Why Tan Jee Say’s presidency bid makes his previous work incomplete

Chan Jia Hui

SDP's Tan Jee Say speaking at a rally.

SDP's Tan Jee Say speaking at a rally

Former opposition party member Tan Jee Say has finally signalled his intention to contest the Presidential elections. He resigned from the Singapore Democratic Party a day earlier and collected forms for the Certificate of Eligibility from the Elections Department the following Friday morning.

If Jee Say gets his Certificate of Eligibility, it will make him the only candidate who was previously associated with the opposition formally. He will be the first Presidential candidate in our political history who previously joined an opposition party and contested on an opposition ticket.

The other three candidates, Tan Kin Lian, Tony Tan and Tan Cheng Bock, were previously members of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). All three left the PAP and until Jee Say’s throwing of his hat into the ring, Kin Lian was the most associated with the opposition. He spoke at the rallies of two opposition parties – National Solidarity Party and Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).

Allow me a little leeway to digress with a fictional, but relevant story. There once lived a very skilled builder. For a long time, he was trying to build a town hall which acts as a fortress for the citizens. This town hall is also a place for citizens to socialise and conduct commercial activities.

The builder managed to lay the foundations for the currently incomplete town hall. One day, when going home from work, he came across an advertisement for the post of warden to the vault of the country’s main bank.

After looking at the advertisement, the builder ponders whether he should finish building the town hall after laying the foundations or apply for the warden post. Jee Say is now at a similar crossroad as this builder.

During the build-up to the recently concluded parliamentary elections, Jee Say came up with the most comprehensive economic plan within the opposition camp.

A whopping 45 pages long, and endorsed no less by Sir Robin Butler, a distinguished luminary and former high flier from the British civil service, the plan contains details on how jobs and enterprises can be created in a new economy.

The plan covered 6 areas, each to be funded with a sum of S$10 billion, and on overall is known as the National Regeneration Plan. The 6 areas are industry, enterprise, schools, hospitals, community and family.

Industry regeneration involves assisting manufacturing companies’ transition into the services sector or relocation to neighbouring countries within close proximity to Singapore. Enterprise regeneration involves assisting and funding young Singaporeans who want to start up business ventures of their own, particularly within the creative industry.

Schools regeneration attempts to reduce students to teacher ratio so that each student will be able to receive more attention from his teacher. Hospital regeneration serves to increase the number of hospital beds and double the number of healthcare personnel to reach equivalent first world standards.

Community regeneration aims to bring jobs and services closer to residents. Education, medical, day-care, commercial and other forms of services can be brought closer to residents. The latter also do not have to travel far to places of work if they are employed in such services.

Family regeneration meanwhile attempts to tackle declining birth rates and family sizes. The plan proposes cash grants of $100-300 per month, waiver of all school fees up to university level, free medical and health benefits for mother and children.

In addition, it also proposes better work-family life balance by proposing improved maternal and paternal leave terms for working mothers and fathers respectively.

However, the current understanding is that Jee Say’s economic plan is far from complete and there will be upcoming publications from him on the topic.

Throughout the course of the recently concluded elections, Jee Say spoke extensively on his economic plan. Together with his friend, Ang Yong Guan, and two other SDP candidates, Michelle Lee and Vincent Wijeysingha, they contested at Holland-Bukit Timah GRC and earned 39.9% of the votes.

The post elections have seen the SDP carry on its momentum of constructing viable alternative policies when it set up the Policies Studies Sub-committee. The committee’s role is to track the PAP-dominated government’s policies. Finally, it will provide alternative plans on how best Singapore should proceed. The Sub-committee was facilitated by Jee Say and James Gomez.

It also appeared that the party was not leaving anything to chance and meant business in the run up to the 2016 parliamentary elections. The party set up the SDP GO! (Ground Operations) team with the aim of beefing up its grassroots campaign. It plans to conduct walkabouts, social functions, recruitment, forums, and campus networking to improve ground visibility and support.

If all goes well, the party may perform better at the next elections. However, it appears Jee Say has other ideas in setting his sights on the upcoming Presidential elections.

With his joining the Presidential race in what currently looks like a four way contest, the election will prove interesting. Initially, the sentiment is that opposition supporters are likely to vote Kin Lian, though there are others who prefer Cheng Bock.

In fact, some observers have predicted a split of opposition votes between Kin Lian and Cheng Bock. Now, with Jee Say coming on board, and bringing no less a background of an opposition party membership and candidature to the table, opposition supporters arguably have an easier choice. Especially so, with someone whose name is openly linked with the opposition.

However, Jee Say must ruminate over one thing – what does he ultimately want for himself, and this includes where his priorities lie?

To be specific, Jee Say must decide between championing for increased transparency and accountability in the way our reserves are deployed or complete the construction of his economic plan, which he has envisioned and sought endorsement from a distinguished personality like Sir Butler.

If he wins the Presidential race, he can of course champion greater accountability and transparency of the deployment of our reserves. However, the Singapore President by virtue of our constitution cannot engage in the policy planning process.

If Jee Say prefers a future as a policy planner, then he should be taking the parliamentary elections route. If he wants the best of both worlds, i.e. being a President and ultimately, have a part in transforming Singapore’s economy, then he needs a successor. His successor will further develop his economic plans and attempt to get into parliament to bring the plan into fruition.

There will be various outcomes of the Presidential contest. One, if he contests but loses in the Presidential race, he can go back to working towards the next parliamentary elections. Will he rejoin SDP or another opposition party or start one on his own? More importantly, will this moment of fickle-mindedness count against him? No one really knows.

The second scenario is that he wins the Presidential race. If he has a successor to carry on his work in ironing out the economic plan, good on him to have the best of both worlds. If not, his Presidential victory will render his previous work incomplete.

Yes, Jee Say is now at the same crossroad as the builder that I mentioned earlier – to decide between building Singapore’s new economy or being a warden to our reserves.

Photo courtesy of the Singapore Democratic Party.