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Governing Singapore after the PE

Updated On: Aug 29, 2011

In this week's featured commentary, SIIA Chairman Simon Tay looks at Singapore after the Presidential Election. He discusses the need for a new social compact that provides unity under good leadership, yet caters to the hunger for more debate and diversity.

This commentary was featured in TODAY (Singapore) newspapers on 29 Aug 2011.

After a tightly contested Presidential Election, Singaporeans now know Dr Tony Tan will next serve as Head of State. The former Deputy Prime Minister was clearly the Government's preference, even without official endorsement. Immediately after the results, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called for Singaporeans to unify to face challenges ahead, as did the President-elect.

This is timely, given global uncertainties stemming from the United States and the European Union. Yet if Singapore is to avoid the fractured politics that many other countries suffer, new ways of governing are needed. Citizens, energised by the Presidential Election (PE) and the preceding General Election (GE), will need to adjust even as Government takes the first steps.

While supporters of Dr Tony Tan celebrate, we must remember those who voted for the other three candidates and why they did so. Read together with the GE results, the PE signals a change in politics, so long dominated by the People's Action Party. Fundamentals are changing, not necessarily for the better.

Why cannot the status quo continue? After all, Dr Tan won fairly and credibly, given that there were four candidates, each appealing to a different constituency. In May's GE, the PAP achieved 60 per cent of the popular vote, which is strong by global standards even if it is the party's lowest share.

The need for change is clear beyond these top numbers. The PE was not merely a contest of characters; there were clearly different views about the President's role in relation to Government. The Constitution grants powers to check on Government in some situations and candidates varied in their attitude.

Former Opposition candidate Tan Jee Say positioned himself to actively question the Government and exercise "moral power". He garnered some 25 per cent of the vote. Former PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock voiced the need for independence and judgment to use the powers of the office when necessary. He finished second, less than 8,000 votes behind the winner.

Put their supporters together with those who voted for former NTUC Income CEO Tan Kin Lian, who styled himself the "Voice of the People", and the conclusion is that some 65 per cent of voters want a representative prepared to disagree with the Government, if and when necessary. In contrast, Dr Tony Tan had duly recognised the President's powers but was perhaps the most conservative about questioning Government.

The Singaporean's appetite for more debate and difference has grown and will be fed by the re-opening of Parliament. With eight seats, the Worker's Party should be expected to suggest alternative policies for public consideration.

This interacts with the new media, which sometimes provides a breath of fresh air and insight and, at other times, can be virulent and misinformed.

Many in the Government and civil service are uncertain about how to respond, vacillating between apology and an attitude that "we know best". On their part, some citizens now seem to go beyond the assertion of their due rights to the point of undue aggression.

Singaporeans and foreigners alike may ask if there is an erosion of qualities that have made Singapore society stable, united and exceptional in a messy world.

Reassuringly, demands for change are very different from the Arab awakening. Reassuringly, while more here want alternative views and percentages have been trimmed, a strong majority of voters still gave the PAP the mandate to provide leadership. Reassuringly, the Cabinet made considerable changes in the wake of the GE.

But leadership must continue to accommodate change. A new compact is needed between Government and people, and the coming months will see if new ways of governing will emerge.

Much will depend not just on the Government - citizens need adjust to habits and fair expectations of participation and democracy. The heated exchanges and aggression of the past months will need to consciously mature.

One key will be the ability to debate differences with passion and wit, together with facts and civility. The Government must show sufficient respect for other views and not stonewall sensible suggestions. But equally, the citizen would be wrong to quarrel and try to terrorise the Government.

Another signal is how the Government treats the Worker's Party. It is never the Government's role to help opponents but the public will question rules that are one-sided. On their part, the Workers' Party must recognise their stake in ensuring a cohesive society, and not fan differences unnecessarily. Citizens must also begin to discern and speak up when it is the Opposition who may be in the wrong.

A third step will be to widen the establishment to include those who want the best for the country, even if they are not members of the ruling party. Some will look at what comes next for Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a long time PAP MP before contesting the presidency. Having campaigned as a gentleman, he must be expected to fairly acknowledge the result, despite the small margin, and distance himself from unfair criticism of the other Dr Tan.

In the new media, Government treatment of critical yet widely used blogs will be noted.

But such websites in the blogosphere should expect to be, and accept being, held to due standards of accuracy and fairness in their reports and comments. Or else, the majority of citizens must learn to judge them as biased and unreliable.

Prime Minister Lee's call for unity has been joined by President-elect Tony Tan. This is important after two of Singapore's most heated elections. With difficult times probably ahead, cohesion, political will and effective policies are needed.

But unity cannot mean the unitary rule of a single strongman. Nor can be it achieved by the Government alone. A new compact must be found with both Government and citizens doing their part. Only then can that provide unity under a good leadership, while catering for and managing the diversity and energy that the General and now the Presidential Elections have revealed.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore. He was previously a Nominated Member of Parliament.