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The Big Read: First-time voters can play key role in deciding presidential race — do they care enough?

SINGAPORE — Ask Mr Daniel Loke what he knows about the Singapore President’s role and powers, and the 24-year-old will readily admit that it is something that he knows “not much” about. 

The last contested PE was held in 2011, which means that there will be a sizable number of first-time PE voters in the upcoming election, namely young people whose ages range from 21 to 33, as well as naturalised citizens. 

TODAY’s interviews with 15 first-time voters found they have various levels of awareness about the elected presidency — from two who were not aware that a PE is imminent or unfamiliar with his role to a handful who were well-versed in the topic.

But most of those interviewed were like Mr Loke, who have limited knowledge of or wish they know more about the President’s role. 

Mr Hidayat Malik, who is studying law in a United Kingdom university, said that he is “more familiar” than most of his friends in Singapore regarding the President’s role. 

The 23-year-old said that the President — on top of being the head of state and a symbol of national unity — also has constitutional powers, such as the ability to veto the Government’s decision to draw on past reserves, and appointments to key public offices. He was also familiar with what these constitutional powers entailed. 

“I’m quite a nerd (who) follows political news, and since I’m studying law as well, such constitutional matters are my areas of interest,” he said.

At the other end of the spectrum, there were some who were not even aware that they could vote in this year’s PE. 

A 22-year-old university student, who wanted to be known just as Ms Lee, said that she only found out that she was eligible to vote in the election, and that it would be held this year, when this reporter approached her. 

She said that she has “not much interest in politics” and does not often read news articles. 

“I don’t think my friends and I really talk about it (PE). Right now we are also quite busy, so we mainly just talk about school. 

“But I guess now that I know I (may) have to vote for somebody, then I would go read up first,” said Ms Lee.

Likewise, 24-year-old Mohamad Hilman Mohamad Hatta said that he “does not really know” what the President does. 

“I don’t really see how it’s (PE) relevant to my life or how it’s affecting me… if it is the General Election where I can choose my party, I would be more interested,” said the polytechnic student who is pursuing a diploma in information technology.

“This sort of thing depends on… your personal interest. I have friends who are really into politics, but some are not interested at all like me.”  

A recent survey by CNA and TODAY conducted with 1,500 Singapore citizens aged 21 to 33 who are eligible to vote in a PE for the first time found that most of them understood the roles and functions of Singapore’s elected President, but were less clear about the head of state’s relationship with the Government. 

Political analysts told TODAY that it is important for these voters to understand the President’s role and care about the Presidential Election, particularly as their size means they can have a significance on the outcome of the poll.

Associate professor of law from the Singapore Management University Eugene Tan said that the elected presidency is a “unique innovation” that reflects Singapore’s own political circumstances, concerns, and aspirations.

While it may not be as crucial as the General Election in charting the path of Singapore’s future policies, the President still holds substantive powers of rejection against any misuse of the reserves, and abuse of key appointments in the Public Service.

“Our voters must properly understand (the elected President’s) potential and its limits as a ‘speed bump’, but not guarantee, against the slide to misgovernance and profligacy.”

Responding to queries from TODAY, the Elections Department Singapore (ELD) said that about 6.6 per cent out of the 2,709,455 electors in the Registers of Electors were certified on July 20 as first-time voters in elections of any kind. 

But this is only a portion of first-time PE voters, as the 6.6 per cent, or about 162,000 voters, covers only those who had not been eligible to vote in the 2020 General Election.

The figure does not include those who had voted in the previous two General Elections in 2015 and 2020 — but have never voted in a PE, which was last contested in 2011. 

The PE in 2017 was a walkover as Madam Halimah Yacob was the only candidate who qualified in the first poll to be reserved for a minority race, in this case, Malay candidates

ELD said that it does not track first-time voters by the type of elections.

Assoc Prof Tan estimated that the number of first-time PE voters for this year’s poll are in the region of “about 300,000 to 400,000”.

“In a close contest, (they) can make a world of difference,” he said. 

These first-timers are also different from much older voters as they are likely to be more willing to consider all presidential candidates seriously, and not just those with stronger links to the establishment. 

“They are probably more prepared to give all candidates, especially those not associated with the establishment, a fair hearing,” said Assoc Prof Tan. 

On the flip side, there is also the risk of these younger voters being misled by inaccurate information online as they try to glean more information about the candidates before they head to the polls. 

Said political observer Inderjit Singh: “I think the new voters, especially the social media savvy (ones), could be swayed by populist manifestos of some candidates without having the opportunity to verify facts.” 

