At a recent press conference where she unveiled her ungrammatical slogan “Do Good Do Together”, I asked presidential hopeful Madam Halimah Yacob on whether she would be disappointed if the upcoming presidential election were to be a walkover.
Mdm Halimah’s non-commital response: “Whether we have a walkover or a contest is up to the Presidential Elections Committee to decide it because it is the PEC that has to decide the eligibility of the different applicants.”
It is undeniable that of the three presidential hopefuls, Mdm Halimah is the only one who automatically qualifies as a candidate by virtue of having being a Speaker of Parliament for three years.
Doubts remain on whether the other two potential contenders – chief executive of Second Chance Properties Mr Salleh Marican, 67, and chairman of Bourbon Offshore Asia Pacific Mr Farid Khan, 62 – will make the cut.
Both do not meet the criterion where they must have served as chief executive of a company with at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity for at least three years. On that note, political experts have discounted the probability of a contest.
Indeed, a walkover scenario could play out, but the question is: would this be healthy for Singapore’s politics and democracy?
In the 2011 Presidential Election, there were similar doubts about Mr Tan Jee Say’s eligibility as a candidate.
Then, one criterion for candidates was that they have to be the chairman or chief executive officer of a company with a paid-up capital of at least S$100 million. Mr Tan did not exactly meet this requirement because of his title as regional managing director of AIB Govett Asia, which managed total assets in excess S$100 million.
But he argued that managing such an amount of assets is similar to running a firm with a paid-up capital of S$100 million, and that the position of regional managing director was the highest position in his company. The role he performed was also comparable to that of a chief executive.
Following its deliberations, the PEC certified Mr Tan’s eligibility.
Explaining its position, the committee said that Mr Tan held a position of comparable seniority and responsibility as a chief executive officer. The committee also accepted that AIB (Govett) Asia was an organisation of equivalent complexity when compared to companies in Singapore with a paid-up capital of S$100 million.
While Mr Salleh and Mr Farid do not meet the S$500 million shareholders’ equity threshold, their companies do have shareholders’ equity reportedly worth over S$200 million in the past three financial years – which is still a huge amount.
Furthermore, they have at least a decade worth of experience running their companies. Mr Farid had set up his regional firm in 2005, while Mr Salleh listed his firm on the Singapore Exchange in 1997 – the first Malay-owned company to do so.
This would reflect their experience and ability to manage financial affairs such that they could arguably perform the roles required of the President.
Should Mr Salleh and Mr Farid be disqualified, there could be questions raised relating to the consistency of the PEC’s approach to the eligibility of candidates. If this happens, the committee ought to provide a detailed explanation on why both men did not qualify and how their cases differ from Mr Tan’s candidacy.
Another reason why the upcoming election should not be a walkover is this: by disqualifying both Mr Salleh and Mr Farid, there is a concern that it might discourage future potential candidates – especially those from the private sector – from throwing their hats into future elections.
Having interviewed all three presidential hopefuls, what became apparent was not just their conviction to want to serve Singaporeans but also the courage they had mustered to step forward to contest. And this should be lauded.
While there is a criterion to meet, there is also a need to encourage more corporate leaders to step forward and to send the message that they could try to convince the PEC that they would be able to perform the duties of a President.
This should not be seen as an attempt to pressure the PEC to bend backwards or to discount the stipulated criteria put in place. But it is important to note that there is a reason why the discretionary track exists – it’s a recognition that not all potential candidates would automatically qualify and to give the committee some room to make its own judgement.
Having a contest will also help to foster a healthy political scene. Some political experts have noted that walkovers in elections are no anomaly. And since candidates who were “elected” unopposed were able to perform their duties well, they noted that having a contest should not matter much.
But I believe ordinary Singaporeans beg to differ. A contest matters because is not just about ascribing legitimacy to the winning candidate, it also has an impact on the extent to which an informed political culture can take root.
For that to happen, Singaporeans need to participate in it. And the least they could do, is to cast their ballots.
It also reflects that Singaporeans have a stake in deciding the country’s future.
What we would not want is an apathetic citizenry.
One possible good outcome of having a contest in the upcoming reserved presidential election is that since all of the candidates are Malays, voters would also have a chance to evaluate candidates based on their capabilities and not their race.
Will this eliminate the notion of voting along racial lines? Not completely. But one can hope that there’s possibly a larger pool of informed Singaporeans who would realise that there are larger issues beyond race in our political destiny.
And this would fit into the premise of having reserved elections –letting multiculturalism take root in a substantive manner.
But in order for this scenario to play out, Singaporeans need to have a slate of candidates to choose from. That is why, Mdm Halimah’s non-reply notwithstanding, the upcoming Presidential Election should not be a walkover.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Fairs Mokhtar is a reporter with TODAY’s Local Desk.