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Lion City plays the polls game


South China Morning Post July 9, 1999

OPINION:BARRY PORTER in Singapore

BELIEVE it or not, Singapore is a few weeks away from a presidential election. You could walk down Orchard Road, through any housing estate, read the local newspapers and watch television news and still have no idea this festival of democracy is just around the corner.

And that is exactly the way Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong likes it. "I hope all elections will be non-events. We don't want excitement in Singapore," he said. "We have enough around us."

This week, Mr Goh - whose People's Action Party (PAP) has governed Singapore since 1959 - rejected opposition calls for a by-election in the Jalan Besar ward after the PAP's Choo Wee Khiang resigned and was jailed for cheating.

The prime minister wants all Singaporeans to focus their "undivided attention" on the republic's economic recovery and to avoid the "fractiousness and partisan politics which a by-election will foment".

Similarly, he believes now is not a good time for a deeply politicised presidential election campaign - not that Singapore has ever had one.

Ideally, Mr Goh would like 63-year-old former PAP minister Ong Teng Cheong swiftly re-elected, provided he chooses to stand for a second five-year term and his health permits. Mr Ong and the first lady are being treated for cancer.

More than half-way through the designated period for an election according to the constitution, no one has any idea who the candidates are . . . or if there are any.

"I don't know of anybody who is running," says associate professor Kevin Tan, constitutional law lecturer at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and co-author of a book on the presidency.

Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the Straits Times: "I hope there will be at least one candidate, or else we are in serious trouble." A contest must be held between May 31 and August 31.

Mr Ong has given no hints on whether he will run again. And while the Elections Department claims nomination forms have been collected, none have been returned.

In fact, the public has no idea what date the vote will take place.

Sim Kheng Kwang, elections department spokesman, said: "It is up to the president when the government will issue a writ for election." And so far, he has been silent.

In stark contrast to the fierce, colourful presidential battle in Indonesia, political analyst Bruce Gale, of Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (Perc), describes Singapore's as "one big non-event".

It is not that the Singapore presidency does not matter. The constitution was amended earlier this decade to grant the president some real powers, even if Mr Ong has yet to be seen to exercise them.

The president has final say over how the country's financial reserves are spent, for instance, and vetoes on key public appointments like those of the attorney-general, monetary authority chairman, key senior civil servants and heads of statutory boards.

A white paper released this week clarified these powers and modestly extended them, in particular to ensure that no future government whittled away reserves believed to run into hundreds of billions of Singapore dollars.

Linda Low, public finance economist at NUS' business school, said: "Parliament may not [always] be dominated by PAP. The veto power is comparable to a second key to unlocking the nation's official reserves. The president is expected to represent the nation's long-term interests."

Other decisions formally made by the president are traditionally taken on cabinet advice.

All previous presidents were symbolic, appointed by a closed circle within the establishment. However, now the president technically is empowered, the post is publicly elected and voting compulsory.

Mr Ong became Singapore's first democratically elected head of state in 1993, though his election was probably one of the biggest farces in Asian democratic history.

Just one supposed "opposition" candidate was allowed to run, former banker Chua Kim Yeow, and he was reluctant to say the least.

The political opposition parties had no idea who their candidate would be nor any say in his anointing. Mr Chua had to be cajoled by his friends in the ruling PAP to give some semblance of a contest.

The 10-day campaign was supposed to be a "gentlemen's election", free of flag-waving and noisy rallies. But Mr Chua took it to the extreme, urging supporters not to campaign for him. He appeared on TV just twice (once avoiding any mention of himself or his views), and even announced on polling day Mr Ong was the better candidate.

Even then, he nearly won. Despite his staunchest efforts, Mr Chua did surprisingly well, garnering 41.3 per cent of the vote.

Perc's Mr Gale said: "I think they were rather embarrassed. It was easy for the foreign press to lampoon."

Not just anyone can run for president. Nominees are first screened and short-listed by an all-powerful selection committee, comprising the three heads of the Public Service Commission, Public Accounts Board, Presidential Council for Minority Rights, and one prime ministerial nominee.

Eligible candidates must have "integrity, good character and reputation" and relinquish membership of any political party. Mr Ong had to leave the PAP. Candidates must also be over 45, never have been fined more than S$2000 or jailed for more than a year. They must have held high office, such as government minister, chief justice, speaker, attorney-general, or chairman or chief executive of a statutory board or private firm with a paid-up capital in excess of S$100 million.

"In other words, you must already have been a member of the establishment," said Professor Tan.

The presidential elections committee need not justify its actions. "It is a very powerful body," the professor said.

Veteran opposition Workers' Party leader and barrister Joshua Jeyaretnam, long a bane of the PAP, was rejected in 1993 without explanation.

The established opposition parties are not bothering to nominate a candidate this time, following Mr Jeyaretnam's treatment.

Dr Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, said: "For us to nominate someone, we would have to go through the selection committee and we are not hopeful we will be successful."

Mr Jeyaretnam said: "Last time it was decided I was not a fit and proper person. I know I would just be rejected again. It should be a real contest, otherwise it will be a farce."

Whoever the selection committee puts up as the supposed "opposition" candidate, opposition parties intend to campaign for him or her - whether they like it or not.

The odd thing is, the opposition wants to keep this a secret for the time being in case it scares off potential candidates. Who knows, they might even win.

Published in the South China Morning Post. July 9, 1999.

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