on Singapore’s presidential election


Farid Khan; Halimah Yacob; Salleh Marican


For months I have been committed to spoiling my vote.

The way the government has gone about the entire exercise is problematic. First, amending the constitution with the main intention of—most people believe—blocking a candidate it doesn’t like. Then, dressing up the political manoeuvre as affirmative action for Malays. Then organising endless surveys, forums, articles, etc. to sell it to Singaporeans, in the process draining taxpayers’ time and money.

Finally—and this is the real worrying thing—showing basic incompetence in its execution, in the definition of “Malay”, in the definition of “elected presidency”, apparently unaware of the numerous pitfalls of this manoeuvre, of the horrid racial interrogations that would follow.

Every bit of political messaging, every sound byte emanating from the Orwellian top, had me wondering: is this Pravda, is this Newspeak, am I living in some parallel universe? Does the government really think we are that stupid?

And yet, over the past two weeks I have changed my mind. I believe it is necessary, as somebody committed to multiculturalism, to endorse this reserved election and vote for a Malay candidate. Spoiling my vote could, in some microscopic way, threaten societal cohesion, as I will explain below.

Assuming there even is a vote, whom to choose? That doesn’t really matter so much, I feel. Personal preference. They are all talented and competent in their own way.

For me, I would choose Halimah Yacob, because she’s female and because she seems to be that rare politician committed to simple living—two causes I believe, in whatever small way, need to be encouraged.

Yet even if she becomes president—as seems almost certain—her presidency will always be tainted. If we, as citizens, are to have an honest relationship with her, we must never let her forget that.

I remember the moment like it were yesterday: during campaigning for GE 2015, Tan Cheng Bock strolling into a nighttime SDP rally headlined by Chee Soon Juan and Paul Tambyah, his avuncular smile moving in and out of stadium lights and shadows.

The people around me, tiptoeing on soft earth, flag-waving arms growing weary, went ballistic. Thunderous applause and cheers, yet different from before. This was a self-affirming chest bump, the kind offered to high-profile converts anywhere, and for the demure-looking political virgins there who still believed that even uttering “S.D.P.” might be a crime, here was their ultimate vindication.

The man of the people, the former insider and newly baptised insurgent.

Whether or not Cheng Bock can ever live up to the dreams of democracy-starved Singaporeans—we will never know.

For the very next morning, I heard the same thing from two (semi-insider) friends: “they” are going to find a way to fix him.

Those friends, of course, could just have been engaging in mindless chatter. But assuming they were right, one day in the future, with the benefit of time, we might be able to look back and assess the impact of Cheng Bock’s dalliance with the opposition.

Did he simply sacrifice his presidential ambitions? Or did he also unknowingly set in motion a chain of events that led to many Singaporeans’ political awakening?

If you don’t subscribe to #tanchengblock
Most, including many of my PAP loyalist friends, believe this reserved election is really about #tanchengblock.

For those who think the PAP’s intentions are completely noble, I’d like to discuss the issue in two ways.

The first is to take a step back. Imagine you are playing a game, any game. Monopoly, Table Tennis, Fifa ’17. Now imagine that game has been going on for twenty-four years. Different players qualify, different players compete, and ultimately one wins.

Now imagine if the hosts of the game have a preferred contestant each time. And for twenty-four years, the preferred choice has always won.

In the last contest, however, the runner-up lost by the skin of his teeth. Never before has the preferred contestant come so close to losing.

How do the hosts respond? For the first time in the history of the game, they change the rules. And in the new rules, guess what? That runner-up, a favourite to win this time, no longer qualifies.

This cuts to the core of why Singaporeans are upset. We have been sold on meritocracy and fairness our whole lives. And now, to fulfil a political agenda, those two core values have been eroded.

Singaporeans, whatever their political inclinations, whatever their ethnicities, feel sorry for Cheng Bock. This is not how we play the game.

There is a second way to look at this: by examining diversity in leadership. With the reserved presidency, the PAP is painting itself out to be some champion of minorities. But does the PAP really care about minority representation at the top? No.

Look at the candidates slated to be our next prime minister. All six original choices are: Chinese. Male. Former government scholars. How’s that for diversity?

To undermine the party’s argument even further, there is a possible minority candidate whom the majority of Singapore would probably prefer: Tharman. He checks all three boxes: merit, popularity and diversity quotient.

If the PAP is so concerned that Singapore hasn’t had a Malay president for so long, well here’s some news: we haven’t had a non-Chinese prime minister in forever. Please go fix that first.

