Singapore: An unpopularly elected president
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Singapore: An unpopularly elected president

The process of voting in a free and fair election is an integral part of a functioning democracy. As Singaporeans made their way to the polls on Saturday, one thing was for sure: the Presidential Elections was not just about voting for a figurehead, but it was an important and symbolic act of expressing displeasure and dissent toward the ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP). Indeed, the dissenting voices continue unabated following the General Elections, and resonated in the Presidential Elections.

Dr. Tony Tan, who has served as the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defense, amongst other government-linked positions, has emerged to be the unpopularly elected President winning just 35% of the votes.

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The other 65% was split among the other three Presidential candidates, Tan Kin Lian, Tan Cheng Bock and Tan Jee Say. Dr. Tony Tan escaped a narrow defeat as the recount on Sunday gave him a margin of 7,269 votes over Tan Cheng Bock.

From AFP:

Song Seng Wun, a Singapore-based economist with financial group CIMB, said the scale of the vote against Tan in the four-way race for the largely ceremonial post was significant.

“Only one in three voters chose the winner who is closely associated with the government. Two out of three chose somebody else and that’s quite telling.”

“It shows that the stranglehold of the PAP is no longer as firm as it was in the last four decades,” he told AFP.

Singaporeans have been very active on social media platforms and the blogosphere in their discussions of the aftermath of the Presidential Elections. Famous – or rather infamous – for its strong critical voice and scathing remarks against the Singapore government, The Temasek Review, ran a poll that asked:

“How do you feel this morning waking up and realizing that Tony Tan is your next President and you are going to see his photo on the walls of every school and govt office?”

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More than three-quarters of the 8,605 netizens voted, “depressed and pissed,” in response to the poll question on the Facebook site. Satirical videos such as “Dr. Tony Tan, Chickens, Sexy Quotes & Mandarin,” “Tony Tan booed by crowd with subtitles,” and “ex-ISA detainee issues Dr. Tony Tan” show up as top finds when “Dr. Tony Tan” is googled. Either the Tony Tan team has minimal experience in SEO or that the dissenting voices are just much better at using reverse SEO than the unpopular and newly elected President.

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Outsiders may not understand the big Presidential campaign in Singapore, as a substantial amount of money was poured in and Singaporeans got excited, even though it essentially means voting for a figurehead. Yet, it represents the tangible challenges ahead as Singaporeans are more willing to express their dissent through not only social media platforms, but also through the votes they cast, as they increasingly understand the power they wield as citizens of this country.

Recently, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned of a “political paralysis” in Singapore – a bloated exaggeration of the political competition in this country – as the ruling party PAP becomes more and more uncomfortable with the outspoken nature of political opponents and of Singaporeans.

The victory of Dr. Tony Tan, a candidate who still maintains a close relationship with the PAP despite denying any form of affiliation to the PAP, is a case of an unpopularly elected President whose support base is weak. His future efforts to please Singaporeans will either weaken his political clout, or strengthen only his current support base, because Singaporeans have already identified him as a part of the PAP, and bitterly resist the entire domination of the PAP in Singapore’s political scene.