Gladly paying the political price: why the EP reform is the best bargain of 2017


In a recent Channel NewsAsia interview, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Chan Chun Sing said that it will be a “hard journey” to convince people about the need for changes to the Elected Presidency but the the Government is prepared to pay the political price.

He said that the Prime Minister made the decision to restrict the upcoming Presidential Elections to only Malay candidates “not for himself, not for his political capital, but always thinking about what this country needs,.” Mr Chan noted further that “we are prepared to pay the political price, because we think the future of our country is much more important than any political capital that we may have,” and that it was a ““very difficult decision”.

It is difficult to agree with the Minister. Mr Chan presented the decision as a self-sacrificial one that will erode the PAP’s political capital and it’s grip on power, but was nonetheless made for the good of the people and the good of the country because of the selfless disposition of the PAP’s leaders. However, it is hard not to be skeptical about this.

Indeed, the PAP will pay a political price, but given what it is getting in returnit is argued that its political capital is enhanced, not eroded.

Recall that the PAP-backed candidate Tony Tan narrowly won the last Presidential election with a mere 0.35% over his main opponent Tan Cheng Bock, and with only 35.2% of the overall vote, which was a lacklustre performance given the level of pro-establishment backing he had received. Hence, there was a serious risk that Tan Cheng Bock would have won this year’s Presidential election, which would be a direct threat to the PAP’s political dominance. This has never happened before in the history of our country, and our current political leaders surely did not want it to happen under their watch.  Therefore, when we consider this possibility, it does not seem very irrational, or self-sacrificial that the PAP leadership is prepared to pay a heavy political price in order to ensure that Tan Cheng Bock is excluded from the electoral race, and that it continues to have a firm influence on the candidate that is eventually elected as President.

One might argue that this misrepresents the PAP’s intentions in restricting the electoral race to Malays only, since the real intention was to ensure sufficient minority representation. I am unsure if we can wholeheartedly take this to be the case once we begin to look at the surrounding circumstances. These circumstances include the following events:

  • Minister Chan Chun Sing had referred to Mdm Halimah Yacoob as ‘madam president’ in Parliament long before she was nominated, and long before the electoral reforms were announced.
  • Even though Mdm Halimah Yacoob’s vacation of her GRC seat would mean that there are no minority MPs in the GRC, the PAP has announced it is not obliged to, and in any case, that it is unwilling to hold a by-election.
  • The government had repeatedly emphasized that Singapore is not ready for a minority race Prime Minister

On the other hand, one might try to argue that the PAP did the right thing for our country in the long term because Tan Cheng Bock would not have been a good President (and this may very well be true). However, the very point of democracy, and the very point of having elections is to ensure that this decision is made by the people, not by political leaders who themselves have a vested interest in who becomes the President.

Pragmatism is a core principle in the way Singapore is managed, and pragmatism triumphs at the end of the day. Remember that political capital does not come merely in the form of electoral support, but also in the form of control over the institutions of government and over the various levers of power in the country.

As a result, it is difficult to agree with the idea that the PAP made a bad bargain for the good of the people. A calculated bargain was made during this Presidential Election, and given what the PAP would get in return in terms of political capital, it was a very good one indeed.

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Photo credit: Channel NewsAsia


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