Singapore's Presidential Election

On August 27, Singapore will hold its first direct presidential election in 18 years, setting the stage for the most competitive presidential race in the city-state’s history. The election is being contested by four candidates, who nominated themselves and were approved by a government committee using eligibility requirements outlined in the constitution. (Two other candidates were rejected for not meeting the requirements.) The campaign is complete with rallies in stadiums, dialogue sessions with business groups and religious organizations, and presidential debates in which the candidates are discussing topics ranging from the salary of the president to the use of the Internal Security Act against government opponents, and what they would do if they disagreed strongly with a policy endorsed by the cabinet.

This race comes at a critical juncture in Singapore politics because it is taking place after parliamentary elections in May in which the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) lost an unprecedented six seats to the opposition Workers Party, its poorest election performance since independence in 1965. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said after the elections that “many wish for the government to adopt a different style and approach. [The elections] mark a distinct shift in our political landscape.”

The presidential election can be seen as symbolic of the evolutionary trends in Singapore’s politics. Through this vote, the city-state is testing models that connote more openness and competition. Singapore politics appear to be adapting to a new age. The emphasis on competition, outreach to constituents, and grass-roots caucusing in this election may provide hints of what is to come.

Q1: What is the role of Singapore’s president?

A1: The president is the head of state and holds office for a six-year term. The president’s role has historically been largely ceremonial. Even though he is not responsible for the day-to-day running of the government, the president has veto power over the government in three specific areas:

  1. protection of the state’s reserves;
  2. appointment of key personnel, such as the attorney general, chiefs of the armed forces and police, and the chief justice and judges;
  3. use of Internal Security Act detentions, Corrupt Practices Investigative Bureau investigations, and orders relating to the maintenance of religious harmony.

However, the president must consult the Council of Presidential Advisers and the cabinet before exercising these veto powers.

Q2: Who is running, and what are the differences between the candidates?

A2: All four candidates have emphasized the importance of the president being independent from the ruling government and having experience in financial management. The eligibility requirements include having previous experience in ministerial or high-level civil service roles, heading a government agency or sizeable company, or holding positions with similar responsibility.

Each of the four candidates has experience serving in key positions in the government. And we can be certain that the next president will be President Tan, because Tan is the surname of all four candidates.

  • Tony Tan Keng Yam: Former deputy prime minister and executive director of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC)—and endorsed by Prime Minister Lee—Tony Tan previously served as chairman of Singapore Press Holdings Limited and as minister of education, trade and industry, finance, and health. After serving as a leader in Singapore’s financial sector, he returned to the cabinet and served as deputy prime minister and minister of defense from 1995 to 2003. He is running under the slogan of “tested, trusted, and true” and has positioned himself as the most seasoned candidate with vast experience in managing the country’s financial operations. He has expressed gratitude for the prime minister’s endorsement but has stressed that he is running as an independent candidate without seeking the backing of a political party.
  • Tan Cheng Bock: A former PAP member of Parliament from the Ayer Rajah constituency, Tan Cheng Bock is former chairman of Chuan Hup Holdings, a marine transport firm, and has served as chairman of the Parliamentary Committees for Foreign Affairs, Communications, Environment, and Education. He proposes strengthening the independence of the presidency from the ruling party and is running on a platform of unity and transparency.
  • Tan Kin Lian: Former CEO of NTUC Income, a Singapore-based insurance company, Tan Kin Lian is a former secretary at the PAP branch for Marine Parade constituency, which has long been led by former prime minister Goh Chok Tong. Tan Kin Lian emphasizes his working class background and promises to deliver the people’s “voice, concerns, and aspirations” to the government. He says he will take different perspectives from the government because he has never been a member of Parliament or a minister. He has said he will use the presidential veto on reserves to affect the government’s social and economic policies.
  • Tan Jee Say: A former member of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, Tan Jee Say was the deputy director for economic and manpower planning and served as the principal private secretary for then-deputy prime minister Goh Chok Tong from 1985 to 1990. Tan Jee Say later served as director of corporate finance at Deutsche Morgan Grenfell in 1990, before becoming head of Peregrine Capital Singapore in 1994 and regional managing director for AIB Govett, an asset management company, from 1997 to 2001. As a former opposition party member, Tan Jee Say says that he is the only independent candidate. He argues there is great unhappiness among Singaporeans over such issues as the high cost of living and the large influx of foreign workers who are causing overcrowding in the city. He says his independence from the ruling party will provide a new approach to addressing these issues.

Opposition party members in their private capacities are actively supporting the three candidates running against Tony Tan by raising money, serving as campaign volunteers, and providing free legal advice. Opposition leaders say their members are providing this assistance to level the playing field against the former deputy prime minister, who they consider to have the closest ties to the PAP and who is widely expected to win the presidency.

Q3: How is this election different from previous elections?

A3: This is the first time that both parliamentary and presidential elections will be held in the same year.
Unlike the elections of 1999 and 2005, there will be a contest this time. In the previous two elections, incumbent president S.R. Nathan ran unopposed. This presidential campaign follows in the wake of the strong political emotions that characterized the May general elections in which the ruling PAP lost six seats in Parliament and recorded historically low support of 60.1 percent, down from 66.6 percent in 2006. This political mood could affect how Singaporeans vote, and a candidate who is closely identified with the PAP or the government could be at a political disadvantage.

This election may also provide a reading of the public reactions to the PAP’s reform promises following the recent parliamentary elections when about 40 percent voted for the opposition. The presidential contest could possibly be seen as an unofficial indicator on how the reforms proposed by the ruling PAP are being perceived.

As in the parliamentary elections, social-networking sites are being actively used by the candidates and their supporters to promote their views. The mainstream press, which prior to the May elections often provided only cursory reports on the views of opposition figures, is giving considerable coverage of the views of all four candidates.

Q4: How has the PAP responded to the loss of six seats in the May parliamentary elections?

A4: The PAP has recognized that the political landscape has changed since the May elections. Prime Minister Lee has said there has been heightened political awareness among Singaporeans and has observed that many of them desire to see more opposition voices in Parliament to provide checks and balances to the PAP government. Soon after the elections, Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong resigned from the cabinet, stepping down from the positions of minister mentor and senior minister respectively. Voters may see the presidential election as an opportunity to choose a candidate that reflects a certain degree of independence from the ruling party.

One of the concerns the PAP has sought to address since the parliamentary elections is the perception that it is out of touch with less well-off Singaporeans, who are concerned about rising prices, high housing costs, and the large increase of immigrant workers. Prime Minister Lee said the government will make improving the lives of its citizens its top priority and find ways to improve the economy so all will benefit.

Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Lie Nathanael Santoso is a researcher with the Southeast Asia Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Murray Hiebert
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program

Lie Nathanael Santoso