If we are to take the PAP at face value, voters are supposed to believe that Singapore cannot have a minority Prime Minister, because of race, but must have a minority President, because of race.

It is an intellectually disingenuous position. Not even Frank Underwood would pull a stunt like that.

Now we know how stupid they think we are
Singaporeans have always known that our politicians live in an elite bubble, and consider themselves superior beings. This is not about individual failings; they are all products of a system that has told them from Day One that they are better.

Now, with this reserved presidency, we have irrefutable proof about just how stupid they think we are. Everything above should prove the point, but I would like to highlight one last thing.

In February this year, Chan Chun Sing, potential next prime minister, stood up in parliament and called Halimah Yacob “Madam President” (video at the bottom). Was it a slip? Maybe. But he did it not once but twice, laughing along with his fellow PAP politicians, having a ball of a time, delighting themselves in their own megalomaniac conceit.

We should think about this carefully and clearly. It is no laughing matter. A full seven months before the election, Halimah’s colleagues were already calling it in her favour. They made a blatant mockery of our democratic process.

Imagine that your Fifa ’17 hosts have declared the tournament winner seven months ahead of time. After doing so, they invite other contestants to participate as part of the wayang. It’s farcical.

Halimah is not innocent. She claims she only recently decided to run for president. If that is true, Halimah, then why were your colleagues calling you “Madam President” in February?

Don’t get me wrong. I love a bit of humour in parliament. Some of my favourite YouTube clips are of Cameron and Corbyn taking digs at each other.

But Chun Sing—when your joke is essentially about how you are planning to subvert democracy; about how you are taking away our rights as citizens; about how this entire PE is a sham.

I’m sorry. That’s like taking our hard-earned tax dollars—which pays your salary—and then slapping us around. On national television.

It’s not something we can easily forget.

Lee Hsien Loong’s soft authoritarianism
In my OxleyGate piece, I spoke about this: as Hsien Loong pivots to cultivate a brand of leadership far less draconian than his father’s, he sometimes finds himself caught between the shade of authoritarianism and the sunlight of liberal democracy.

With HalimahGate, the administration has made schoolboy errors in its execution. The most glaring is the definition of “first elected president”. Despite government websites and Goh Chok Tong having in the past declared Ong Teng Cheong (1993-99) as the first elected president, in the past six months there has been a complete review. Wee Kim Wee (1985-93), for the purposes of this PE, is the first elected president—despite nobody having elected him.

[Background: if Teng Cheong is the first elected president, then anybody can contest in this year’s PE. But if Kim Wee is the first, then, given the new rules, this election must be reserved for Malays—as is the PAP’s wish.]

Of course, Singaporeans are used to authoritarianism—or, rather, illiberal democracy. Given the malaise in governance in many liberal democracies today, many make good arguments for it. We certainly do not expect this government to be some poster child for liberalism.

However, at the very least, we expect efficient authoritarianism that binds society together—not messy authoritarianism that cleaves us apart.

Insiders have told me this reserved election is largely Hsien Loong’s idea. If that is true, what really inspired it? Was it just #tanchengblock? Probably not. Perhaps he really does see the value of having a Malay Muslim president at this point in Singapore’s development.

I have heard many different justifications, including the need for a Malay role model; the need for a female role model; and the possibility that having a tudung-wearing lady in the highest office might make Singapore less attractive to the likes of ISIS, our main national security threat.

One conspiracy theory is that Hsien Loong was also worried that his brother might run for election. Now that would have been something.

“Why couldn’t he have come up with a more elegant solution [to Cheng Bock]?” is something I have heard repeatedly. There is no doubt that Hsien Loong’s standing within the party has been tarnished by this episode. Some loyalists have told me that it would be better for all concerned if the transition to 4G is hastened.

Of course, nobody believes Hsien Loong intended to sow ethnic discord between the races here. But he has unwittingly done so.

It’s been forty years since I was born here; the anti-Malay vitriol I hear is louder than ever before.

Why it is important to support a Malay president
In the past few months, it has suddenly become OK to disparage “those people”. When I  still had a job in Raffles Place, I would hear the usual anti-Malay murmurings that Singaporeans eventually internalise—for instance, a quibble about not being able to buy the non-halal cake for some party or the other.

But the stuff I’ve heard in the past few months, both directly and hearsay, is on a whole different level. The apparent laziness and incompetence of Malays is highlighted more often. I hear disgust in people’s voices. Regular words such as as makcik and nasi padang seller are turned into racial epithets, used in a derogatory way.

