Election surprises and certainties: Dissecting Tharman’s presidential win

Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam will be Singapore’s next President after securing a landslide victory with 70.4 per cent of the vote in the Presidential Election 2023.

The final result, announced by the returning officer shortly after midnight on Saturday (Sep 2), placed Mr Ng Kok Song (NKS) in second place with 15.72 per cent, followed by Mr Tan Kin Lian (TKL), who received 13.88 per cent.

There were 50,152 rejected votes, representing 1.98 per cent of the total votes cast.

Many expressed shock over the landslide results, including President-elect Tharman Shanmugaratnam. On Saturday (2 Sep), he expressed his surprise at the margin of victory, remarking that he “hadn’t expected such remarkable unity.”

Many observers believed that TKL would absorb votes from the opposition and middle-ground voters, as PE2011 demonstrated. In that election, former president Tony Tan received just over 35 per cent of votes, with the remainder split between Dr Tan Cheng Bock (TCB), Tan Jee Say, and TKL.

The former Senior Minister, who served for 22 years with the People’s Action Party, commented that the results indicate voters don’t believe a Cabinet background diminishes one’s ability to be non-partisan.

While Mr Tharman attributed his win to his non-partisan stance, online comments and feedback from a non-partisan group covering polling day revealed different insights.

On top of hard-core PAP supporters, commenters online, such as on Facebook and Reddit, shared that the support of opposition figures intensified fears that TKL might win due to a “freak election” outcome.

Consequently, some opposition supporters, initially considering spoiling their vote, decided to back Tharman, whom they saw as a charismatic figure, to prevent such an outcome.

As for those resistant to voting for a PAP minister, especially young voters, NKS became their preferred choice given how much exposure he had over the past couple of days on social media.

Over the course of less than two weeks, NKS’ newly created Instagram page has grown from zero to over 140k followers through a well-run digital campaign with influencers and social media advertising.

TKL’s perceived unelectability became evident as his campaign suffered.

He attributed controversial Facebook posts about “pretty girls” to a smear campaign rather than owning up to them.

This, combined with further questionable actions, such as preventing his wife from speaking to the media, didn’t sit well with many voters. Although TKL did eventually apologize, for many, the damage was irreversible.

Besides his actions and antics, some aspects of his campaign were also poorly conceived. For instance, he used his personal blog as his campaign website, which contained his questionable past rants.

Additionally, he chose a logo so intricate that it’s hard to identify—was it a flower, a ball? In contrast, Tharman’s straightforward fruit logo was easy for people to associate with.

For example, Tharman’s supporters would simply say, “Vote for the pineapple,” while TKL’s supporters might struggle to find an apt descriptor, and resorting to “Vote for Tan Kin Lian,” with some possibly not recognizing the face on the ballot paper.

Even NKS’ logo, which depicted a heart in a hand, was easy to articulate and recognize.

Some staunch opposition supporters criticized Singaporean voters over the results, but the election results underscored the priorities of the populace: they value competency and appropriate representation over mere partisanship and checks and balances on the ruling government.

Furthermore, the government has consistently stated that the President’s role isn’t executive. Many voters felt TKL didn’t understand this, especially during the debate among the three candidates on Monday, where the moderator chimed in to remind voters that what TKL said he wanted to do is not within the powers of the President.

While some conspiracy theorists hinted at vote tampering, the non-partisan group monitoring the election found no substantial evidence to support these claims. Notably, some polling agents observed that some senior voters seemed confused about the nature of the election, mistakenly believing they were voting for the PAP or asking to vote for the PAP’s candidate.

Although some might argue that endorsements from opposition figures, such as TCB and Dr Chee Soon Juan, hurt TKL’s chances, it’s more likely that their support prevented him from losing his deposit, as he did in PE2011. TKL’s result was just 1.38% above the minimum 12.5% required to avoid forfeiting the deposit.

Comparing voter turnout, PE2023 (93.41%) saw a slight dip from PE2011 (94.80%) and GE2020 (95.81%), which might suggest a larger number of voters were disillusioned with the presidential election.

One might speculate that even if TKL had not contested, the outcome wouldn’t have changed significantly. There might have been more rejected votes, but Tharman’s victory was almost a given.

In summary, instead of Tharman being more popular than expected as the results suggest, it was TKL’s participation in the election that likely boosted Tharman’s votes higher than anticipated.

It is also apparent that NKS, who refrained from using campaign materials and did not field any polling or counting agents, ran merely to legitimize Tharman’s presidency and avoid a repeat of the embarrassing uncontested win of Madam Halimah Yacob in the reserved race election of 2017.

Post-election, NKS is likely to return to run his investment fund company in which Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, Temasek, invested S$4 billion.

Under the current stringent criteria for private sector Presidential candidates, it’s challenging to envision anyone seriously rivalling Tharman to partake in the presidential election, other than rich-entitled old men like what we see in this time round.

The way Singapore conducts its presidential election seems to mock the concept of a fair election. The criteria restrict participation to a select few, often favoring the establishment, giving the impression that voters are merely participating in a charade instead of genuinely selecting the best candidate for the job from the entire country.

Perhaps, as the Workers’ Party has consistently advocated in Parliament, we should consider reverting to an appointed ceremonial presidency where the government chooses the best person to represent the country. This system could be on a rotational basis for different races, as intended by the reserved race elections.

Nevertheless, what we must acknowledge from the election results is that there’s a unified opinion among Singaporeans: Tharman is best suited to represent Singapore on the international stage. In a way, Tharman is correct in stating that he is a unifying figure.

The implications of Tharman’s landslide win are manifold. We can identify three key takeaways:

  1. The PAP may find it challenging to suggest in the upcoming General Election, which must be held by 2025, that Singapore might witness a ‘freak election’. This is because the Presidential Election has demonstrated that voters make rational decisions.
  2. Voters need not fear a non-PAP government raiding the reserves, especially with a President like Tharman overseeing appointments and the reserves for the next six years—or 12 if he decides to stand again in the election.
  3. Most crucially, can the PAP still justify a reserved race election, as was done in 2016 with the amendments to the Singapore constitution?

Only time will determine if Tharman will align closely with the PAP, as his predecessors did, or if he will emulate the late Ong Teng Cheong, who was widely admired for standing his ground for the betterment of Singaporeans because he had a job to do.

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