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Singapore Picks Lee’s Man as President, Narrowly Avoiding Upset

Singaporean President-Elect Tony Tan
Singapore's president-elect Tony Tan. Photographer: Simin Wang/AFP/Getty Images

Former Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan was elected as Singapore’s next president with a margin of about 0.3 percent over his nearest rival, a result that signals the ruling party still has more to do to appease voters.

Tan, who was backed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as well as several ministers and trade unions even though he ran as an independent, was declared the victor early yesterday following a recount. He beat Tan Cheng Bock, a former Singapore lawmaker who was also with the ruling PAP, by 7,269 votes, according to the Elections Department.

An unprecedented four candidates -- all surnamed Tan -- vied for the largely ceremonial post of president, illustrating the increased challenge to the grip on power held by the party since Lee's father, Lee Kuan Yew, led the state to independence in 1965. The PAP won the general election in May with the lowest support since the nation was founded.

“Nobody expected the race to come down to fractions of a percent given that Tony Tan was endorsed by several PAP ministers and trade unions,” said Vishnu Varathan, an economist at Capital Economics (Asia) Pte in Singapore. “The results are another wake-up call for the government.”

The president-elect, who served in the cabinet of all three Singapore prime ministers and was a member of the ruling party until June, won 744,397 votes of 2,115,188 valid ballots cast, Returning Officer Yam Ah Mee said in a nationally televised announcement yesterday. He garnered 35.19 percent of the votes cast, compared with 34.85 percent for the second-place candidate.


The close race suggests that Singaporeans wanted a president who was above the political fray, Varathan said.

“It is important for the president to act independently,” Tony Tan said at a press conference yesterday. “The president cannot be partisan to any one political party.” The 71-year-old takes up the six-year post Sept. 1.

Tan Cheng Bock told supporters after the results were announced that he hoped Singaporeans would start thinking about voting for candidates they liked rather than those who were endorsed, according to the Straits Times.

The election campaign stoked debate on the role of the president, with some contenders pledging to consult the public and act as a check on the government, which said such moves would be unconstitutional. Law Minister K. Shanmugam warned on Aug. 5 that electing a candidate “who commands little or no respect” in the government would limit his influence.


The 70 percent share of the votes captured by the two “establishment candidates” suggests that Singaporeans wanted “stability,” said Eugene Tan, a political commentator and assistant professor of law at the Singapore Management University.

“There were concerns that the government wouldn’t be able to function at the highest level if there was constant confrontation,” he said. The views of the two leading candidates were “aligned with the government’s interpretation of the constitution.”

Former opposition politician Tan Jee Say won 25 percent of the vote. Tan Kin Lian, former head of insurer NTUC Income and a PAP member, came fourth.

Citizens voted for a replacement for President S.R. Nathan from the biggest field of contenders since polls for the office were allowed in 1991. Because Nathan was uncontested for his two terms, no votes were held.

The president-elect resigned as deputy chairman of Government of Singapore Investment Corp. last month to run. The sovereign wealth fund manages more than $100 billion of reserves. He stepped down from politics in 2006 after serving as a minister and member of parliament for 27 years.

PAP Majority

Singapore’s president can veto government budgets and key public appointments. Those decisions may be overturned by a majority on the eight-member Council of Presidential Advisers and a two-thirds vote in Parliament -- where the PAP still holds 81 of 87 seats, even after its support fell to a record low of 60 percent in the May vote.

Prime Minister Lee vowed to be more responsive to public criticism following those polls.

Citizens have expressed discontent over rising costs and competition with foreigners for jobs and housing, prompting the government to tighten curbs on workers from overseas and allow more Singaporeans to buy apartments at subsidized prices.

“The pressure on the PAP to relook at how it governs the country remains,” said Song Seng-Wun, an economist at CIMB Research Pte in Singapore. “The question is whether the change will be accelerated or gradual.”

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