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Homesingapore'Tharman was best choice': Why staunch opposition supporters voted ex-PAP stalwart for...

'Tharman was best choice': Why staunch opposition supporters voted ex-PAP stalwart for President, and what it means for next GE

SINGAPORE — Though he is a self-professed opposition supporter, a 24-year-old student from the National University of Singapore (NUS) who would like to be known by his initials KI, decided to vote for Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam in the recent Presidential Election, which saw the former senior minister win by a landslide.

UNSWAYED BY OPPOSITION’S POSTURING

At the end of the day, the support for Mr Tharman indicated that moderation and rationality in politics were important to a bulk of the electorate, said opposition supporter Mr N.

Mr N, who is in his late 20s, has been a strong supporter of an opposition party for close to a decade but said he has “shifted to the middle ground” only in recent years.

He knew of fellow opposition supporters who “could not bring themselves to vote for Mr Tharman due to his recent link to PAP” and voted for Mr Ng instead, whom they saw as a middle-ground choice as opposed to Mr Tan who had raised controversial comments before and during the campaign.

On the other hand, there were also other “lifelong supporters of an opposition party” that he knew of who voted for Mr Tharman because they felt he was suited for the presidency, despite his political past, said Mr N.

Still, a candidate’s independence weighed heavily on some opposition supporters’ consideration.

One supporter, who wanted to be known only by his first name, Ken, said that he already decided to spoil his vote when entrepreneur George Goh, whom he viewed as independent, was disqualified by the Presidental Elections Committee from running for the Presidential Election.

“So one might say that in the absence of someone whom we felt was truly independent — Mr Goh — there was no point in further participating in the farce that is the Presidential Election,” said the 36-year-old publisher, who has voted only for opposition parties in previous General Elections and volunteered with the WP in the last one.

Though both of Mr Tharman’s competitors positioned themselves as independent candidates, they had some forms of past links to the establishment or political parties. 

Mr Ng Kok Song was the former chief investment officer of sovereign wealth fund GIC while Mr Tan Kin Lian was a former PAP member until 2008, and he was publicly backed by opposition figures in his presidential campaign.

An 11th-hour show of public support for Mr Tan by some prominent political figures — albeit in their “personal capacity” — was not well received by opposition supporters who spoke to TODAY, who said that they instead had more doubts about Mr Tan’s claim of political independence.

“I think they (voters) are not swayed by endorsements which they perceive, rightly or wrongly, to have a political motive to it,” said Mr N. 

Progress Singapore Party, the party that Dr Tan Cheng Bock founded, had issued a memo to party members stating that the party was not endorsing any candidate for the Presidential Election after Dr Tan announced his support for Mr Tan.

Other opposition leaders who backed Mr Tan include Mr Lim Tean, secretary-general of the Peoples Voice party, and Mr Goh Meng Seng, People’s Power Party founder. Dr Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, also expressed publicly his intention to vote for Mr Tan.

Their parties did not state whether their leaders were supporting Mr Tan in their personal capacity or otherwise.

On the other hand, WP took the position of not endorsing any candidate during the hustings and reiterated its objection to the elected presidency. In a statement, the party said it does not call upon its members or volunteers to assist any of the presidential candidates in any official capacity. 

WHAT ANALYSTS SAID

Ms Nydia Ngiow, managing director of consultancy firm BowerGroupAsia in Singapore, said Mr Tharman’s appeal extended across the political divide “owing to established views of him as particularly progressive”. 

“Online discourse around Tharman leading up to the elections also highlighted positive personal interactions in the service of his constituents in Jurong, painting him as a figure who cares about the average voter above political affiliations,” she said.

“Tharman also deliberately spoke to not politicising the Presidential Election, further reinforcing the view of him as above politics.”

Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian, a political scientist from NUS, said Mr Tharman has a track record of being popular at the polls.

For the Presidential Election, Mr Tharman’s popularity was aided by the fact that his opponents were “particularly weak”, said Assoc Prof Chong.

Ex-GIC investment chief Mr Ng was “basically unknown” until the Presidential Election, while Mr Tan’s controversial remarks were “unhelpful for his cause”.

“His own apparent lack of knowledge about the president’s roles and responsibilities did not inspire confidence either,” said the associate professor.

‘HIGH BAR’ SET FOR PAP AND NEXT GE

Mr Tharman’s thumping victory cannot be seen as indicative of the outcome of the next General Election, stressed analysts, though they said some “takeaways” could be made from how he conducted himself during campaigning.

Dr Gillian Koh, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, said she did not want to link the Presidential Election result to the upcoming General Election — due by 2025 — given that the issues being considered at both polls are “completely different”.

Ms Ngiow from BowerGroupAsia added that Mr Tharman’s outstanding performance also cannot be seen as a barometer for his former party.

“Given this unique and distinct persona, coupled with an extensive CV, the fact that voters were drawn to his undeniable capability ought not be seen as a similar endorsement for the PAP, or as a referendum on the current leadership transition or fourth generation (4G) leadership,” said Ms Ngiow.

Notwithstanding this, when asked what lessons could be gleaned by Mr Tharman’s old party in heading to the next General Election, Assoc Prof Chong from NUS said that one key takeaway was “the high bar” that Mr Tharman has set. 

“Tharman’s popularity is helped by his relative willingness to address policy issues directly and stake out a position, such as to depart from the fiscal conservatism usually associated with the PAP to provide more state support for citizens,” he said.

“That Tharman generally kept differences with his opponents to the issues rather than individuals probably helped cultivate an image of reasonableness, which voters appreciated.”

Ms Ngiow said that voters are becoming more discerning, going by the recent elections.

“The trend of Singaporeans voting along the lines of capability also highlights how support is unlikely to continue being ‘blind’, and that the 4G leadership must be able to proactively demonstrate their efficacy vis-a-vis the opposition,” said Ms Ngiow.

She added that these are likely to be considerations that govern the minds of Singaporeans “far and above the questions of race” and whether Singapore is ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister, when asked about this issue that had arisen in public discourse in recent years, including during the Presidential Election.

Dr Koh of IPS said that the “outsized” support Mr Tharman received meant that he would have drawn support across the voters — “far more than among the 9 per cent of citizens who are Indians, far more from the 25 per cent of citizens who are minorities”. 

On Mr Tharman’s performance, Assoc Prof Chong said it shows most Singaporeans are and have probably been ready for an ethnic minority to serve as a top national leader, whether as the head of state or head of government as Prime Minister.

“To serve in the nation’s top office, however, ethnic minorities must be able to convince voters of their competence and ability — just like an ethnic Chinese candidate,” he said.

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