This is dangerous; the PAP has accidentally uncorked sectarianism, and now some outside are stoking it. For sure, I am talking only about a minority of people. But still.

Meanwhile, many fair-minded, tolerant Singaporeans want to spoil their vote as a show of protest against the PE. But there is a danger here of false political signalling.

Imagine if this election sees a 30% spoilt vote. There are two ways to interpret that. One is that it is a protest vote against the PAP. The other is that it is a protest vote against Malays. (Or some combination thereof.)

The problem is, for a bigoted keyboard warrior observing the results, it is difficult to parse all this.

There is a small chance, then, that a big spoilt vote percentage will incite further bigotry and sectarianism. Not an overnight sea change, but one more stir of the simmering ethnic cocktail.

Already in the past few years, Singaporean minorities, particularly Eurasians, have been feeling more excluded from this place they call home. “Where are you from?” is the seemingly innocent but loaded form of interrogation many are subjected to.

If you don’t think that right-wing nationalists and bigots can be emboldened by electoral results, here are three syllables: Charlottesville. Or if you want something closer to home: Tan Jee Say.

Many who voted for him in the last PE thought they were just plonking for the non-PAP man. Yet Jee Say  interpreted his quarter of the vote as support for a nationalist platform. Singaporeans First is the closest we have to a right-wing nationalist party. (There is a longer discussion to be had about the rights and wrongs of giving nationalists a political platform in a multicultural society.)

I don’t want to engage in the ridiculous fear-mongering in which establishment people indulge. No, I don’t think Jee Say is Steve Bannon. No, I don’t think Singapore is one small step from serious ethnic conflict. Yet if we allow disharmony to creep in, it will slowly cripple our society and economy in much more subtle ways.

My analysis may be wrong. But I’ve decided that I can’t take the risk, however small. There is nothing, really, to be gained from a protest vote. Everybody in the PAP, senior people and rank-and-file, realises what a mess this is.

Not a single community is happy with this PE. The Malays I know are disgruntled that they are being used for political ends; and that they have now been cast by some as needy of state assistance (that they never asked for).

In short, Lee Hsien Loong and the PAP have screwed up; and those of us committed to multiculturalism need to help bail them out. This is not the time for political revenge; something far more important is at stake.

If we really want to effect change, we should punish the PAP at the next GE. My political position has been fairly consistent for the past ten-odd years: I’m happy with the PAP in power, but they really need to be cut down to size. We need some 20-30 opposition candidates in parliament (of 87 seats).

That way, the PAP can still go about their day-to-day legislative business, with a simple majority, but they cannot suka suka make changes to the constitution—like this mind-numbingly stupid reserved presidency—because constitutional changes require two-thirds of parliament.

Perhaps more importantly, we will deflate the arrogance of many PAP politicians. The party itself will benefit.

When the next GE comes around, Halimah will (most likely) be our president. There will be nowhere for the PAP to hide from one of its greatest ever mistakes, of undermining democracy and meritocracy in such a foolish way.

The three presumptive Malay presidential candidates, all competent in their own way, and their community, are hardly to blame. Whoever wins—election or walkover—we should support them proudly, for the sake of our country.


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Above is a very cursory look at race and religion in Singapore. For those interested, I have written much more extensively on this issue on my blog here and here, as well as in Chapter 11 of my first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore, available in public libraries and some bookstores in Singapore, as well as through Amazon or NUS Press (for those in Singapore).


Below is a video on the Elected Presidency produced by New Naratif, a wonderful new Southeast Asian media outfit. If you want to see Chan Chun Sing’s moment of glory, jump to minute 3:00.


42 thoughts on “on Singapore’s presidential election

  1. My position is this: if 90% or over of eligible voters abstain from voting, by not going to the polling station, that would send a clear message to the PAP-govt, of their disdain of this ludicrous, farcical election, orchestrated with a specific political agenda, the PAP’s. By participating, by casting our votes, we cannot protest when 5 or 10 years hence, the govt calls for a PE reserved strictly for, say, an Indian, and then, further down, a President of Eurasian ethnicity. Then, where or how do we draw the line?

    1. It’s a moot point now, but assuming there were an election, I don’t disagree with you. You’re right. I simply think, that in this specific case, the ethnic tension risk outweighs this other one you mention. Would the ethnic tension risk keep reemerging every time? Hopefully Singaporeans are smart enough to kick out of power a party that consciously plays race cards…

  2. To me voting Halimah in this election sends the message that we accept this unconstitutional election, period. I get your reasoning, but to me it’s akin to lying for your father after he has cheated on your mom, just to maintain harmony in the family – he will do it time and again if he knows he can get away with it.

