Monday, 25 September 2023

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Elected presidency: Is there anything quite like it anywhere else?

by Augustine Low

Dr Tan Cheng Bock came within a whisker of winning the presidency but now he can’t even qualify to run because of the updated criteria.

Lee Hsien Yang should qualify, but we can count him out for 2023 as well – he has already said he’s been “made a fugitive by my own country.”

The last election in 2017 was controversially reserved, and only one candidate was certified fit to contest, so a President was elected without a vote.

Nothing compares to the elected presidency in this country.

The next presidential election must be held by September. Just prior to that, in July, ministers’ controversial occupation of Ridout estates will be discussed and debated in Parliament.

Coming so close to each other, how will the election be played out?

However, we could always have a repeat of 2017 – an election without a vote.

Or they could field two People’s Action Party (PAP) friendly candidates to appease the voters, if no non-establishment candidate qualifies, so it’s a guaranteed win.

Let’s not forget that the bar is set so high that very few non-establishment candidates qualify to run for President in this country.

And of those who qualify – such as industry leaders and business titans – will any step forward to challenge a PAP-backed candidate, in a country ranked so high on crony capitalism?

Although the role of the President is largely ceremonial, under the constitution, the President has powers of approval over the unlocking of the country’s reserves, the appointment of key office holders like the Attorney General, and any investigation by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB).

In any case, President Halimah has announced she is not seeking re-election.
When we think of the six years of her presidency, what do we think of?

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat has thanked President Halimah for her “decisive support and leadership” during the Covid-19 pandemic – which essentially meant that she gave her approval each time the government sought her approval for drawing on the country’s past reserves for assistance packages.

That was perhaps the most notable thing she did as President.

Those who expected more from President Halimah were always going to be let down. Like President S R Nathan, like President Tony Tan, she was never going to be the one to stir the pot and make the headlines.

We know what happened to President Ong Teng Cheong when he tried to do more.

He got caught up in a festering dispute with the government, a dispute which started when he ordered a report on the national reserves. He was met with a stone wall, the government declaring that it would take 56 man-years to produce a dollar and cents value of its assets.

As President Ong would later recount: “I had a job to do, whether the government liked it or not… You see, if you ask me to protect the reserves, then you’ve got to tell me what I’m supposed to protect. So I had to ask.”

Since then, the establishment’s choice of President has been careful and calibrated.

Sticking to the script is paramount – read any speech that’s prepared, wave at crowds at the National Day parade, send condolences and congratulations as and when required, give consent when consent is sought.

If the coming presidential election is another walkover, it might as well be dubbed the nominated presidency. Or walk-in presidency.

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