except Tg Pagar was contested. In that same year, we had the most actively-contested Presidential Elections so far, though looking back it’s possible that two extra Tans were allowed to compete to split the votes among the anti-Tony Tan voters.

All this is to say that rule by walkover has long been a cherished PAP tradition. And that while we might see vigorous political contest as restoration of power to the people and a correction towards democratic norms, the PAP sees it as an outrageous anomaly. We, the people, cannot be trusted to make important decisions for the country. This must be the sole purview of the elite.

Enter the PEC, an unelected body whose ranks have now increased from three members to six. They have immense discretionary power, their decisions are beyond judicial review, and they are under no legal duty to explain why certain candidates are rejected. Furthermore, they cannot be sued for defamation in the event that their decisions might cast negative aspersions on the character of an applicant. These are the real kingmakers in this whole affair, and a not-so-hidden ‘S’ lurks in front of our ‘Elected Presidency’.

(It’s possible that one reason that the media might trot out to explain the PEC decision is how the ‘private sector’ applicants did not meet the criteria that they should be in charge of a company whose financial value is at least $500 million. But let’s also remember how this figure was raised from the $100 million in past elections.)

Ethnic reservation, the PEC, raising the bar for qualification – anything to prevent the slightest transfer of power from the elite to the people.

It has been said that this whole Reserved Presidency scheme was the brainchild of Lee Hsien Loong himself. It this is indeed true, then it would not be in the least surprising. 2017 has not been kind to him. Snubbed by China, struggling to manage his reputation in the wake of traumatic Oxleygate, and having delivered an underwhelming National Day Rally speech, he would not have wanted this PE to become some kind of poll on him or his party.

The risk of we, the people, denying Halimah her mandate was probably too great for the PAP. And thus they would much rather deny us the right to confer her with a mandate, no matter how much damage it does to popular sovereignty, no matter how much cynicism and loss of trust it breeds towards our political system.

This was first published at Alfian’s Facebook post and reproduced with permission. The title of the article is named by the editorial.

Editor’s note – Tan Kin Lian had qualified hands down because he was CEO of NTUC income, but Tan Jee Say was the one who falls short of the requirement and pretty far because he was only managing director and not Chairman nor CFO. But as we can see from the results, Tan Jee Say was able to take 20 over percent of the votes from Dr Tan Cheng Bock, which resulted in Tony Tan’s victory. 

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