Deciphering Singapore’s emphatic but enigmatic presidential election result

Academic Views / Thursday, October 5th, 2023

Former deputy prime minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s big win has mixed messages about the ruling party’s dominance. In a piece commissioned by the Australian Institute of International Affairs, Cherian George (Hong Kong Baptist University) analyses the ambiguities.

Rarely has an election so decisive in outcome been so debatable in its meaning. On 1 September, Tharman Shanmugaratnam won Singapore’s presidential election with a 70.41 percent share of valid votes. On 14 September, Tharman was sworn in for a six-year term, as the People’s Action Party (PAP) government had intended.  

The election’s top-line results are unambiguous, but a more forensic accounting leaves many observers puzzled. It’s unclear what Tharman’s victory says about present and future state-society relations. These uncertainties are rooted in a double paradox.

First, Singapore’s hybrid presidency is fundamentally political and above politics at the same time. Singapore’s Westminster-style head of state was turned in 1991 into a directly elected office; some discretionary blocking powers were grafted onto its largely ceremonial role — a combination contrived by founding premier Lee Kuan Yew that remains irredeemably confusing.

The second paradox: the winning candidate was PAP to the core — and also not. In a 20-year political career, Tharman held key portfolios; he was a deputy prime minister from 2011–2019. When he announced in June 2023 that he would resign to run for president, nobody doubted he was doing so as the government’s pick. Yet, Tharman was always the least PAP of all current PAP leaders, certainly in style (more gracious, less prickly) and perhaps even in substance (more left, less neoliberal). He consistently outperformed his colleagues in parliamentary elections, suggesting that Singaporeans did not see him as your average PAP minister.

These contradictions make it hard to settle conclusively several questions arising from September’s election. Here are three.

People’s Action Party leaders at a party event. [Photo:]

A good omen for the PAP in the general election?

The next parliamentary election must be held no later than November 2025. The political climate in the months preceding 1 September appeared less than propitious for the PAP. Just weeks before the presidential election had to be called, the government was left reeling by a series of sensational, self-inflicted scandals. Commentators said that the presidential election would be a timely test of popular support for the PAP. Some opposition politicians called on their supporters to elect the most anti-establishment of the three candidates. Pundits anticipated a sizeable anti-government protest vote.

After all the ominous drumbeats, the result sounds hugely reassuring for the PAP. Perhaps the negativity was limited to the usual mob of unrepresentative malcontents. Perhaps the silent majority still had confidence in the government.

But there is another way to read September’s results. Contrary to what observers and oppositionists were suggesting, voters may have chosen not to treat the presidential election as a proxy general election. They may like the idea of a president who is presidential in the traditional sense, representing what they love about their country.

More Singaporeans might have viewed Tharman through partisan lenses if he had been in the thick of recent policymaking and politicking. But no, he had been sidelined years earlier. He is not associated with the things that currently annoy people about the PAP, from its insistence on raising the goods and services tax amid rising inflation to its rhetorical gymnastics justifying how or why ministers came to rent palatial mansions.

My own conversations with Singaporeans suggest that many of the middle-of-the-road voters who determine election outcomes welcomed the prospect of a Tharman presidency while entertaining the possibility of voting for opposition candidates in the next general election. If so, the landslide victory of a former PAP leader leaves us clueless about how the ruling party will perform in 2024 or 2025.

Most voters were unmoved by opposition politicians’ support for Tan Kin Lian, or some establishment members’ fondness for Ng Kong Song. [Photo: Cherian George]

Did the PAP win big?

The government was desperate to keep the presidency out of the hands of opposition politicians pledging to use the office to counter PAP dominance. In 2011, the last contested election, its pick Tony Tan won with only 35.20 percent of valid votes in a four-way fight. This was probably why the government was willing to expend its most popular minister on the 2023 election.

The gambit worked — but perhaps too well. The margin of victory is awkward for the PAP. First, it resuscitates the question of why prime minister Lee Hsien Loong had brushed aside Tharman as a potential successor. The excuse that Singapore’s Chinese majority was not ready for an ethnic Indian premier sounds even more hollow than it already was.

Second, it raises the bar for the PAP at the next parliamentary election, when the PAP will ask the electorate for a vote of confidence for its succession plans. The PAP received a respectable 61.23 percent of votes in 2020. Merely repeating that performance will be hard to spin as a strong endorsement of either outgoing or incoming leaders so soon after the electorate has shown how enthusiastically it can embrace truly deserving candidates. To moderate expectations, the PAP will need to persuade everyone that the presidential and parliamentary elections are different (as indeed they are).

All in all, the government may have preferred a more modest win. Lending credence to this theory was the late entry into the race of former civil servant Ng Kok Song — an out-of-the-blue candidacy welcomed warmly on social media by the prime minister’s wife Ho Ching. Her irrepressible Facebook musings are the closest we get to eavesdropping on the backroom huddles of Singapore’s tight-knit ruling elite.

President Tharman supporting the work of the Singapore Red Cross at an event in early October. He has promised to use his traditional symbolic capital to support ground-up causes. [Photo: MCI]

What will Tharman do?

In his swearing-in speech Tharman referred to the “strong mandate” and “strong endorsement” Singaporeans had given him. That was stating the obvious. What’s less clear is what he will use his political capital for. As it’s a non-executive presidency, Tharman has no specific policy platform. Adopting the slogan “respect for all,” he campaigned with uncontroversial pledges to promote multiracialism, sports, and the arts.

The president’s main discretionary power is to block excessive drawdowns of financial reserves. But since the PAP is resolutely anti-welfare, and Tharman stands to its left, it is hard to picture a scenario where he would reject a spending bill. He is more likely to make his mark in the traditional roles of the head of state. The government will probably deploy him internationally more than any previous president, taking advantage of his global standing.

His domestic ceremonial and community roles are more intriguing. In his campaign, Tharman repeatedly invoked his student activist background and his “independence of mind.” He pledged to be “active in mobilising support for ground-up initiatives to uplift every group with a disadvantage.” Taken literally, this could include the work of activists against the death penalty and for migrant worker rights, for example — many of whom the government treats as public enemies. In a political culture where even firms, universities, and mainstream press are afraid of giving the time of day to blacklisted individuals and groups, a president more generous with his symbolic patronage could widen the space for civil society.

Many progressives are not holding their breath, feeling that Tharman could have done much more to help dissenters and the disadvantaged while he was in government. Why didn’t he? Perhaps he is not the champion of the underdog he claims to be. Or, he could have been thwarted by hard-line colleagues and may now relish the opportunities provided by his new role. Tharman will not rock the boat, but could make waves that nudge official and social norms in interesting new directions.

At this stage, we simply don’t know enough about the president — the man and the institution — to tell. The new occupant of Singapore’s Istana may be one of the republic’s best known individuals, but his presidency remains the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

This article was originally published in Australian Outlook, a website of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Cherian George is professor of media studies at Hong Kong Baptist University and co-editor of AcademiaSG.

The top image is a composite illustration.