Singapore’s Elected Presidency: Candidates and Issue of Democracy

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As Singapore’s Presidential Election looms on the horizon, the political landscape is abuzz with anticipation following Halimah Yacob’s announcement of her decision not to pursue another term. Emerging as the frontrunners are two distinct contenders who have captivated public attention with their accomplishments, goals, and unique characteristics. Tharman Shanmugaratnam, an esteemed ex-deputy prime minister, brings a wealth of experience and leadership to the table, while George Goh, the founder of Ossia International, presents a fresh perspective as an independent candidate. However, this year’s election introduces revised eligibility requirements for independent candidates, raising concerns about potential biases that may favour established political figures, given the significantly increased requirement for independent candidates. Let us delve into the interesting personalities of the candidates, while critically examining the implications of the revised eligibility criteria, aiming to shed light on the candidates’ leadership potential and the democratic processes shaping Singapore’s future.

A brand new face in the politics scene is none other than Harvey Norman Ossia’s founder George Goh. He expressed confidence that voters are seeking change and would opt for an independent candidate like himself. Goh cited past presidential elections, such as the 1993 election where retired banker Chua Kim Yeow garnered a significant percentage of votes against former president Ong Teng Cheong, as evidence that voters desire an independent candidate. He also mentioned the 2011 election, where a majority of votes went to “non-establishment” candidates, despite Tony Tan eventually being elected. Goh believes that voters who previously supported non-establishment candidates are still present and may now choose to vote for an independent candidate. He emphasised the need for change and urged people to stand together. While Goh did not provide specific details about the issues he intends to tackle, he mentioned the cost of living as a challenging situation for Singaporeans and highlighted the importance of being the voice for young people. Despite his good intentions, netizens were quick to criticise and mock his lack of eloquence in interviews. They were also not pleased with how he presented himself as overtly Christian, even singing a Christian song in one of his interviews. Given how the President is to assume a unifying role, and to be a representative of the nation, these aspects are getting Singaporeans to think twice about the shiny new candidate. 

However, there are also many doubts as to whether or not George Goh will even be eligible, given the steep increase in the requirement for independent candidates. In the past, eligibility for the election was determined by the leadership of business leaders overseeing companies with a minimum of S$100 million in paid-up capital. This requirement has now been amended to require leaders of corporations with a minimum average shareholders’ equity of S$500 million during their most recent three-year period of service. Meanwhile, Goh’s company Ossia International is on the Singapore Exchange’s watchlist, meaning that it recorded pre-tax losses for the three most recently completed consecutive financial years, and an average daily market capitalization of less than S$40 million over the last six months. However, Goh expressed confidence in his qualification, emphasising that he has a team of professionals to help secure his run, and that Ossia International is only one of his listed companies. Besides Harvey Norman Ossia (Asia), Goh claims to own over 100 companies, six of which are listed, including World of Sports and UnitedEnvirotech. Talk about a real entrepreneur! 

The tightened criteria for independent candidates has also sparked debate about Singapore’s democracy. The increased criteria can be seen as favouring political insiders, as it becomes easier for those with existing political affiliations to meet the new requirements. This can perpetuate a system that appears to prioritise the interests of established political figures and potentially limits the democratic participation of independent and non-establishment candidates. Furthermore, some perceive the tightening of eligibility criteria as a deliberate attempt to consolidate power and discourage competition in the political arena. The perception of rigging arises from the notion that the revision aims to restrict the field to candidates who are more likely to align with the ruling party or the establishment. This could limit the range of choices available to voters and hinder the democratic ideal of fair and open elections.

Speaking of favouring political insiders, we are now led to a very promising and established candidate – Tharman Shanmugaratnam – a key member of the PAP for over 20 years. Tharman had been the Chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, Deputy Chairman of GIC (Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund), Deputy Prime Minister, Senior Minister of Education, Minister of Finance. Talk about an overachiever, this list is not even exhaustive! Despite all his promise, some Singaporeans are still not very keen on electing him. Tharman is portrayed as a career bureaucrat rather than a politician, suggesting that he may prioritise the interests of the ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), over independent decision-making. Is he merely switching a million-dollar chair for a two-million-dollar seat, continuing to serve the PAP’s agenda rather than act as a neutral figure? Tharman’s potential presidency could perpetuate the self-policing approach that PAP has always been criticised for – lacking external scrutiny, ownself check ownself. The President is intended to be a non-partisan and independent figure who represents the unity and interests of the nation as a whole. The President is expected to exercise their powers and perform their duties in a non-partisan manner, without favouring any political party or engaging in political activities. Is it realistic for Tharman to live up to these expectations, or is it inevitable that bias will subconsciously or consciously have a hold on him?

Singapore’s Presidential Election brings forth a cast of captivating contenders, from the fresh-faced George Goh to the seasoned Tharman Shanmugaratnam. As the nation eagerly awaits its next leader, questions arise about Goh’s eligibility and Tharman’s potential biases. Will Singaporeans choose the allure of change or the comfort of experience? Only time will tell as the nation navigates the delicate balance between democracy, political affiliations, and the pursuit of a unifying figure. In this electoral drama, Singaporeans hold the script, ready to cast their votes for the future of their beloved Lion City.

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