Will Dr Tony Tan suffer a voter backlash?

Faisal Wali

Dr Tony Tan speaks on Nomination Day

Elites standing behind Dr Tony Tan include Chua Thian Poh (CEO, Ho Bee Investments), Gopinath Pillai (Ambassador-at-Large, MFA), Olivia Lum (CEO, Hyflux) and Dr Joseph Sheares (Son of President Benjamin Sheares)

Voters’ backlash is every politician’s biggest nightmare. It is a possibility that the presidential candidate Dr Tony Tan may just suffer one.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the last General Elections in May. One event that occurred and which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong apologised for during the General Elections was the floods. The floods struck again when Dr Vivian Balakrishnan was one month into the job. While it is understandable that Vivian is unable to do much when he is new into the job, the question is how patient the voters are?

The second major development was the debate over the hike in transport fees that raised eyebrows. The end result was a 1% hike that will start in October. News of the hike will not go down well among many Singaporeans.

Another development that occurred during the run-up to the Presidential elections was publicity over Dr Patrick Tan, who is the son of Tony Tan. The former President’s scholar received a lengthy disruption to pursue medical and doctor of philosophy degrees. Not every Singaporean, regardless of their talents, have the good fortune to receive a lengthy disruption from National service similar in duration to Patrick. Thus, the unhappiness was generally over the issue of equity.

One has to realise that equity have and will always be a hot button issue among National service men. The sight of one serviceman receiving better treatment than the rest of the crowd will always lead to sentiments of unhappiness. This is the principle of justice and fairness, treat all the same with the same privileges.

However much the assertion that the President should be above politics, it will not stop voters from adopting a polarised view of the Presidential election – PAP versus non-PAP.

Therefore, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong endorsed Tony Tan, many viewed it as an endorsement by the PAP, since Lee is the party’s secretary-general and is its current embodiment. This was followed by endorsement by 75% of the unions affiliated to the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC).

However, the more the PAP or organisations close to the party endorse Tony, the more it will polarise the contest, and the greater the risk of backlash. Therefore, there is a sense that the PAP or organisations close to the PAP are trying to make themselves not appear close to Tony that will construe as political endorsement.

A significant development was the move by NTUC to adopt a neutral stance towards the candidates. It was a surprising move, as the union with close links to the PAP used to endorse Mr Ong Teng Cheong to the tune of mobilising its members to canvass votes for him.

NTUC chief, Mr Lim Swee Say has also categorically stated that unions and union leaders will not pressure members to support either of the candidates. Lim is from the PAP and is also currently a cabinet minister. He also denied a top-down approach, stating that the NTUC did not in any way influence the unions to support Tony, and that they arrived at their endorsement on their own.

Mr Ong Teng Cheong scored 58.7% of the votes in 1993. Now, with declining support for the PAP, Tony will not do as well. Voters for the Presidential elections have no ward-specific concerns or issues to consider, and this will significantly affect their decision.

Now, the intensity of signals emanating from prominent members of the PAP establishment and those linked to it has markedly decreased, with NTUC’s latest neutral stance. It is just as well. If the General Elections are held now with the developments of transport hike and perceived inequality amongst National servicemen, the PAP may possibly suffer a backlash.

Hence, if by any chance, members of the PAP reasoned that endorsing Tony will paint him as a ‘symbol’ of the party and a target board for backlash, then it will be better not to give such signals. However, now the ball is in the voters’ court.

Transport fee hike, floods and even perceived inequality among National service men will invariably result in fingers pointed at the government dominated by a PAP majority. Tony, due to his past links, will without a doubt become a target board.

The issue now is whether Tony will suffer collateral damage at the polls, the victim of punishment by voters who could be unhappy with the most recent developments. We cannot forget, the circumstances are different now, no handouts, no ward issues and concerns, so Tony runs the risk of a backlash!