    We are not obliged to need to clean up PAP’s mess. Yes, the ethno-centric old chauvinists on FB making all those racist comments on Halimah do remind me of the vitriol on The_Donald and stormfront, but people do call them out when they cross the line. I don’t see any young people joining in. The existing state of multiculturalism in this country isn’t that fragile that it needs this fake mandate to survive… yet. But if this election works for them, who knows what constitutional tweaks (for ‘better’ racial representation) they are going to make in the future?

    Look at the non-answers ccs, janil and co. gave at the recent ips session, they didn’t even bothered to come up with credible excuses for this farce. The reserved election is a mind-boggling insult to the intelligence of the electorate, that we are not rational, that we are ill-informed decision makers.

    Top leadership of PAP no longer plans adequately for the long term and is ill equipped at identifying opportunities in this multipolar world. For some of us in PAP grc strongholds, this may be the only chance to indicate our disappointment with the establishment in light of the recent state of affairs.

    Anyway, seeing the ground sentiment, I doubt they will allow it to come to a vote.

  3. I agree n share your views on the reserved presidency. It’s the Last Straw!
    But if we want this to be a watershed that fans a wind of change leading into the next GE, the momentum must begin now. Otherwise if we follow your suggestion to vote for Halimah, the G’s powerful spin machinery will in time diminish voters angst to a whimper by the time the GE comes around. I wish for a kick start that there be a Mother of all protest rallies at Speakers Corner on the day of the inauguration of the REP so huge it will overflow from the park onto the roads. This will put this shambolic event on both the domestic and global news channels. And then keep the momentum going n growing.

    I hope that the writer will revise his stratagem in an addendum to his first scribe

  4. I’m with you for not spoiling vote, but I’m 100% against your suggestion to vote Halimah. First, the assumption is that there is a contest to begin with. Spoiling vote guarantees the appointment of PAP’s proxy as EP. Those who think that PAP will give a damn about the share of spoiled votes is just naive. The undeniable fact is that our next EP will be someone who wins through unfair contest, no matter how happy or unhappy you are. Period.

    Second, whoever becomes EP has little or no real impact to the nation. While the EP is touted to wield powers on key appointments and our reserve, the constitution allows parliament to overturn the EP. In fact, the EP’s advisors seem to have more powers! There is no reason to believe her competition is any less caring a person than she is. Even if she is Mother Theresa, what exactly can she do to effect change given that the EP has no executive powers? Attend charity events and read government sanctioned speeches? Even a kid can do that!

    Third, only when an alternative candidate wins will PAP really give a damn. It is clear as day who PAP’s proxy candidate is. So this coming PE really boils down to whether Halimah wins or not. Her win legitimizes the constitutional gerrymandering, her loss sends a clear message that Singaporeans are not stupid despite their sophistry and exposes their political failure in broad daylight. Between her and her competition, who do you really think has lesser emotional connection to PAP? One who owed her success to the political establishment or another who built his success on his own?

    In conclusion, by voting the alternative, you have nothing to lose but something to gain. The odd is obvious, there is only one way to place your bet.

    1. Assuming there were an election, you may very well be right. Don’t disagree. My own thinking was:
      a) I don’t discount people just because they’ve been affiliated with the PAP (see Ong Teng Cheong);
      b) Halimah seems different from most of the other PAP politicians–I really don’t think she’s “money grubbing” as many seem to believe.
      c) I don’t think any candidate–not Khan, not Marican, not Halimah–can really stand up to the PAP. No difference.

      Anyway, all that said, you have a good point. May have been better–if we had an election–to vote for a non-preferred candidate.

  5. Good piece Sudhir. Tudung and terrorism have a wide gap. Will the tudung help bridge the religious gap of the two sects, Sunni and Shite, and bring them closer, and less wish to kill each other?

  6. What is the missing link in the PE thing?

    When the Constitution comes up for review, hopefully soon before they lose the 2/3 majority in Parliament, what should be added in as amendment to fill up the missing link?

    It is: let them have the cake and eat it.

    Let the candidates at Nomination Day decide whether they want an open or closed PE.

    If they lose at an open PE, then the next, and the next PE shall be closed until one of them is elected.

    If they continue to opt for an open PE, so be it.

    It will be a closed PE only when all the candidates want it to be so.

    If one of the candidates want and open PE, so be it. It shall be an open PE if they opt in.