WHY ARE MANY YOUTHS NOT INVESTED IN THE PE?

First-time voters tend to have a general lack of understanding of the elected President’s role and the significance of the PE due to several reasons, such as a changed socio-political landscape, said political analysts. 

One is the emphasis on the President being a “check” on the Government of the day when it comes to how it spends the national reserves, said Dr Leong Chan-Hoong, the head of policy development, evaluation, and data analytics at global policy consulting firm Kantar Public.

The PE was instituted in 1991, with the President’s role designed “principally with safeguarding the national reserves in mind”, he said. 

“The constitutional change took place more than 30 years ago, under a different socio-political landscape.

Dr Leong added that over the years, there had been significant changes to the nation’s demography as Singaporeans became better educated, more well-travelled, and demanded greater transparency and accountability in the public sector and polity. 

“The role of the elected President has also expanded over time to align with the social imperatives, specifically, to serve as a unifying figure for Singaporeans, and most recently a symbol of multi-racialism by means of a reserved PE contest,” he said.

“This evolution also means that the elected President is expected to play a symbolic role apart from the one at inception.” 

However, Dr Leong added that these changes in the President’s role may not be apparent to younger voters, as a lot of deliberations on such changes must be done behind closed doors. 

According to explanatory material on the role of the President published by the ELD, the President may have private discussions with the Prime Minister, where the former can share his advice freely, but these discussions must remain confidential. 

Agreeing, Mr Singh said that in PE2011, some candidates overemphasised the President’s role as a “check” on the Government of the day, to present a campaign which indicated that they planned to challenge and check on the Government in areas of policy.

“This did lead the less informed electorate to place the EP as one who can influence policy making,” said Mr Singh, a former Member of Parliament from the People’s Action Party.

In a recent article published in IPS Commons, an Institute of Public Policy online platform, senior research fellow Gillian Koh and intern Sarah Lim also pointed out that the Elected Presidency is a uniquely Singaporean institution, with the President having custodial powers, and so might be harder to understand. 

Custodial powers allow the President to veto or block government actions in specified areas, but he/she has no role to advance his/her own policy agenda. 

“This is unlike the constitutional monarch of the United Kingdom who acts on the government’s advice, and also unlike the president of the United States who is elected to the position, and heads the executive branch with a significant policymaking role within the country’s federal system,” wrote Dr Koh and Ms Lim. 

Agreeing, Mr Singh elaborated on how the elected presidency is different from other presidential systems:

Singapore’s President has no direct role in policymaking while most other systems have an elected president who wields more power than the prime minister or other parts of the governmentOther systems have an appointed president — like what Singapore used to have — typically nominated by the government, and approved by parliament. In Singapore’s case, the elected President has roles that the appointed president does not have, such as the custodial powers.

Such a unique system can be “paradoxical” to first-time voters and thus more difficult for them to understand. 

“It is an odd thing… to think of voting for the President when he or she has to spend most of his or her time being a unifying figure, representing our nation to us and those beyond our shores,” said Dr Koh in response to TODAY’s queries.

First-time voters agreed that they have had difficulties sifting through information on what the President’s role is all about. 

Ms Andrea, 21, said that getting information on the President’s role means poring over “a lot of content”. 

“Politics seems to entail a lot of words and talking, and I’m more of a visual person,” said the polytechnic student, who did not wish to reveal her last name. 

As she is still in school, she said that she does not feel the pressure of knowing more about the President’s role, as she believes that politics will matter more to her in future when she is working. 

Some voters also said that even if they did read or talk about the President’s role, it would typically be done on a superficial level. 

University student Teow Yik Sim, 21, said that he mostly reads up on content regarding the PE through social media. 

“(The candidates’) appearances in the media do not cross into what I am interested in. Thus, I only know of their presence if what they have said blows up on social media or is featured on the news,” he said. 

HISTORY OF THE ELECTED PRESIDENCY

1965-1991: The President was appointed by the Singapore Parliament for a term of four year terms and had a largely ceremonial role. The presidents during this period were Yusof Ishak, Benjamin Sheares, Devan Nair and Wee Kim Wee.

1984: Then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew first broached the idea for Singapore to have a President who could help safeguard the national reserves.

1988-1990: Two White Papers on the Elected Presidency were presented in Parliament, which set out proposals to amend the Constitution to institute a President elected by the people to safeguard the nation’s reserves, protect the integrity of the public service, among other amendments. The proposed change to an Elected Presidency was based on the need for a direct mandate from voters to wield additional constitutional powers on their behalf.

