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Mr. Brown: The Jon Stewart of Singapore

Tomorrow is the Presidential Election. Singapore’s much-heralded Parliamentary election – in which the ruling PAP party suffered its losingest results since 1965 – occurred right after I went back to the U.S. in May. I’d only been here for about a month at the time so I couldn’t follow it as closely as I would have liked, as I was still getting my bearings and was too busy learning how to ride the bus and hail a cab to completely understand the nuances. I think even if I’d been paying full attention, though, I would have been shocked by the lack of action.

By all accounts this was one of the most contentious elections in the country’s history, and yet by American standards the PAP won by a landslide, taking 81 out of 87 seats. For more background, fellow blogger Crystal provided a very thoughtful (and at times humorous) expat perspective on all of it.

Unlike in the U.S. where the 2012 presidential campaign has already begun in earnest, in Singapore the campaign lasts for just nine days. The day before the election is a mandatory “cooling off period,” in which speeches, sign-holding, commercials etc. are expressly forbidden in order to give voters a day to reflect before casting their [mandatory] vote. This is once again diametrically opposite to the US, where candidates fly from one time zone to another to press the maximum amount of flesh in the moments leading up to the polls. Today was the “cooling off” period for tomorrow’s presidential election. The above tweet from the hilarious local blogger @Mr Brown is a terrifically clever joke about this election and the four candidates. More on that in a second.

From what I can gather, the President is mostly a figurehead. It’s limited to “elder statesmen” and in fact requires that candidates be independent from any political party (it’s purely coincidental, I’m sure, that three of the four candidates in tomorrow’s election are former PAPs). The position was only created in 1993, and I’ve heard it was earmarked for a retiring Lee Kuan Yew, but he shocked everyone by declining it. Here are some highlights as set out by Singapore’s Constitution:

    • “(1) There shall be a President of Singapore who shall be the Head of State and shall exercise and perform such powers and functions as are conferred on the President by this Constitution and any other written law.”
    • A person shall be qualified to be elected as President if he —
      (b) is not less than 45 years of age;
      (g) has for a period of not less than 3 years held office —
      (i) as Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker, Attorney-General, Chairman of the Public Service Commission, Auditor-General, Accountant-General or Permanent Secretary;
      (ii) as chairman or chief executive officer of a statutory board to which Article 22A applies;
      (iii) as chairman of the board of directors or chief executive officer of a company incorporated or registered under the Companies Act (Cap. 50) with a paid-up capital of at least $100 million or its equivalent in foreign currency
  • —(1) The President shall hold office for a term of 6 years from the date on which he assumes office.
  • (1) Except as provided by this Constitution, the President shall, in the exercise of his functions under this Constitution or any other written law, act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or of a Minister acting under the general authority of the Cabinet

The most powerful aspects of the job relate to vetoes and the power of appointments (flashback to Marbury vs. Madison…AAAGH), so I think it’s somewhat akin to a monarch or governor general. According to a cab driver that I had earlier tonight, the president’s main job is to wave at functions, but he’s paid about $5 million to do so and lives in a palace known as The Istana. The current President, 87(!) year-old SR Nathan, has been in office since 1999 and is now retiring. By the way, no one else even bothered to run against him that year so the election was cancelled.

So with all that in mind, I honestly haven’t paid much attention to this election. The only candidate I’ve read or heard much about is frontrunner Dr. Tony Tan, the former Deputy Prime Minister who’s also had successful careers in business and academia. Because most media here is strictly controlled (while giving off the appearance of being free and open, which is maybe even more chilling), I get most of my information from Twitter, Facebook, blogs and the foreign press. I’ve totally buried the lede (bad journalist!), here is the most entertaining takeaway from this election:

All four candidates are named Tan.

That’s just a little bit absurd, right? Granted, it’s one of the most popular names in Singapore, and it’s not like this is the hugest place, but it’s still pretty funny that every candidate would have the same name, no? With this in mind, the hubs happened to mention to me last night that each candidate has been assigned a symbol, which will actually appear alongside their name on the voting ballot. We weren’t sure if this was special this year because all candidates happen to have the same last name (hehehe seriously that is pretty funny right?), or if it’s just how they do things here. A quick Google search tells me candidates have had symbols since the presidency was introduced in 1993, although this year the Elections Department pre-approved symbols before the candidates were even official.

I initially thought this sounded silly. Tony Tan’s symbol, for instance, is a pair of glasses:

Really, candidates are reduced to a choice of zapf dingbats?! Of course then I thought about the 2000 presidential election in the US. Perhaps with candidate logos (Gore would’ve been the earth, Bush would’ve so been a cowboy hat, Nader would have been a tree, and Buchanan would have been…a gun? A confederate cross? Yeah I got nothin on that one) we could have avoided all that hanging chad nonsense. Maybe symbols aren’t such a bad idea!

Per The Straits Times other candidates’ symbols are:

Dr Tan Cheng Bock: a palm frond



Mr Tan Kin Lian: a hand in a speech bubble

Mr Tan Jee Say: a heart



The link above provides each candidate’s explanation for why he chose his symbol. Once again, I can’t decide if this is all hilariously over-simplified, or if they’ve wisely cut through so much of the bullshit and empty talk that permeates modern political discourse?

For a political dork like me, a true unexpected bonus of expat life has been the ability to observe a different electoral system up close while remaining emotionally detached. Just as the process here differs greatly from the U.S., they both contrast from what we saw last year in Australia. I mean, is there any other country in the world that could lure voters to the polls with a free sausage barbecue?

Witnessing elections here in Singapore – and perhaps sensing the slightest winds of change and dissent – has been particularly fascinating. As lingering National Day posters all over the island are quick to remind us, Singapore has only been independent for 46 years. To put that in perspective, the U.S. had 46 years of independence in 1822. Think of how the country has changed (mostly for the better) since then.

As I have hopefully made clear, I am not particularly informed nor well-versed in Singaporean politics, nor do I purport to have any real sort of opinion. I do find certain things amusing, but that’s one of politics’ most wonderful universal by-products, right? One of the highlights of the 2008 election was Tina Fey as Sarah Palin (btw screw you Hulu with your stupid international domain restrictions!), and in Australia we couldn’t get enough of The Chaser’s Yes We Canberra! I even recall marveling at Tony Blair impressions on Bremner, Bird and Fortune when I studied abroad in the UK in 2003 (though their Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice impersonators were kind of offensively awful).

I don’t think Singapore is quite at the stage where political leaders can be so openly mocked, but Mr Brown, both via his own blog and his column at CNNGo does a fantastic job balancing honest insight with self-deprecating humor (and just the right amount of eccentricity). Singapore can be a terribly serious place, and he manages to make light of that.

More on the Presidential Election:

Financial Times

Wall Street Journal

Today Online (Singapore)


Elections Department of Singapore