The Presidential post in Singapore is largely a ceremonial position with no legislative powers. The key powers are veto powers, and frankly, with the comfortable, greater than two thirds majority that the ruling party enjoys in Parliament, those veto powers are largely moot.
Many people have commented on this, and as a result, have taken the view that the importance of the Presidential elections should be de-emphasised. Mr Shanmugam has also downplayed the importance of the role of the President.
The first view is a merely a mistake. The second is disingenuous.
We do not need to look further than Tony Tan to see how seriously the PAP is taking the Presidential elections. Although they have not stated it, it is clear from the extensive glowing coverage of Tony Tan in the “lamestream” media in recent weeks that he is the unofficial PAP-endorsed candidate. If the position was not very powerful or important, why would the PAP care so much about helping their preferred candidate win?
One of the most important ways that the ruling party has managed to hold power over the decades is the way it has managed to control the national conversation on national policies.
I have written on this in a previous post. By controlling the major media levers, the PAP holds the power of framing conversations on national policies (although this power is diminishing in the Information Age). And this has the effect of making it difficult for rational individuals in the population to form coherent and reasoned objections to policies that can then reach a wider audience and garner support.
A good propaganda system goes beyond simply trumpeting the virtues of such and such a policy. It ranges from setting up straw men counterarguments for the sake of “balance” in reporting, inundating the population with artfully conjured up statistics, redacting unhelpful information that detracts from the nation-building agenda, and taking surveys whose results give the appearance that all is hunky-dory on the surface, but wherein the survey methodology falls apart under even cursory scrutiny. More sophisticated techniques involve setting up and covertly funding or implicitly supporting “independent” think tanks that deliver voluminous research in support of existing or soon-to-be implemented policies.
Seen in this light, it is not difficult to understand why the President, even in a ceremonial role, has considerable power, power that has the potential to detract from the government’s carefully crafted policy messages.
Being a public figure with a public profile higher than the average MP, and perhaps on a par with a cabinet minister, the President may have no formal legislative powers, but he has the power of political patronage. He can make alternative viewpoints more credible. This is something which Yawning Bread wrote on in a recent piece. He can lend the prestige of his office and his voice to various causes which at best, do not enjoy PAP support, and at worst, are antithetical to the PAP’s ideologies.
And that is why the PAP government has a huge stake in the Presidential elections, even if it takes pains to appear distant (and for good reason, given the revelation of its declining popularity in GE 2011).
A President who does not toe the PAP party line (even if he is not a card-carrying member of the PAP, so to speak) on government policies can strike a singularly discordant note in the symphony that the government perpetually plays in an effort to convince the citizenry that the bitter medicine being doled out is indeed good for them. Who knows? He might even be shriller than the small coterie of opposition MPs in Parliament today.
And make no mistake; the PAP dreads the possibility of a President who is a loose cannon. Perhaps because our government is stuffed with technocrats and functionaries, many of whom were earmarked for the fast track early on in their careers, and who never had to practice at mollifying, scrambling, ‘fessing up and apologising, or just plain rolling with the punches, that the PAP is remarkably bad at dealing with situations that arise because they fall outside of its planning norms.
The very idea that the President was vested with the power to block drawing on the reserves was conceived under the presumption that the President would be a PAP man facing down the temporary anomaly of a hostile non-PAP-led Parliament. And now, the shoe is on the other foot.
The outcome that the PAP fears the most is not a rabidly anti-PAP President. That would be the second worst outcome.
The worst outcome would be a popular and vocal President, with a centrist position that is not in concord with the PAP’s policies, and who has excellent oratorical skills and is not afraid to use them.
The popularity factor is key. A rabidly PAP President would be an embarrassment certainly, but could be dismissed as “fringe” for the most part, and suitably stonewalled and marginalized.
The PAP’s methods of “managing” a popular and vocal President, however, would come off as unseemly at best. More likely than not, they would be perceived by the public as being ham-handed.
And the real danger in this election is that the President would almost by definition be a popular one. After all, it is because the position comes without legislative powers that party candidacy, gerrymandering, HDB upgrading, political track record, and all the other messy calculations associated with who to vote for in a general election don’t come into play.
In other words, being elected President means being liked. Needless to say, in recent years, the PAP and their ilk haven’t been very good at that.