1991: Amendments to the Constitution to allow for an Elected Presidency were passed into law.

1993: Polling Day for the first presidential election was on Aug 28, with former Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong receiving 58.7 per cent of the valid votes, beating former Accountant-General Chua Kim Yeow. Ong served as President for six years, and decided not to run for a second term. 

1999: For the second Presidential Election, former civil servant and diplomat S. R. Nathan was elected unopposed as there were no other eligible candidates.

2005: Nathan was again elected unopposed and he continued as President for a second six-year term. He did not run for a third term in view of his age. He was 87 when he stepped down in 2011.

2011: Singapore’s fourth Presidential Election saw four eligible candidates: Former Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan; former Member of Parliament Tan Cheng Bock; Mr Tan Kin Lian; and Mr Tan Jee Say, an investment manager and a former civil servant. Mr Tony Tan won the election, garnering 35.2 per cent of the votes, closely followed by Mr Tan Cheng Bock’s 34.85 per cent, and was sworn in as the nation’s seventh president.

2016:  Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the Presidential Election in 2017 would be reserved for Malay candidates, as Singapore had not had a Malay President since the introduction of the Elected Presidency scheme.

2017: Mdm Halimah Yacob, a former Speaker of Parliament, became Singapore’s first female President after a walkover victory because there were no other eligible candidates.

2023: Mdm Halimah decided not to run for a second term after six years as President. Singapore’s next Presidential Election will be held on Sept 1 if there is a contest. So far, four hopefuls have indicated interest: Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Mr George Goh, Mr Ng Kok Song and Mr Tan Kin Lian.

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WHAT CAN BE DONE TO HELP YOUTHS FEEL MORE INVOLVED? 

Given the need to increase awareness among the young on the institution of the Elected Presidency, analysts said that various parties, such as the Government, mainstream media, and the PE candidates themselves, can step up their respective efforts to help educate voters.

Mr Singh said that the Government has at its disposal “many avenues” — such as grassroots organisations, the media and government agencies — that can play a significant role in better educating young voters. 

In the IPS Commons’ article, Dr Koh and Ms Lim wrote that the ELD, together with the media, can engage younger audiences through short informative visuals and videos on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook, simplifying the legalese of the presidency and election rules. 

“Citizens will then be equipped to discern the quality of candidates’ campaigns,” they said. 

The candidates themselves can also put out more content — both online and offline —  to educate the young electorate on the significance of the position they are vying for. 

For instance, presidential hopeful George Goh have put up a series on social media called “Lights on Istana”, to address the questions that voters have asked about the President’s role.  

“Candidates who paint a more accurate picture of what an elected President can or cannot do should also spend time sharing with voters what is the reality and counter other candidates who have a misguided view of the role of the President,” said Mr Singh. 

While most first-time voters polled in the CNA-TODAY survey had a basic understanding of what the role of the President entails, voters whom TODAY spoke to said that there could be more initiatives from tertiary institutes to educate them on its finer details.

One 23-year-old student from the National University of Singapore (NUS), who wanted to be known only as Nicholas, said that he hopes that tertiary institutions can consider adding a module on Singapore politics.

He said that as of now, even a data science student like himself will have to take “core” modules in the arts involving literature, history and culture. 

“Maybe institutions can just fit politics into the core modules that all students have to take,” he said. 

In their article, Dr Koh and Ms Lim suggested that to educate the future electorate over the longer term, a concerted effort can be made in schools such as through organising mock elections.

“Experiential learning will provide future voters a better grasp of the nuances of our political systems, including the presidency,” they wrote. 

Ultimately, however, the young voters themselves know that the interest in the institution of the Elected Presidency must develop from within.

Said Ms Lee, the student who until recently did not know that she was eligible to vote: “My interest to learn is more on my part, because even if the media has the articles and I am not interested or not even aware of it, I will not actively search for it.”

WHAT YOUNG VOTERS SHOULD BE LOOKING OUT FOR

For first-time voters who have yet to figure out what makes for a good President in the Singapore context, some analysts suggested that they should consider the candidates’ ability to fulfil the two main presidential roles: To unite the nation as its figurehead, as well as effectively exercise his constitutional duties.

SMU’s Assoc Prof Tan said that a candidate’s empathy and respect for fellow Singaporeans is what a unifying figure must be able to exude, while his gravitas and ability to represent Singapore in meetings with world leaders should be another criterion to think about. 

