If there is any lesson that we learn from the Presidential Election of 2011, it is that, contrary to popular belief, democracy is not a popularity contest. You can have two-thirds of the country against you and still win an election. (As a matter of fact, you can actually even have almost three quarters of the country against you.) We know that the 25% of the country who voted for Tan Jee Say would probably never have voted for Tony Tan if Tan Jee Say had not been given the COE. They vote for Tan Kin Lian, Tan Cheng Bock, spoil their votes or simply not vote. It does not take much to see, then, that with Tan Jee Say out of the picture, it would not at all be difficult for Tan Cheng Bock to get another 0.5% of the votes—or considerably more—while Tony Tan’s vote share would remain the same. In other words, Tony Tan may have won, but his first term in office will be plagued by the fact that most Singaporeans clearly prefer someone else—and if Singaporeans have to choose between the two Dr. Tans, Dr. Tan Cheng Bock is quite probably preferred by more Singaporeans. Given that being the President is most likely Tony Tan’s political swan song, perhaps one may wonder if he would try to salvage his personal reputation instead of going down in Singapore history as a “PAP President,” especially since his lack of popularity is proven at the polls whereas Nathan, who is commonly also seen as a PAP-endorsed President at least has no electoral statistics against him. After all, like Ong Teng Cheong before him, he actually has nothing to lose (except maybe a state funeral) at this point in his life and career.
It may be disappointing, then, to hear from him what sort of President he thinks he is going to be. In his own words, as reported by CNA,
“I don’t think it’s fair to describe, for example President Nathan’s tenure as being in an ivory tower. I think he’s made a great effort to reach out to Singaporeans. I intend to do the same [. . .]”
In case anyone listened to his election promises and got the wrong idea, it is time to clear the air and recognize that our next President will continue the great tradition set by our longest-serving President to date. We can expect Dr. Tan to reach out to us like Nathan has. Perhaps he will reach out in different ways such as sharing hairstyling tips in the President’s Charity, but we can expect him to continue to be “above politics”—whatever he means by that.
I honestly do not know how even a ceremonial head of state can be “above politics” unless he simply hibernates through his term in office. Even within the boundaries of his constitutionally defined roles, the President has to work with the government and that, surely, is political. When Tony Tan tries to define what it means, he confuses us even further: “The president must work for all citizens regardless of who they (voted for); the president must be above politics. He cannot identify himself with any one party.” How could working for all citizens without being affiliated with any party be “above politics”? The very refusal to be affiliated to any party opens up the potential for clashes with at least one party. This is totally political. On the other hand, it can only appear non-political if it avoids clashing altogether by being uncannily cooperative.
In fact, the very notion that the President can and should be above politics stems from the political discourse generated by the PAP. It is very much a PAP myth that politics can be apolitical. (Seriously, the PAP should apply for a patent for the myth. It could turn out to be a good money-spinner.) We are very familiar with the notion of apolitical politics because it is something we are often force-fed. We have been told that there’s no need for opposition MPs since we have NMPs and NCMPs and even PAP MPs who somehow will speak for the people like opposition MPs. We have been told that we have no need for anything to political although everything is politicized to the extent that even non-political institutions seem to take it upon themselves to inconvenience the opposition. To unquestioningly circulate and propagate the belief that the President has to be above politics is already to fail to be above politics. It is a promise that is reneged on as it is made.
The use of the idea that the President has to be above politics is certainly not the only way in which Tony Tan is inevitably being political. He also speaks of unifying Singaporeans, which is a very pleasant way of marketing the effacement of critical differences while simultaneously exploiting them as threats to the nation. Singaporeans should be familiar with the discourse of cohesion that is very much the PAP’s technique of social control. We have seen the technique manifested in the emphasis on “racial” harmony and “shared” values; whether the desired end result is named cohesion or unity, differences are downplayed while they are accentuated and paraded as something to be suppressed. When Tony Tan tells us, “I will work to unify Singaporeans, heal some of the divisions that exist now and emphasise the need for unity and a common purpose,” it is as good as telling us to forget about political divisions, to forget about any bitterness towards the PAP and to allow the government to continue to have its way even if it is at our expense. (No doubt, Tony Tan is not the only one amongst the Presidential candidates to play the unity card, but the spotlight now has to be on him since he has won the election.)
There is no reason for existing political divisions to be “heal[ed]” if the President were to emphasize a common purpose for the nation. No one will be surprised to find that the common purpose is not defined by the President but by the PAP/government since the President has to act as advised by the Cabinet. Furthermore, it is always the case in a democracy that there will be political divisions even as a nation has a common purpose. For the President to work to heal political divisions, which are very much coded by support (or lack thereof) for the PAP, is for the President to work for the benefit of the PAP. If this is above politics, perhaps nothing can qualify as being political.
In case the term “above politics” suggests a state of transcendence, it is pertinent to consider what the president is not above. We have been reminded time and again that he is below the constitution, which can be change by none other than the government. As CNA reports rather ominously:
During campaigning, there was a lot of talk about the role and responsibility of the elected president in Singapore and Dr Tan said he believes the debate will not end here.
He said the Constitution will evolve because it is a living document and he said he’ll do his best to meet the high expectations of Singaporeans.
While the promise to do his best sounds utterly non-committal, we have to cut Tony Tan some slack and recognize that there is no way a President can say for sure what he will or will not do as the President in the future because his role can always be redefined by a document that can be changed and has been changed by a government dominated by the PAP. That, nevertheless, is certainly not above politics.
It may seem that the PAP has gotten its way once again now that Tony Tan has won the election. But perhaps things will not unfold so simply because of the results in numbers. If Tony Tan were to largely hibernate through his term, he will be seen as yet another rubber stamp. The only difference is that this time round, the rubber stamp won an election because voters are split between other choices. Negative sentiments will rise precisely because there was an election in which voters came so close to having an alternative. On the other hand, whatever he does may be seen as being PAP-serving unless they are overtly serving to check the PAP’s power. Either way, it is not going to help with changing the public’s perception of the PAP as being overbearing and excessively powerful. This has the potential thwart its attempts to “engage” the people.