The Presidential Image: Navigating controversy and ethical expectations in the digital Age

by Michael Han

The race is hotting up. It’s closing in on 1 September. The age spread for the presidential hopefuls is quite wide. Tharman Shanmugaratnam (TS) is 66 yrs old. Ng Kok Song (Ng) and Tan Kin Lian (TKL) are both 75 yrs old. You can say it is a race between one young senior and two mature ones.

From the get-go, it seems like NKS and TS are less controversial than TKL. Even before nomination day, TKL received an exclusive write-up, with this title: “Cert for Tan not endorsement of his online posts: Presidential Elections Committee.” I call this the distancing strategy.

In keeping the distance, this is their statement: “The PEC was not aware of Mr Tan’s social media posts before Mr Tan’s certificate of eligibility was issued. Hence, the issuing of the certificate could not have amounted to an endorsement of Mr Tan’s social media posts by the PEC.” But what is this perceived endorsement anyway? What had spooked PEC about TKL?

Aware was the first to pick it up after a TikTok video went viral. It said that TKL “has a history of objectifying women” and questioned how PEC could have missed that out. That led to PEC’s statement above.

It seems like there is a pattern in the way TKL post on his FB in the past. Aware noted that the presidential hopeful had been ““consistently posting about “pretty girls”, recording videos of women in public without their consent or commenting about their appearances for personal entertainment, and suggests that it is acceptable to trivialise women.””
Aware concluded: “Our president should embody the values, ethics and principles that reflect the nation we want to be.”

What do you think, mike?

Well, I suppose the more modern mindset would say, “To each his or her own”. It’s your platform. You set it to “Public” and invite ”Likes” and “Comments” at your own discretion and risks.

Those who agree with you, laugh with you, and support you, and that’s all good. It’s their prerogative. Yet, there will also be those who disagree with you, reprimand and mock you, and that’s all part and parcel too. Modern technology has brought personalities into our private space of our own free will with a click of a button, and they can be in-your-face or in-your-heart.

But, what puzzles me is how he responded when he was interviewed about the images/comments posted on his FB. Generally, he felt it was ok. He asked those offended to be more open minded.

TKL explained: “Most visitors to his page found such posts quite light (and) quite enjoyable. There will be a few people who feel uncomfortable, but that is a very small minority. The majority actually find that to be quite okay – quite fun.” (i guess it really depends on who the “most visitors” are, right?)

In one recent video, TKL justified it this way: “There is nothing wrong appreciating pretty girls…we are all human beings” and “I am sure the girls also appreciate good looking men.” He added: “Maybe the people who were upset were not the pretty ones.” (A lame shot at levity?)

Alas, I felt there are a hundred and one ways to respond to such question, considering the deed has already been done. You can’t cancel it. You have to face it, own it.

And not everyone can say that their recorded past is without blemish. The only solution is to exercise restraint, consider how your action and words may affect even the so-called “very small minority.” This is even more so when you are running for the highest, most dignified office of the land. You are supposed to be the epitome or embodiment of the highest moral and ethical values, however unrealistic that sounds.

You set the tone for the country. You send the message out from the summit of the presidential hill top. Everyone can see whether the emperor is wearing clothes or not, so to speak.

Comments like “‘maybe the people who were upset were not the pretty ones” is sure to be offensive, even if they are only the “very small minority”.

And, as TKL puts it, the majority (where did he get the numbers, anyway?) may be “quite ok” with it and felt it was “quite fun” (maybe that’s because they are not the ones being laughed at, or being secretly “admired” in the privacy of strangers’ room).

However, I can’t imagine TKL as our president taking a few hours off his busy schedule to showcase unsolicited pictures of “pretty girls” on his FB, making this comment, “look here, pretty girls,” from the comfort of Istana.

Nevertheless, one may ask, shouldn’t we be chill about it, since we are all human beings. Isn’t it just harmless admiring, and nothing more? Anyway, he did say it’s just for fun. It is generally ok. He’s just complimenting beauty on the street. But is that presidential? Did TKL cross the line, and then from the other side, cavalierly justifying it as this – “what’s the problem?”

After all said, I find his explanation of much concern. If the president is ceremonially symbolic, and a representative of the people’s values, what image do we want from candidates like NKS, TS, and our most maverick, TKL?

Yes, he can do what he likes, post anything he wants, and get a good laugh from it, as a retiree. But, in a different context, should he find his residency at the Istana for a term or two, is there then a clear line to be drawn, since he will be both the depository of timeless values and the ambassador to nations worldwide?

Mind you, his wife will carry the honorific title “First Lady” and he will, in my view, be known as “Adam” for the nations – that is, the first man, so to speak. setting the image and reputation for us all.

Well, I leave you to ponder on that.

As an aside, at times, I wish TKL was less loose with his mouth and fingers. And when asked about it, just say: “I sincerely apologise to those whom I have offended. Even one is one too many. Your feelings are important to me. I admit that I’ve carried it too far. I ask that you give me a chance to prove to you that I am so much more than what you see and read about.”

“My family and marriage are an enduring testament to my commitment and devotion to serving you as your Ninth President, if elected. I am only human. I am not perfect. But I am always learning, correcting and adapting, even at my age, if not more so at my age.”
“And rest assured, I shall do you proud. I will not let even one sheep under my care down. That is my presidential promise to you.”

This was first published on Michael Han’s Facebook page and republished with permission

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