The term ‘new normal’ has been used to describe the new political reality in Singapore, including the changes following the General Election of 2011 (GE 2011). Less dramatic and romantic than the other descriptions of ‘a Singapore Renaissance’ and ‘a Singapore Arab Spring’, it nevertheless recognizes that the winds of change that have swept away the norms, assumptions and rules of the old order are more akin to the storms of revolution than to the gentle breezes of step-by-step evolution that the People’s Action Party (PAP) government had always advocated.
Part of this new normal is a new electorate with a ferocious hunger for a new kind of leadership. Since it is a strongly anti-PAP group, it desires the new leadership, first and foremost, to be free of all those detested PAP attributes, notably arrogance, complacency and insensitivity to the needs of the people, that had come in for much excoriation during the GE 2011.
Sensing this need of the people, certain aspirants for the position of President of Singapore quickly realised that the Presidential Election of 2011 (PE 2011) would present the very opportunity for fulfilling it. While the PAP leadership would likely be around for some time, it should still, in the meanwhile, be subjected to checks and balances, and who better to do that than a president empowered by a popular mandate in nationwide polls? Indeed, holding the highest office in the land, he would be in the ideal position to provide just the leadership to feed this hunger for change, which the many placatory gestures of a chastened PAP government after GE 2011, had only succeeded in sharpening.
Thus did these hopefuls get down to the serious work of re-casting the traditional presidential role according to how the people would want it to be. They duly invested it with precisely those leadership qualities so reprehensibly missing in the PAP administration—the ability to connect with the ground, an empathy with the needs of the man-in-the-street, the courage to put up a good fight on matters that affected people’s lives, including those that had been angrily brought up during GE 2011.
In re-writing the role of the president as if he were a Member of Parliament with the whole nation as his constituency, the presidential hopefuls were, in effect, politicizing the role of the Elected President (EP). Whether or not they realised it, they were seriously contradicting the strictly apolitical, primarily ceremonial and custodial role set out in the constitution.
It can be argued that this politicization, if it was an errant or misguided act, could be blamed on the creators of the constitution themselves. In 1991, the PAP leaders amended the constitution to change the system of a government-appointed president to that of an elected one, to give him the moral authority to perform a most vital function, among others: preventing spendthrift governments from raiding the nation’s vast reserves.
The stipulation of the condition of a popular mandate for the presidency was already, in itself, a politicizing act, with all kinds of political implications, whether or not the PAP leaders were aware of it. If they were, they must have dismissed it as of no relevance for their purposes, since it would make no difference for Singaporean voters long used to timid, unquestioning compliance with every government policy.
Never in their wildest imagination could the PAP leaders have foreseen the emergence, in GE 2011, of a fearless, boldly demanding electorate, who went on, in PE 2011, some months later, to seize the very same constitutional amendment to serve their purpose, by re-interpreting the role of the EP exactly as they wanted it to be.
So quickly and enthusiastically was this revised role taken up and promoted in the online media, especially by the new group of mostly young, vocal, Internet-savvy voters, that scant thought was given to the resulting contradictions and paradoxes. Even at the purely theoretical level, these anomalies were troubling; translated into reality, they could in the long run do much damage to the most august office in the land.
Firstly, the politicization had resulted in the creation of a bizarre hybrid role for the EP, made up of two mutually exclusive ones—that of a Member of Parliament whose business was politics, and that of a ceremonial head of state whose business was to stay above it. It was a weirdly composite role where the EP was empowered, on the one hand, to go all out to fight for the people’s interests, and on the other, to be a powerless custodian whose advice the government was under no obligation to heed.
Secondly, it would lead to a forced juxtaposition of strongly opposed behaviors, that is, the regally calm, dignified and benign bearing of a president, at one end, and the relentlessly ruthless and combative approach of the seasoned politician, at the other. In practice, it could mean, for example, the jarring dissonance of a media picture of the president caught up in the raw, brutal competitiveness of a political campaign, superimposed upon his official portrait of smiling fatherly benevolence, reverentially displayed in government buildings nationwide.
