PAP’s Tharman for president is so troubling in so many ways

PAP’s Tharman for president is so troubling in so many ways

by Pat Low

By all accounts, Tharman Shanmugaratnam seems like a very decent man. He is absent the dismissive, obnoxious demeanour of Teo Chee Hean (Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security), the Mandarin entitlement posturing of Chan Chun Sing (Education Minister), or two combative rottweilers Indranee Rajah (Minister, Prime Minister’s Office, Second Minister for Finance and Second Minister for National Development) and Grace Fu (Minister for Sustainability and the Environment) or fawning kings-in-waiting Lawrence Wong (Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance) and Heng Swee Kiat (Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies).

Tharman looks more like a stern bureaucrat than a politician.

As Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies, Tharman once made the anti-government statement that the policy of continual dependence on foreign labour is unsustainable.

That certainly caught the attention of many in light of the extremely unpopular CECA, the Free Trade Agreement with India. A People’s Action Party’s (PAP) self-criticism or admission of mistake is as rare as the Cullinan Diamond.

Alas, it was an unlocked potential that sputtered, never allowed to be explored. Was that a one-off comment for the gallery or he received some ominous phone calls that evening? A million-dollar salary has a way of sorting things out in one’s brain. Psychiatrists call that a moral hazard. Will this moral hazard as a PAP stalwart be simply carried into the presidency? Is Tharman, after all, simply switching a million-dollar chair for a two-million-dollar seater?

Kenneth Jeyeratnam reminded us of Tharman’s breach of the Official Secrets Act when the latter, as a Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS)’ Economics Department, allowed some journalists to have a glance of the flash estimate of second quarter 1992 economic growth before it was officially released. Tharman was eventually fined S$1,500 for a lesser charge of negligence, and the journalists poorer by S$2,000.

In Uniquely Singapore legalese which can explain how one man can form a mob, it was easy explaining why the one who gives is punished less than the one who receives. Tharman was careless. Was the court watching out for Tharman’s planned political trajectory? A fine above S$2,000 disqualifies a person from standing for election. I am curious. In all his travels overseas, when Tharman fills the disembarkation card, which box does he tick when asked ‘have you ever been convicted in a criminal court”?

Government mouthpiece media Channel News Asia screamed this headline.:
Lee Hsien Yang unlikely to meet criteria to run for elected presidency given court finding of lying under oath: Lawyers (4 Mar 2023)

CNA reported “.. lawyers said that earlier court findings that he (LHY) and his wife had lied under oath in judicial proceedings could see him fail to meet the criteria of being a candidate. This is regardless of the outcome of ongoing police investigations into the couple for potential offences of giving false evidence in the proceedings over Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s will.”

CNA quoted “lawyerSSSSSS” but mentioned no names. Quoting an unnamed source is unethical journalism, and quoting many unnamed sources is highly unethical journalism.

I would like to ask Navene Elangovan and Charlene Goh, who filed this report, which lawyers they spoke with because the last time I checked Sec 19 of The Singapore Constitution, there is nothing that disqualifies LHY from running for President.

The only way LHY can be disqualified is for a compliant Presidential Selection Committee (PSC) to be not satisfied “that he is a person of integrity, good character and reputation”.

That determination will have to rest entirely on their take on the judicial proceedings CNA mentioned.

This will be on a slippery slope because it was a case relating to the professional misconduct of LHY’s wife where LHY was not on trial.

True that a police investigation into his purported perjury is in progress. It would be prejudicial for the PSC to discuss this. Should the PSC have a higher calling to consider this course of action, it must weigh whether the fact that Lee Kuan Yew’s lawyer M/s Kwa Kim Li, who has now been found guilty of lying in the case regarding 38 Oxley Road, mitigated the actions of LHY. More importantly, PSC must then hold Tharman’s breach of the Official Secrets Act to the same moral accountability.

As a matter of fact, even without LHY in the race, PSC has to demonstrate it has evaluated Tharman’s brush with the law and why they find no issues with integrity, good character and reputation. PSC needs to address this, even if it is to a reticent public. Failure to do so calls their credibility into question.