“Other attributes include… the ability to work with the elected government of the day in the exercise of custodial powers to ensure there is no gridlock even as he carries out his constitutional duties; and a demonstrated track record of promoting multiracialism,” he said. 

Overall, the non-partisan nature of the President’s role has to be taken into account as well. 

“As such, voters should determine (that) the candidate with the best experience and ability for the office and who has demonstrated and will exercise independence of mind and action would be deserving of the vote.” 

Other soft skills and the candidates’ reputation should also be considered, said Dr Tan Ern Ser, an associate professor of sociology at NUS.

He said voters should ask themselves these questions before casting their votes: “Is the candidate knowledgeable and experienced enough to understand the issues and challenges facing the Singapore economy and society? Does the candidate have the clout and whose words people would take seriously? Is the candidate someone with a good reputation, and seen as trustworthy?” 

Voters should also not judge candidates solely on the “hype” they manage to create and their popularity during their campaigns, said Dr Chong Ja Ian, a political scientist from NUS. 

Instead, voters should look out for candidates who they think will most effectively represent Singaporeans’ interests and priorities as they exercise the responsibilities of office.

“(Voters) should remember that elections are more about them as the voters than the candidates, although that is easy to forget given the focus on individuals and the hype of the campaigning process,” he said. 

The analysts added that voters must also take stock of the candidates’ campaign themes.

NUS assistant professor of political science Elvin Ong said that new voters should look out for appropriate messaging from the different candidates — that they will exercise any powers of the presidential office prudently within what is outlined in the Constitution. 

“Acting within the constitutional powers is important to preserve political stability and certainty for the office,” said Asst Prof Ong.

“If candidates signal that they will disregard the constitutional boundaries and try to meddle into executive government, then new voters should be cautious of such messaging.”

He added that such a move could give rise to conflicts between the President and the executive, and may portend a legal crisis on the interpretation of the appropriate separation of powers. 

“Such a conflict will inevitably draw in the judiciary as interpreters of the Constitution and create more political uncertainty,” said Asst Prof Ong.

He agreed with Assoc Prof Tan that first-time PE voters should understand the importance of the Elected Presidency and thus, their vote.

Asst Prof Ong said that the powers that the elected President possesses, even if they are powers of rejection, and not of proposal,  are still “substantive” and thus need to be voted carefully over.

IMPORTANCE OF YOUTH VOTE TO PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFULS

If there is a contest for the upcoming PE, the sheer number of new voters will be one of the election’s key features, said several analysts.

Agreeing with Assoc Prof Eugene Tan’s estimation, Dr Tan Ern Ser from NUS said that based on his calculation, there will be about 400,000 new voters.

“This constitutes about 15 per cent of the total number of eligible voters for PE2023 — a significant proportion,” he said.   

“In a close election, as in PE2011, a tiny percentage — less than 1 per cent — can make a lot of difference.” 

It is thus no surprise that the presidential hopefuls have been stepping up their game on social media, the young’s stomping ground.

Mr Tharman, Mr Goh and Mr Ng have launched social media campaigns across various platforms. Notably, all three have gone on TikTok, associated with younger users, to create short and snappy content ranging from what they hope to bring to Singapore if elected, to clarifications on the President’s role. 

Mr Tan, 75, who also took part in the 2011 PE, has published several posts on his blog outlining his ambitions if elected. 

The presidential hopefuls have also highlighted or alluded to the importance of reaching out to the younger demographic when speaking to the media.  In his first appearance before the media, Mr Goh, 63, said that there is a need for him to be the voice of young people.

Likewise, in one of his first media appearances after announcing his presidential bid, Mr Ng, 75, mentioned that he is concerned about reaching out to the young, and hopes that youth in Singapore could be introduced to meditation, to help them tackle mental health issues. 

On his part, Mr Tharman, 66, has also been giving talks to youths at gatherings such as the “Me to We” conference by non-governmental organisation Onepeople.sg. 

Agreeing with the approach to target his demographic, Mr Loke, the 24-year-old in the aviation industry, said that he has learnt more about the presidential hopefuls’ plans and aspirations for Singapore through their posts on social media. 

“A lot of the young… are using social media, so how to reach out to them is through social media,” he said. 

“Walkabouts are good, but all the pictures you see from them are with the old folks.” 

Mr Loke added that he would like, however, to see fewer curated posts, and more that feature unfiltered content straight from the presidential hopefuls’ phones. 

“I’ve realised a lot (of the prospective candidates) post through a PR (public relations) team… It’d be interesting to see them post content on their own.”

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