In short, the act of politicizing the EP’s role could generate such patently absurd paradoxical statements as to resemble philosophical conundrums:
- The EP is both political and apolitical, both partisan and non-partisan.
- The EP is both a symbol of stately dignity and of the earthy street savvy of the successful politician.
- The EP is given veto power over government decisions in certain areas, but it can be nullified by the government’s own veto power.
The EP’s role would thus be a logically and psychologically insupportable one. Riddled with so many contradictions and paradoxes, it could be seen as both a hopelessly neither-here-nor-there, as well as a something-for-everyone role that had an Alice-in-Wonderland hyperreality about it.
The incongruities of the politicisation were quickly and urgently pointed out by some alarmed PAP ministers. Through the media and public forums, they drew meticulous attention to its deviation from the terms clearly laid down in the amendments to the constitution. They highlighted the constitutional constraints of the EP’s role precisely to refute the liberalities that the anti-PAP camp had decked it with. But in the high spirits that were a spillover from GE 2011, the PAP’s objections apparently had the effect of only increasing the appeal of the newly envisaged role. Imagine, a president at long last who can stand up to the PAP bully on our behalf!
At this stage of the period leading up to the presidential election, there was hence already an ideological polarization of voters into, broadly, those who were pro-PAP and favoured the constitutionally circumscribed role of the EP for its stability, and those who were anti-PAP and accordingly rejected it as yet one more example of a self-serving government policy, that was out of touch with the people’s needs.
By the time of the nine-day campaign leading to election day on 27 August, the reconstituted role of the EP, improbable as it was, controversial as it had become, had already taken root in the popular imagination, accreting very attractive features along the way.
It had become a phenomenon that would determine the shape, tone and flavour of the entire campaign. For what happened was that the four presidential contenders, comprising one closely allied with the PAP government, and the other three stoutly affirming their independence of it, had no choice but to use the politicized image as their frame of reference, if they wanted to get their message quickly and effectively across to the voters. Since the image was so diffuse and mixed because of the contradictions, they could only select that aspect of it upon which they could convincingly build their campaign pledges, or mount their criticism of the rivals. And since the aspects were so different, the candidates could only talk past each other, and not engage in meaningful dialogue or debate.
Thus while each of the four candidates pledged to become a worthy president, the notion of worthiness split into as many individual versions. Indeed, these could be stark opposites, depending on which end of the ideological spectrum the candidate had positioned himself: if staunchly pro-PAP, he could promise to work closely with the government to ensure order and stability, or, if strongly anti-PAP, he could promise to take on an actively independent role of stern watchdog and interventionist, to ensure that the people’s interests were protected. Both stands were equally valid, and each in its own way made sound political sense.
It was not surprising therefore that confusion would set in and that earnest voters, genuinely desirous of voting for the most suitable presidential candidate, would ask with some puzzlement: what exactly is the role of the EP? How do I justify my choice of this or that candidate?
The simplest answer in the end boiled down to this: justification depends on whether you are pro-PAP or anti-PAP. If the first, you invoke the constitution; if the second, you also invoke the constitution, but a different aspect of it.
A constitution so ambiguous, so open to the widest possible interpretations, and hence so manipulable, surely spelt trouble, and indeed made for one of the most bitterly fought campaigns in Singapore’s electoral history.
But today a president has already been elected and will be inaugurated in a matter of days. So what happens now?
The President Elect had quickly made clear in a landmark speech a day after the election that his priority would be to unify a divided society, to reach out to all. In principle, that would mean playing the apolitical role as laid down in the constitution in keeping with his campaign pledge to the 35% who voted him in, as well as playing the completely different, politicised role of an independent-minded EP, as desired by the 65% who did not vote for him. Taking a middle course would please neither; seeking to strike the perfect balance would be virtually impossible. And through it all, there would be pressure on him from the PAP government (now much relieved that he and not any of the other contenders in PE 2011 had got in), to work closely with them to regain the standing so badly lost in GE 2011.
