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The Big Read in short: Why the Presidential Election matters

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. 

WHY IT MATTERS 

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.

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 2020’s 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 last 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.

Associate professor of law from the Singapore Management University Eugene Tan thus 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. 

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, he added.

“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.”

Experts also warned of 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 (PE) voters, especially the social media savvy (ones), could be swayed by populist manifestos of some candidates without having the opportunity to verify facts.” 

THE BIG PICTURE 

First-time PE voters tend to have a general lack of understanding of the elected President’s role and the significance of the Presidential Election 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.

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

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

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. 

“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 PE 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 seem 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. 

THE BOTTOMLINE 

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. 

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. 

“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. 

One 23-year-old student from the National University of Singapore, 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. 

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