ASEAN KEY DESTINATIONS
Singapore’s Presidential ElectionBy Murray Hiebert and Lie Nathanael Santoso
On August 27, Singapore will hold its first direct presidential election in 18 years, setting the stage for the most competitive presidential race in the city-state’s history. The election is being contested by four candidates, who nominated themselves and were approved by a government committee using eligibility requirements outlined in the constitution.
(Two other candidates were rejected for not meeting the requirements.) The campaign is complete with rallies in stadiums, dialogue sessions with business groups and religious organizations, and presidential debates in which the candidates are discussing topics ranging from the salary of the president to the use of the Internal Security Act against government opponents, and what they would do if they disagreed strongly with a policy endorsed by the cabinet.
This race comes at a critical juncture in Singapore politics because it is taking place after parliamentary elections in May in which the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) lost an unprecedented six seats to the opposition Workers Party, its poorest election performance since independence in 1965. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said after the elections that “many wish for the government to adopt a different style and approach. [The elections] mark a distinct shift in our political landscape.”
The presidential election can be seen as symbolic of the evolutionary trends in Singapore’s politics. Through this vote, the city-state is testing models that connote more openness and competition. Singapore politics appear to be adapting to a new age. The emphasis on competition, outreach to constituents, and grass-roots caucusing in this election may provide hints of what is to come.
Q1: What is the role of Singapore’s president?
A1: The president is the head of state and holds office for a six-year term. The president’s role has historically been largely ceremonial. Even though he is not responsible for the day-to-day running of the government, the president has veto power over the government in three specific areas:
1. protection of the state’s reserves;
2. appointment of key personnel, such as the attorney general, chiefs of the armed forces and police, and the chief justice and judges;
3. use of Internal Security Act detentions, Corrupt Practices Investigative Bureau investigations, and orders relating to the maintenance of religious harmony.
However, the president must consult the Council of Presidential Advisers and the cabinet before exercising these veto powers.
Q2: Who is running, and what are the differences between the candidates?
A2: All four candidates have emphasized the importance of the president being independent from the ruling government and having experience in financial management. The eligibility requirements include having previous experience in ministerial or high-level civil service roles, heading a government agency or sizeable company, or holding positions with similar responsibility.
Each of the four candidates has experience serving in key positions in the government. And we can be certain that the next president will be President Tan, because Tan is the surname of all four candidates.
Q3: How is this election different from previous elections?
A3: This is the first time that both parliamentary and presidential elections will be held in the same year.
Unlike the elections of 1999 and 2005, there will be a contest this time. In the previous two elections, incumbent president S.R. Nathan ran unopposed. This presidential campaign follows in the wake of the strong political emotions that characterized the May general elections in which the ruling PAP lost six seats in Parliament and recorded historically low support of 60.1 percent, down from 66.6 percent in 2006. This political mood could affect how Singaporeans vote, and a candidate who is closely identified with the PAP or the government could be at a political disadvantage.
This election may also provide a reading of the public reactions to the PAP’s reform promises following the recent parliamentary elections when about 40 percent voted for the opposition. The presidential contest could possibly be seen as an unofficial indicator on how the reforms proposed by the ruling PAP are being perceived.
As in the parliamentary elections, social-networking sites are being actively used by the candidates and their supporters to promote their views. The mainstream press, which prior to the May elections often provided only cursory reports on the views of opposition figures, is giving considerable coverage of the views of all four candidates.
Q4: How has the PAP responded to the loss of six seats in the May parliamentary elections?
A4: The PAP has recognized that the political landscape has changed since the May elections. Prime Minister Lee has said there has been heightened political awareness among Singaporeans and has observed that many of them desire to see more opposition voices in Parliament to provide checks and balances to the PAP government. Soon after the elections, Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong resigned from the cabinet, stepping down from the positions of minister mentor and senior minister respectively. Voters may see the presidential election as an opportunity to choose a candidate that reflects a certain degree of independence from the ruling party.
One of the concerns the PAP has sought to address since the parliamentary elections is the perception that it is out of touch with less well-off Singaporeans, who are concerned about rising prices, high housing costs, and the large increase of immigrant workers. Prime Minister Lee said the government will make improving the lives of its citizens its top priority and find ways to improve the economy so all will benefit.
Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Lie Nathanael Santoso is a researcher with the Southeast Asia Program.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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