It is, by all accounts, a fiendishly difficult job for the new President, with demands that go well beyond the brave campaign efforts of overcoming his natural reserve and aloofness to mingle with humble folk in friendly camaraderie. The job will be fraught with frustrations, because most of what he says and does, will not go down well with most of the people most of the time—the aggrieved 34% whose preferred candidate lost by a margin so incredibly small it was almost invisible, the 25% who had pointedly supported the contender most conspicuously contrasted with him, and the remaining 6%, that either spoilt their vote or gave it to the fourth, and weakest contender in the contest.
For the first time in the history of the presidency, the President of Singapore will be watched and judged more closely than even the PAP leadership itself. It would appear that without being exactly the sacrificial lamb, he would have to bear the brunt of grievances from the past, and the burden of expectations for the future.
Singaporeans who are seriously concerned about this grotesquely intractable issue of the EP’s role must come to a sobering conclusion: As long as nothing is done to resolve the inherent paradoxes in the constitution, the future could see the following predicaments and troubling scenarios:
The office of the EP will be increasingly devalued and demeaned. It can never shake off the taint from the raw emotions and squalor of the hustings, which will be continued and amplified in the free-wheeling world of the social media, most certainly by the frustrated supporters of the unsuccessful candidates. The Istana will have lost its pristine and hallowed ambience.
In the new intense and unforgiving climate after GE 2011, the EP will be seen as someone who has to earn his keep, like everybody else. Hence his ceremonial role will be viewed as far less significant than the substantial one of, say, advising the government wisely in an economic crisis, helping to better manage the reserves, using the presidential clout to initiate a major humanitarian project, etc. Since his public visibility is necessarily far greater in the first than in the second role, he may be criticized for performing below the expectations of the people who gave him their vote, and maligned by the rest for not justifying the huge presidential salary he is paid.
Two of the three unsuccessful contenders in PE 2011 who had managed to garner very convincing shares of the popular vote have already indicated they are likely to be back in the future. By then, based on lessons learnt in PE 2011, they will have found innovative ways to improve their performance in future presidential elections, with the result that these will get even more raucous, divisive and bitter. Indeed, the presidential election will be increasingly seen as an extension of the general election, and the opportunity to replicate a victory, improve the popularity rating, renew an attack, settle old scores, complete unfinished work, etc. By this time, the election will have frightened away those men (and women) whose sterling qualities make them true presidential material.
The highest office in the nation might lose its special luminosity, as it becomes increasingly influenced by the various personae of the EPs successively occupying it. For the EPs will have come with different, even extreme interpretations of their role, varying from that of vociferous opponent of the government, at one end, to that of quietly submissive PAP adjunct, at the other. The image of the EP may be vitiated to the extent that it no longer inspires respect and regard.
There is a possibility that in the future there could emerge a power centre with immense resources and influence, putting up its own personnel as a presidential candidate, in order to later use his high position to prosecute its own agenda. Such a threat which would be an impossibility in a general election, might eventuate in the relatively new, much less regulated and predictable world of direct voting in a presidential election. The hijacking of such a major institution for insidious purposes must be the ultimate nightmare of the society.
With future presidential candidates more likely to come from the Chinese majority, the very worthy, long upheld goal of having equal representation from the different ethnic groups may be irrevocably lost. This would be a severe blow to multiracial equality and unity in the society.
The paradoxes in the amended constitution could therefore lead to a medley of monstrous scenarios, a shocking array of unintended consequences. It is imperative, surely, that they be looked into and resolved as quickly as possible, as delay will only entrench them in the political landscape, making them useful tools for opportunists and mischief makers. As it is, they have already created disquiet and provoked controversy in a newly revitalized and maturing society that wants to move on quickly to concentrate on more important national issues.
The task of amending the amendments in a constitution that has been in place for more than twenty years is arduous, hazardous work, calling for much patience, courage, honesty and above all, political will. But the effort will be worth it, to protect the dignity, authenticity, integrity and indeed the very raison d’etre of a sacrosanct institution.