Presidential Elections Should Matter More to Singaporeans Beyond Getting a Public Holiday
Top Image: George Goh Ching Wah / Facebook

“I am confident I will meet the criteria,” George Goh admitted. Dressed in a suit and a vibrant pink tie, the man behind Harvey Norman Ossia confidently answered the journalists’ questions. Having maintained a low public profile for much of his career, the businessman took centre stage in front of the Elections Department like a seasoned political veteran. 

Fielding questions from the press as he collected his eligibility forms on June 13, George Goh took to public scrutiny like fish to water. 

The founder of Ossia International will have his work cut out for him if he is deemed an eligible candidate in the upcoming Presidential Elections. After all, he’ll be going up against Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. It’s an uphill battle to spar with someone who spent much of his career in the public spotlight—not to mention the people’s choice for Prime Minister. 

In his early days as a civil servant, Senior Minister Tharman rose through the Monetary Authority of Singapore’s ranks, eventually ending up as its Chief Economist. In his second stint at MAS, he was its Managing Director. In other words, he more than fulfils the requirements of the job.

Many would assume that George Goh—or anyone else who wants to be a president—stands a chance against the senior minister.

Having owned over a hundred companies, George Goh can hold his own against his potential opponent—if they ever get to contest against each other. The same can’t be said for his public profile. Having shied away from the spotlight, few Singaporeans recognised him before he announced his intention to contest in the upcoming elections. 

On the ground, Singaporeans are weighing their options between the presidential hopefuls. The upcoming Presidential Election, however, feels like a situation in which Singaporeans cannot lose: 

– A majority of Singaporeans, who wanted Senior Minister Tharman as Prime Minister, might now see him elected as President

– If George Goh wins, it’ll be a victory for those who don’t want to see someone from the establishment getting the job

– A contested election means Singaporeans get an extra public holiday

– A largely ceremonial role means that the pressure of voting, which can feel stifling for most, is alleviated

Singaporeans understand that the President fulfils a ceremonial role—it might not seem as important as electing someone who runs the government. But treating the potential Presidential Elections the same way defeats the point of having a democracy in the first place. 

Image: George Goh Ching Wah / Facebook 

Not Just a Ceremonial Role 

Singaporeans understand that the President fulfils a largely ceremonial role. But that denomination is commonly used to undermine the importance of its role; the Singaporean equivalent of the British Monarchy (i.e. mostly aesthetic). 

According to the website for the President of the Republic of Singapore, the President is a “symbol of unity.” It can all seem very… fluff.

The President affects Singaporeans much more than we realise. When the President speaks, people take note. Words turn into agendas. And agendas dictate mainstream discussions. 

In December last year, President Halimah suggested that rapists above 50 should not be spared the cane. Her Facebook post garnered overwhelming engagement and sparked public conversations. 

AWARE, the nonprofit organisation advocating for gender equality, disagreed. The organisation responded that corporal punishment is an “inherently violent” idea and should not be reinforced in Singapore. 

President of The Law Society Of Singapore, Adrian Tan, shared Madam Halimah’s sentiments. He explained that if the offenders were “fit enough to rape”, they should be “fit enough to be caned.” 

An innocuous online post sparked a heated discussion among those who were for the cane and those who were against it. That divisive post might not have been a rallying cry to unite behind caning. But, at the very least, we are first-hand spectators to the importance of the President’s words. 

Then President Ong Teng Cheong, in front of 20 journalists in the Istana, publicly admitted his dissatisfaction with how the government treated him in office on July 16, 1999. President Ong raised an instance when he intended to review the CPF Board’s Budget. The government clarified that accounts were in order. The matter was eventually settled, away from the scrutiny of the public. 

The government, with its complex system of checks and balances, cannot dictate all the actions of the President. The office of the President represents the potential to hold the balance of power steady in our local political landscape. More intriguingly, it’s to tilt that same “balance of power” in government. 

mage: International Students’ Committee / Wikicommons 

An Underdog Story? 

In the same vein, if we do have Presidential Elections, we are electing someone who will be a representative of the people. While some may see it as a performative charade at the ballot box, we’ve seen the importance of the President in relation to Singapore and the government. 

Of course, Singaporeans will have their favourites when going into an election. To many Singaporeans, Senior Minister Tharman’s bid in the Presidential Elections represents a second chance at destiny. Conversely, George Goh embodies a chance to move away from the establishment. After all, President Halimah and Senior Minister Tharman were once members of the ruling party. 

Senior Minister Tharman clarified that he “sees himself as a referee, not on the government’s team” if he were to be elected president. George Goh seems to be campaigning on the basis that he has no political affiliations

While we can pick our favourites for an election, it would be unfair to see the election as merely a contest for the sake of contesting. Instead, consider who we want as a representative of the country—especially when there will be times when the President’s views and actions are not aligned with our own. 

Additionally, we should ask whether each candidate can act as a separate and independent custodian of the hallowed national reserves—a topic raised frequently in Parliament, given the recent HDB debacle

More Than Just a Public Holiday 

The Presidential Elections (if we do have one) won’t bring as much political spectacle as General Elections. And the President cannot implement policies that affect our everyday lives. But! As a unifying and independent figure, the President can extend a hand to Singaporeans and be a non-partisan public voice for them. 

Whether we’re electing the President or trying to see whether the Workers’ Party will keep its stronghold in Aljunied GRC, all elections set the direction for Singapore. If we do have the Presidential Elections in Singapore, the strength of a democracy rests on the citizenry’s ability to make informed choices. 

The Presidential Election cannot be seen as Singaporeans going through the motions, even if the role seems to be largely just that. It should matter more and can’t be dismissed as ineffectual. Even if the candidates appear to be cut from the same cloth. 

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