This article was first published in The Straits Times print edition on Aug 25, 2011.
Presidential candidate Tony Tan noted the transformed political landscape here since the May General Election, but emphasised yesterday that this did not signal the president’s role had changed to that of a “super-MP”.
He said at his lunchtime rally that the “new normal” in Singapore politics of a strong government and an increased opposition presence in Parliament will improve policy decisions and Singaporeans will benefit.
“But our president is not a Member of Parliament. The president is not a super-MP, as some candidates appear to believe,” he told the well-attended rally at UOB Plaza in Boat Quay.
The former deputy prime minister was referring to fellow candidates – former senior civil servant Tan Jee Say and former NTUC Income chief Tan Kin Lian – both of whom have forwarded policy proposals on the campaign trail.
They have argued that the president can influence policy despite his lack of constitutional executive power.
Dr Tan made it clear instead that the president must be above politics.
“He must be able to work with everyone – the party which forms the government, and the party which forms the opposition – to advance the interests not of a particular section of Singaporeans but in the interest of all.”
This was especially important as the United States and Europe have demonstrated in recent weeks the consequences that can be brought about by a failure of political leadership.
Political wrangling in the US has led to a downgrade of its credit rating, while the European Union is currently facing down debt crises in several member countries.
Speaking to a crowd drawn from the financial sector, Dr Tan emphasised his experience and knowledge of the global economy – built up over stints as Finance Minister, Trade and Industry Minister and chairman of OCBC Bank, among his other public- and private-sector positions.
That his qualifications make him the best candidate for president at a time of economic uncertainty has been the key plank of Dr Tan’s campaign.
The seven speakers at his rally, including industry figures like Ho Bee Group chief executive Chua Thian Poh and Association of Small and Medium Enterprises president Lawrence Leow, also drove home this point.
“I’m offering my background, experiences and steady temperament to you once again,” Dr Tan declared when he took to the stage.
“I’m doing this because I want to help us get through the next crisis – which we will do, and emerge in good shape as we have done in the past,” he said to cheers from his supporters.
The audience included current and former PAP MPs such as Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan, Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Janil Puthucheary, Mr Yatiman Yusof and Mr S. Chandra Das; as well as Singapore People’s Party member S. Kunalan and former JTC Corporation group chief financial officer Andrew Kuan, who failed in his second bid to contest the race.
In his 30-minute speech, Dr Tan dwelled on the global economic turbulence, an issue he said would be on the minds of many in the audience.
“As you look at your computer screens, as you read the papers, as you hear the news, you will have seen stock markets around the world in turmoil, going up one day, falling down the next day.”
He said Singapore has to be ready for another crisis, which is why he has suggested that it is not too early for the Government to make contingency plans like its 2009 Resilience Package.
“Over the last two months, I’ve talked to many Singaporeans from all walks of life, and the same questions come up again and again,” he said. “‘If there’s a crisis, is my job safe? Will I be retrenched?’”
Although Singapore’s jobless rate is at a low 2.1 per cent, he said that to someone who is unemployed, “he or she is not 2.1 per cent unemployed but 100 per cent unemployed. This affects not just the worker but his or her whole family”.
Ending in a call-and-response with the pumped-up crowd, Dr Tan offered questions Singaporeans should ask when they go to the polling booth on Saturday:
“Who has the experience to represent Singapore to world leaders abroad? Who has the knowledge to take important decisions regarding the future of our country? Who has the temperament, character and courage to remain calm in the face of challenges and turbulent times?”
At each turn, his supporters shouted: “Tony Tan... president.”