Presidency: A unifying position with a divisive prelude

Faisal Wali

Dr Tony Tan speaks on Nomination Day

Dr Tony Tan attempts to give a speech on Nomination day

We are told that the role of the President is to unite all Singaporeans, regardless of race, religion, beliefs, and lastly, political affiliations.

Yet, as we rewind through events during the run up to Polling Day, what happened is anything but unifying starting from Nomination day. When eventual winner of the polls and our seventh President Dr Tony Tan took to the stage to give his nomination speech, he was greeted with catcalls.

The catcalling started with an invective hurled at the current ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP). This was followed by chants of “Patrick Tan”, Dr Tan’s son whose 12 years disruption from National service (NS) raised eyebrows among many. The dissatisfaction with Patrick was over inequality of treatment, particularly in the granting of disruption from NS.

Unhappy members of the public were sore over what was widely speculated to be a case of preferential treatment when it came to application for approval for disruption from NS. Countless examples were brought up where talented Singaporeans found it tough when applying for deferment or disruption from NS to pursue their dreams and goals.

Thus, what this episode demonstrates to us is the divisive nature of according different treatments to certain servicemen when the expectation is all should receive the same treatment. It is an obvious case where divisiveness is created when the principle of justice and fairness to all is perceived to be violated.

Going back to the invective hurled at the PAP, it did not help matters that he received endorsement from PAP strongmen and leaders, Mr Goh Chok Tong and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Goh described Dr Tan as an eminently suitable candidate for Singapore’s presidency, while Lee claimed that the former will be a unifying figure for Singaporeans.

Thus, with endorsement from PAP strongmen, Dr Tan became the dartboard for barbs from the masses discontent with the PAP government. In other words, the jeering represented an outpouring of discontent and unhappiness towards the PAP. The previous General Elections in May saw the PAP return to power with its worse ever performance over a long time.

The divisiveness appeared elsewhere too. When Dr Tan crossed the finishing line with a slim margin just a hair’s breadth ahead of closest rival Dr Tan Cheng Bock, supporters of the latter lashed out at those of other candidates. Popular online forums like Sammyboy and social media platforms like Facebook were awashed with finger pointing by one side at another.

Supporters of Cheng Bock reasoned that since the other candidates, in reference to Mr Tan Jee Say and Mr Tan Kin Lian, stood less of a chance of winning, one of them should have pulled out. Dr Tan outstripped Cheng Bock by a slim margin of 7,000 odd votes, and it appears plausible that if either of Jee Say or Kin Lian or both had withdrawn, he would have won instead.

Jee Say has dismissed those suggestions claiming that his supporters would have spoilt their votes if he had not contest. However, it is also difficult to take up his claim at face value too. Out of more than 500,000 of his voters, how many would have spoilt their votes, seriously speaking?

Similarly, Cheng Bock’s supporters felt that if Kin Lian had withdrawn, they would have gained part of the 100,000 odds voters who voted for the latter and had a better chance at victory.

Jee Say’s supporters in return hit back at Cheng Bock, claiming that the fault lies with the latter in failing to win over additional voters. Regardless of who was right or wrong, the divisiveness was evident with all the fingerpointing after the results were announced.

The Presidential contest also threw up another source of divisiveness – when members of political parties back different candidates. The National Solidarity Party provided an illustration of this. Miss Jeanette Chong-Aruldoss and Miss Nicole Seah backed and spoke at the rally of Presidential candidate Tan Jee Say, while the party’s former secretary-general Mr Goh Meng Seng backed Tan Kin Lian. Goh also spoke at Kin Lian’s rally.

It also seems that such division also occurs within the ranks of PAP, if the claims by Cheng Bock are true. Speaking to the media at his home after the final results of the election were announced, Cheng Bock claimed that there was a split in the PAP.

He cited evidence of his claim in the form of PAP grassroots people openly coming up to tell him that they supported him despite being told not to. In supporting Cheng Bock, they abandoned the expected stand. He pointed to the numbers reflected in the votes as evidence.

However, it was also reported that 11 out of 12 PAP activists and Members of Parliament denied a split in the party. Mr Zaqy Mohammad claimed that Cheng Bock has also attracted votes from non-PAP supporters while Mr Charles Chong claimed that both Cheng Bock and Dr Tony Tan were acceptable to the party’s activists.

However, 12 is too small a sample size, and so far, there has not been any publicised counter-claims from the PAP about the part on grassroots members coming forward to openly support Cheng Bock.

However, the most poignant reminder of the division came from Dr Wong Wee Nam in an article published on The Online Citizen. He related how a Presidential candidate requested him to write an article about the latter on the Internet, which he did.

However, another candidate whose ancestry was also from Hainan requested Wong to join his campaign team, which he did.

As it happened, Wong joined his fellow Hainanese Tan Jee Say’s campaign team. However, after the election, one of the candidates told Wong through a proxy that he never want to see, speak or hear from him again. This candidate was thought to be Kin Lian as Wong previously wrote a glowing article about him.

Only one political party remained at the sidelines – the Worker’s Party. None of its candidates publicly backed any of the Presidential candidates, other than the incident when the party’s Mr Png Eng Huat collected the Certificate of Eligbility forms on Kin Lian’s behalf. Png is Kin Lian’s friend.

However, ironically, the Worker’s Party was also embroiled in another dispute with the People’s Association (PA) over the use of common areas and spaces to organise activities for residents. The dispute started with a Facebook posting by Worker’s Party’s Mr Chen Show Mao on a rejection of invitation to a Hungry Ghost grassroots dinner. The Paya Lebar Citizens’ Consultative Committee told organisers they could not invite Chen, who was their Member of Parliament.

There was a public backlash, and the PA subsequently issued a media release which allowed residents to invite whom they wished to public sites provided the events are not political in nature. One of the Presidential candidates, Dr Tony Tan, urged the Housing Development Board in the midst of his Presidential campaign to investigate the dispute between PA and the Worker’s Party.

The dispute between the PA and Worker’s Party in a sense represented a political divide. The PA was widely speculated to be closely linked to the ruling PAP, when the expectation is that it is supposed to be a politically independent body. Yet, such a dispute is symptomatic of a divide along both sides of the political equation.

With such drama and twists in the plot, weren’t they poignant reminders of a divisive prelude to our Presidency, which ironically serves to unify all of us? It appears that President Dr Tony Tan will be in for a busy time organising a unification process.