  7. S$500 million to qualify at a PE candidate.

    One man one vote system.

    Hope the Constituion will not be changed one day to allow only those Singaporeans owning a property worth more than S$500,000 will be allowed to vote at the parliamentary general elections.,

  8. there are worst thing than to worry abt a ” managed ” non executive election. see what happened to Britain, where the government and people over confident. the day will come when ” entitled ” citizens will do to themselves what they deserved but not on my watch. the difference is Britain is big enough to absorb the shock but can we?

  9. Poor logic and reasoning for why we should vote for that prideless puppet and I am glad that you were duly called out, both here and in Facebook.

  10. Dear Sudhir,

    It’s a great piece and articulates what many may think in Singapore. You have a great gift for words and it’s used well. We are very proud of you and pray that God will bless you richly.

    With love,
    A Sharon

  11. > because constitutional changes require two-thirds of parliament.

    It won’t be long before they (the PAP) demolishes even this last vestige of democracy.

  12. The right wing is not the only problem. The ultra left is equally problematic especially when they believe that their right is theirs but the rights of others are negotiable!

  13. Firstly, minority includes Others, not just Malays. If you want to play by the rules that the PAP set, this election should allow Eurasians to run as well.
    Secondly, not sure who started this justification “having a tudung-wearing lady in the highest office might make Singapore less attractive to the likes of ISIS, our main national security threat.” but it is so lame to assume that SIngaporeans are really so stupid to accept it. Do you really think ISIS care what president you have before they decide to strike? During 911 did the terrorists care whether there were Muslims in the twin towers, and they all have families who are also muslims? Have you not read news that ISIS also kill muslims?
    Thirdly, if people spoil their votes, it is not protest, it is feeding the PAP’s desire to win. Voting for the non-PAP candidate also constitute vote of protest, since PAP can’t get its way. Note, you need at least 2 votes to counter one PAP vote because they are the incumbent and has a basic pool of die- hard supporters, maybe around 30% already. Also, there is something very cynical as to why the PAP die die must have an ex-representative sitting on the throne as “puppet”, to the extent of playing out this constitution change drama. Is there something in the accounts that they cannot afford to let outsiders find out? There is a conflict of interest in having an ex-PAP run for the office; more so when Tony was elected since he was the account holder before being elected – getting the accountant to audit his own account, it was a big joke.

  14. “If we really want to effect change, we should punish the PAP at the next GE. My political position has been fairly consistent for the past ten-odd years: I’m happy with the PAP in power, but they really need to be cut down to size. We need some 20-30 opposition candidates in parliament (of 87 seats).

    That way, the PAP can still go about their day-to-day legislative business, with a simple majority, but they cannot suka suka make changes to the constitution—like this mind-numbingly stupid reserved presidency—because constitutional changes require two-thirds of parliament.

    Perhaps more importantly, we will deflate the arrogance of many PAP politicians. The party itself will benefit.”

    That’s wishful thinking. It is in the nature of things that such a favourable outcome will not happen. What will most likely happen is that, in a future GE, maybe not in the next or even the one after, there will be a complete rout of the PAP. Most Singaporeans will be shell-shocked. The stock market and financial institutions will react badly. But after a few weeks, Singaporeans will pick themselves up and life will go on as before. The political situation will settle down and will even evolve into a true democratic system with two or even three dominant political parties in parliament.

  15. And what of the next presidental election? Will the govt have learnt its lesson and open the election to all races? Or would it reserve it for Eurasians, since Benjamin Sheares was the last one? Hopefully the former..

  16. Watever said and done. Honourable President Halimah is our New President. It will stand. If we believe in our government, than e decision is right.

    She still opt to stay in her HDB flat which shows her personal status never change. Down to earth woman.

    Other candidates vow to donate their President salary if elected. But have they done e noble job before.that shows they have enough $$ to run their live thru.we don’t need a rich person but a people’s person to be a President.Honourable President Halimah have serve e peolpe past 16 yrs and will serve.Its e best choice e government have taken on behalf of we SINAPOREANS.Salute to our nation.

  17. “Yet Jee Say interpreted his quarter of the vote as support for a nationalist platform. Singaporeans First is the closest we have to a right-wing nationalist party.”

    A trusted friend pointed this out and on reflection, I believe Tan Jee Say is a PAP-plant. Jee Say appears to reprise what Harbans Singh (of United Prople Front) used to do in past elections, i.e., bear out PAP campaign pronouncements and cautionary statements of the opposition and split the votes.

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