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Singapore braces for ‘partisan’ vote for president, guardian of its vast reserves

An undated aerial view of Singapore’s Marina Bay at night.
Nikada | E+ | Getty Images

SINGAPORE – As Singaporeans prepare to head to the polls this Friday to elect their ninth president, the campaigning has so far tested the narrow confines of the presidential office — underscoring simmering disenchantment at the status quo.

A largely ceremonial role with a six-year tenure, the Singapore presidency is conferred limited powers. One of its key roles is to guard the wealthy Southeast Asian city-state’s reserves, which remain a state secret.

Observers say some Singaporeans seem to believe the president’s custodial powers over the reserves allows the person to weigh more muscularly on fiscal and monetary policy decisions.

Other issues underscored on the campaign trail so far include underlying disenchantment with the government over the high cost of living, unaffordable public housing and debate about heightened competition for jobs with foreigners. A lack of accountability among lawmakers also came to the fore as Singapore’s reputation for incorruptibility was recently hit by a spate of political scandals.

“The contest that has developed so far reflects the competing and even conflicting visions of the presidency,” said Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University who is a former parliamentarian.

“It has taken on a partisan bent especially for Tan Kin Lian who has staked for himself as the standard bearer for anti-establishment sentiments.”

Tan Kin Lian, the former chief executive of local insurer NTUC Income, is again running for president more than a decade after garnering the lowest number of votes of four candidates at the 2011 presidential election.

Two of his rivals from his first presidential bid are now leaders of opposition parties, and have declared their support for the 75-year-old after he came under fire for offensive social media posts.

Presidential candidate Tan Kin Lian (left) waves as he arrives at the nomination center for the presidential election in Singapore on August 22, 2023.
Roslan Rahman | Afp | Getty Images

Tan is joined on the ballot by Ng Kok Song, 75, the former chief investment officer of Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund — who famously introduced the late Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding prime minister, to the benefits of meditation.

The third presidential candidate is Tharman Shanmugaratnam, 66, who was once deputy prime minister, finance minister, central bank chairman and briefly considered a possible International Monetary Fund head.

Without fear or favor

Much of the discourse on the campaign trail that started Aug. 22 centered around the candidates’ real capacity for independent and non-partisan decision-making.

The support of two of his former rivals though have undercut Tan’s claims of political independence in a bid to distinguish himself — though he was once an active volunteer with a local chapter of the ruling People’s Action Party.

“There appears to be a growing trend of Singaporeans wanting a more outspoken President that will publicly question the government’s stances and policies from a position of neutrality and authority,” Nydia Ngiow, managing director at BowerGroupAsia, told CNBC in an email.

Ng Kok Song, a former GIC chief investment officer, pictured in Singapore July 13, 2023. Song is standing in the city-state’s 2023 presidential election.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

“While this suggests that the desire for the President to force the government to provide more accountability is rooted in the belief that such a counterbalance of power would be good for society as a whole, there is also concern that this further contributes to the ‘us against them’ mentality which politicizes the role and adds a partisan element more typically tied to general elections,” she added.

Ng and Shanmugaratnam have touted their experience and expertise in qualifying them to expertly guard the country’s past reserves, in consultation with a council of advisors.

“Everyone knows from my background … that I understand the system very well,” Shanmugaratnam told reporters Aug. 26. “I will work with respect with the [Council of Presidential Advisors]. But, as you know, no one in the bureaucracy or anywhere else can fool me on any matter to do with government finances.”

Presidential candidate Tharman Shanmugaratnam waves to his supporters at the nomination center for the upcoming presidential election in Singapore on Aug. 22, 2023. Singapore will hold polls for the presidential election on Sept. 1, Returning Officer Tan Meng Dui announced on Tuesday after three candidates filed nomination documents.
Xinhua News Agency | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

The full scale of Singapore’s reserves is not publicly available, though public information of some institutions charged with investing its reserves offer a glimpse into the size of the reserves.

State investor Temasek, for instance, reported a 382 billion Singapore dollars ($282.44 billion) portfolio at the end of March.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore transferred in the 2022/23 financial year a total of S$191 billion to sovereign wealth fund GIC for management, and has S$441 billion of official reserves under its management end-May even after this transfer.

Not always directly elected

Singapore’s presidency has been directed elected only since 1993, after the late Lee Kuan Yew proposed a constitutional amendment to guard against unfettered access to the government’s reserves if a “freak election result” ousted the longstanding People’s Action Party from power.

Still, this election would only mark the third time the presidency is contested.

This is largely due to stringent eligibility rules that require, among other criteria, candidates to have served at least three years as a government minister, senior public servant or chief executive of a government statutory board.

Candidates from the private sector would need to have served as the most senior executive of a company with an average of S$500 million in shareholders’ equity and the firm must have been profitable for the three preceding years.

Local independent news outlet Jom estimated that only 0.044% of Singaporean adults qualify to run as Singapore president.

Whoever wins, Singapore’s Presidential Election is destined to disappoint
Kevin Tan and Cherian George
National University of Singapore and Hong Kong Baptist University

The incumbent Halimah Yacob — a practicing Muslim and a former Speaker of Parliament — became Singapore’s first female president without a contest in 2017.

The presidential office was reserved for members of the Malay community that year to ensure representation from among Singapore’s official four main races — if that community had not been represented for five presidential terms.

“Whoever wins, Singapore’s Presidential Election is destined to disappoint,” Kevin Tan, an academic affiliated with the National University of Singapore and Cherian George, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University’s School of Communication, said in a recent commentary.

“This has little to do with the quality of the men who want to run, and everything to do with the lack of consensus about the rules of the race and the nature of the prize,” they added. “Many Singaporeans are unhappy that the field is so tightly managed by the establishment, undermining the Presidency’s potential as an independent check on Government.”

If Shanmugaratnam wins Friday’s vote, he would represent a fifth-straight candidate seen as the establishment choice who’s been directly elected president.

This frustration has been manifest in a social media campaign urging Singaporeans to spoil their votes at this presidential election.

“The appeal of vote-spoiling is two-fold: firstly, that voters may feel that no candidate appropriately represents their political interest and secondly, that voters may feel that the entirety of the electoral process is undemocratic and are spoiling their votes in protest,” said BowerGroupAsia’s Ngiow.

At the last contested presidential election in 2011, the establishment candidate Tony Tan only won by a 0.35% margin in a four-man race. Invalid votes accounted for 1.76% of all votes cast.

“The social media campaign indicates that Singaporean voters are increasingly beginning to tap into more nuanced forms of voter expression, signaling the electorate’s growing maturity as well as frustration that parties should heed ahead of the next general election,” she said.

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