Tan Kin Lian’s Presidential Campaign Doesn’t Make Sense. But Is It Working?
All images by Marc Clarence Beraquit for RICE Media 

Presidential candidate Tan Kin Lian is flanked by Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Tan Jee Say at his press conference on August 27 at a herbal supplement shop in Chinatown. They competed against each other in the 2011 Presidential Elections. Now, they stand as comrades for the 2023 edition. 

It’s Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s and Tan Jee Say’s first public endorsement of Tan Kin Lian. They gathered at People’s Park Complex in the morning, surrounded by a group of supporters, before a short 15-minute stroll to the press conference’s venue along Chin Swee Road. 

To his supporters’ chants of “Our president, our choice”, Tan Kin Lian stops at neighbourhood coffee shops and stalls, doling out handshakes and campaign merchandise to any Singaporean willing to give a few minutes of their time. Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Tan Jee Say are beside him doing the same. 

This would be Tan Kin Lian’s final walkabout of his campaign—he cancelled his remaining ones not long after. Instead of walkabouts, campaign flyers will be handed out at MRT stations and in the heartlands. 

Tan Kin Lian’s presidential campaign started with controversy. His past Facebook posts about “pretty girls” received widespread public attention. After all, why would Singaporeans want their country’s representative to have a history of highly questionable social media posts? It’s as if his past achievements serving as CEO of NTUC Income are forgotten.

His campaign’s final walkabout ended similarly to how it started: Raising eyebrows and concerns from fellow citizens.

The Not-So-Unique Selling Point of Independence 

As the three Tans settle into their seats, the press conference’s moderator reiterates Tan Kin Lian’s unique selling point of being an independent candidate. According to the moderator, Tan Kin Lian is an independent candidate simply because he does not rely on the government for a livelihood. 

Unfortunately, that definition of independence is equally applicable to his fellow competitors. Tharman Shanmugaratnam, having resigned from Parliament, is currently unemployed. Would Tan Kin Lian, according to his definition, accept that Mr Tharman is an independent candidate? 

His supporters unsurprisingly brandish the concept of independence almost reflexively during the walkabout. 45-year-old Nanthakumar, the lead cheerleader of Tan Kin Lian’s supporters, tells RICE that he was impressed by the track record of the former NTUC Income CEO.

“Why not give him a chance? He is an independent candidate.”

45-year-old Nanthakumar starts the cheer for Tan Kin Lian.

Tan Kin Lian would disagree with casting his competitors as independent as he is. However, the same technicalities of definitions have tainted much of this campaign, pushing other more presidential issues by the wayside. 

Like his fellow competitor, Ng Kok Song, Tan Kin Lian has a history of working with the establishment. He was the CEO of NTUC Income, a cooperative with roots in the Labour Movement in Singapore, which works closely with the government.

The ideal is for Singapore to have a unifying figure and independent custodian of the reserves, but the discussion surrounding independence evolved into who is more independent of the ruling party. 

In fact, others have pointed out that someone from the government could be an ideal independent custodian simply because they possess intimate knowledge of how the public finance system works. Unfortunately, the discussions surrounding independence moved off-tangent. 

While Tan Kin Lian acknowledges that the presidential elections should be apolitical, trying to set himself (extremely) apart from the ruling party inevitably contradicts his apolitical intentions.

Contesting on degrees of independence divides rather than unites. The messaging is contradictory. 

Tan Kin Lian Confuses the Common Voter 

Presidential Election

Contradictory messaging confuses voters. If Singaporeans weren’t confused by Tan Kin Lian already, teaming up with his former competitors surely did. Dr Tan Cheng Bock clarified at the start of the press conference that he was endorsing Tan Kin Lian only in a personal capacity. 

“This presidential election is apolitical. We are not here as politicians,” Dr Tan explains to a tightly packed room of media personnel and nods from Tan Kin Lian. 

“We are here as comrades. The presidential election is to make sure the reserves are taken care of properly. Please don’t lose focus.”

However, the line between Dr Tan as a personal supporter and Dr Tan as founder of the Progress Singapore Party is murky at best. 

When considering Tan Kin Lian for president because of Dr Tan, it’s difficult to tell whether you’re inclined to vote for him because you endorse his ideas or because of the popular political figure’s backing. 

Obviously, you can’t. Dr Tan’s endorsement panders to existing political allegiances among the electorate. Especially when Singaporeans view him as the founder of the Progress Singapore Party, the political party with members in Parliament’s current term. 

Other politicians who turned up to support Tan Kin Lian sang the same tune. Lim Tean, leader of People’s Voice, hovered around the Tans as they assembled at People’s Park Complex. In his hand, a phone for live streaming Tan Kin Lian’s walkabout on TikTok.

Lim Tean
Lim Tean expressing his support for the Tans.

“I am supporting Tan Kin Lian in my personal capacity, not as part of People’s Voice or People’s Alliance,” Lim Tean remarks. “So it is absolutely wrong for Ng Kok Song and the rest of the media to say that the opposition has come behind Tan Kin Lian. We do no such thing.”

Their personal intentions are explicit, but Singaporeans cannot help but feel the political weight of these public figures being swung in Tan Kin Lian’s direction. Whether personal or political, Singaporeans find it difficult to tell the two apart. 

The Role of the President 

Tan Kin Lian

It seems like Tan Kin Lian, like Singaporeans, needs to do some differentiating on his end. He needs to tell the difference between the President’s role and that of an active politician.

Besides his independence, he also campaigned to be a voice for the people, repeating his intentions to influence policies through ‘soft power’ if elected. When analysts pointed out his misleading claims, Tan Kin Lian responded in a blog post saying that they took a “narrow” view of the President. 

In the 12 years since he contested for the same office, Tan Kin Lian still doesn’t understand the President’s role. At least, that’s what it appears to be. 

History has repeated itself; in the 2011 Presidential Elections, Tan Kin Lian disagreed with Law Minister Shanmugam’s view that the President could only speak on “narrowly defined” areas. The constitution does not require the President to be “dumb”, Tan Kin Lian clarified then.

In 2023, Tan Kin Lian still had to be corrected on inaccuracies about the President’s role—the Elections Department and a CNA moderator had to step in to clarify the extent of the President’s powers. You’d think he’d know the job scope of the position he’s running for by now.   

When Tan Kin Lian speaks on exercising “soft power”, he risks pulling the wool over the electorate’s eyes and making overpromises to Singaporeans. The discussion goes off-track, and Singaporeans are none the wiser on what the President can actually do.

And if Tan Kin Lian finds himself constrained by the constitution if he were elected to office, the Singaporeans who sincerely believed in his campaign promises would be left to deal with the consequences. 

Protest Votes

Tan Kin Lian

The scary thing is that his strategy might actually work. His anti-establishment, populist rhetoric resonates with Singaporeans who oppose the establishment. And protest votes have posed a real risk since the very first presidential election.

A vote for Tan Kin Lian might not actually be a vote for the candidate. Instead, with his rhetoric, it’s a vote against the ruling party. He might not win the elections, but he might not lose his deposit like he did in 2011. 

And like he did in 2011, Tan Kin Lian knows that the Presidency is not an alternative centre of power. But portraying himself as one works. At the very least, voters owe it to themselves to reflect on the actual role of the president when we head to the polls. 

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