In the political divide in Singapore, pro-PAP voices, and certainly our ever-present Polish blogger Critical Spectator’s knee-jerk reaction to Tharman’s announcement of his resignation from the PAP to enter the presidential race, is to jeer at the opposition’s inability to produce a candidate.

This irritates me to no end. It borders on a juvenile inability to understand the presidential election is non-political. And it is the PAP’s stealth legislation that has turned it into a political event. It is fast becoming a six-yearly farce of PAP musical chair to push a cadre to the elevated ceremonial role.

The fact that Tharman gets to sit on the chair itself is troubling. In PAP’s changing of the guard, unofficial polls put him as the people’s choice to lead the ruling party. The Party decided he was not suitable and was bypassed. He, however, is now deemed best suited for the top job in the land. What is good for the gander is not good for the goose. It feeds the speculation the party is inherently racist.

On paper, the terribly restrictive constitutional criteria for a presidential candidate lulls the citizenry to the PAP’s contention of the need for someone with a rare DNA who can guard the national reserves from a rogue government.

In reality, it denies Singaporeans of choices. Because the schema enshrines candidates coming from the dominant PAP factory, the Office of the President has evolved into the Mother of ‘ownself check ownself’.

“Ownself check ownself” is a unique Singlish slang for self-monitoring or self-regulation. This is a deprecating attack dressed in humour by the opposition on the government’s propensity to whitewash shortcomings by appointing individuals or entities within the Executive to investigate their own actions.

This PAP weakness has been argued in parliament. For the PAP, self-policing is good. For the opposition parties, self-policing is good but external policing is better.

The PAP has been in power since independence in 1965.

Lord Acton’s quote on the corruption of power rings true. The men and women in Whites now see themselves as omniscient.

“Ownself check ownself” has been normalised as a management doctrine of the government. Goh Chok Tong has sung in praise of it.

Ong Ye Kung said at a forum organised by the Institute of Policy Studies last year: “People can say ‘ownself check ownself’, but I see it always as a virtue — if ownself cannot check ownself, you’re in big trouble.”

The PAP has now made “ownself check ownself”, a faulty generalisation fallacy, into a thought-terminating cliché – a commonly used phrase to quell cognitive dissonance to end the debate with a cliché rather than a point. It is an intoxication of power to the extent of an inability to discern impartiality is the mainstay of the search for truth.

Certainly, a self-monitoring mechanism is good for an individual, a system or an entity. Everyone needs the little voice inside of us otherwise known as conscience, to check ourselves and help us make rightful, ethical and moral choices.

In systems, there are built-in self-checking utilities like redundancy tests. For entities like companies, self-policing or self-regulation, there are functions like internal auditors, to proactively monitor their own conduct or performance to ensure compliance with standards, rules, or ethical guidelines.

The PAP captures the essence of “ownself check ownself” as internalised functions. If this is all there is to it, the PAP might as well close down the Inspection Department of MAS and all external auditors are unnecessary. It is a terribly erroneous view that the opposition and 47% of Singaporeans have been trying to get through to the government.

Any management guru worth his salt will advise the PAP that the applicability of “ownself check ownself” is contextual. As an ongoing concern, there is the issue of who checks the checkers. Thus the need for MAS inspectors, external auditors, head office inspectors etc.

“Ownself check ownself” is essential for internal line management. For third-party satisfaction, an external check is the norm. Thus we have external auditors, MAS inspectors, health inspectors, inspectors from far away head offices and the government has its Internal Auditor General, etc.

The crux of the public’s discontent is PAP’s application of “ownself check ownself” to investigations into wrongdoings or failed services. It cannot be that the ruling party of scholars do not believe in independent reviews. The further removed from the Executive, the better, in such circumstances. The normalisation of “ownself check ownself” is disingenuous and borders on fraudulent practice.

I have no problems with Tharman as our head of state. At the personal level, he has the decorum for the office. However, the Constitution places the presidency in a uniquely critical role of guardian of our national reserves.

Tharman has been a government and PAP man his entire adult working life. As President, it would make him the Mother of “ownself check ownself”.

This was first published on and reproduced with permission

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