18 August 2005

The Presidential Elections That Never Were

"Look. I am NOT a real cowboy, ok."

Sometimes I wonder whether opinions and editorial articles in the local mainstream media will one day become extinct. Instead of paying 80 cents for a copy of the Straits Times, you might as well just turn on your computer and hop over to some place like Singapore Ink or Sze Meng's blog. Chances are excellent that you'll get more perceptive, more insightful commentary ... for free.

In the Straits Times today, Political Editor Zuraidah Ibrahim provides some "news analysis" on the Presidential Elections That Never Were. As you can guess, Mr Wang is not impressed. Xenoboy's perspective on the same topic is much more interesting and challenging. In comparison, Zuraidah sounded rather .... obvious. Zuraidah skimmed the obvious surface, stated the obvious facts and made the obvious points. She never went deeper.

Zuraidah notes that some people in Singapore are frustrated with the fact that there will be no Presidential Elections. She goes on to say that these feelings are "not surprising, but misguided and misdirected". And why are these feelings "misguided"?

"Misguided, because it betrays a lack of understanding of what the post of the Elected President is all about. Despite the extra custodial powers vested onto the President since 1993, the inescapable fact is that the post remains a mainly ceremonial and symbolic one."
What Zuraidah is saying is that the institution of Elected President is not very important. Well, if it wasn't very important, then why did Parliament bother to create it at all? And make voting compulsory for the entire nation? Even more ironically, if the EP is not important, then why bother to impose such onerous requirements as pre-requisites for presidential hopefuls?

I think Zuraidah is the one who does not understand what the Elected P post is all about. If the post was mainly "ceremonial and symbolic", the highly pragmatic yet far-sighted Lee Kuan Yew would not have spent so many years of his life musing over the details of its creation. Zuraidah writes:

The President's legal powers to take on the ruling party are severely limited. They are custodial powers, exercised in a reactive rather than pro-active fashion. They do not give him the right to initiate action against the Government.

According to the Constitution, he is supposed to act independently in only certain narrow circumstances, to do with the use of past financial reserves and certain key public sector appointments.

Mr Wang, however, notes that the EP's role remains ceremonial and symbolic only as long as all is going well in the nation. So long as the Executive acts responsibly, stays relatively corruption-free and does not seek to abuse its power, the President can happily attend tea parties, shake hands and let the annual Star Charity show be the biggest highlight of his year.

However, as Lee Kuan Yew tells us, we cannot assume that the Executive will remain that way forever. That is why the EP is important. Once the Executive turns ugly, decides to mangle our reserves and remove non-subservient senior civil servants, the EP could very well transform into the single most important political institution in the country for safeguarding Singaporeans' interests.

Zuraidah also offers a red herring:

Perhaps the critics are fired up not because of the presidency as such, but because they want Singapore politics to be more competitive and democratic. Perhaps the absence of voting for the President is just a lightning rod for a broader frustration with the political system.

This general sense of malaise is not unreasonable. Indeed, it is rational for Singaporeans - like any people - to want an insurance policy against bad government. Competitive, open and plural systems may not be perfect, but they remain the best protection against tyranny that human society has yet devised.

However, the critics' fire is misdirected because the presidency as it is constituted is hardly an appropriate vehicle to move towards greater democracy. If they see as the real problem the People's Action Party's dominance, the presidency is the wrong way to challenge it.

I think Zuraidah goes wrong here. The root unhappiness is not that the PAP is dominant (for goodness sakes, it has been dominant for the past 40 years). The root unhappiness is that the right to vote (for SOMETHING, ANYTHING) has once again been denied. People feel cheated (again) and they are angry (again) at the endlessly farcical nature of politics in Singapore.

It doesn't help that MSM like Channel NewsAsia is also publishing farcical nonsense like this. If you were a thick-skinned Singaporean like Mr Wang, you'd burst out laughing. If you were a thin-skinned kind of Singaporean, you'd weep tears of frustration because of the way the MSM keeps insulting your intelligence as if you were a retarded child.

I believe that among the Singaporeans feeling aggrieved about the Elections That Never Were, many would have voted for SR Nathan anyway. (He is a nice, decent fellow after all, notwithstanding the fact that he has well exceeded the life expectancy of the average male Singaporean). The point is that Singaporeans wanted the right to vote. Not necessarily for an establishment figure like SR Nathan, not necessarily for an outsider like Andrew Kuan. All they wanted was the right to vote.

Meanwhile, I suspect that Zuraidah will struggle with that concept.

"Nathan dear, would you mind if I blogrolled Mr Wang?
He's really quite good, you know."


Unknown said...

Sometimes I've got this surreal feeling that we are living in a communist country that is accidentally democratic...
- Thou shall take what is given to thee
- Thou shall not protest
- Thou shall be thankful to all the good things that the country has done for thee

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang,you are right because you say so!

Long live Mr Wang!

xenoboysg said...

"A communist country that is accidentally democratic" -- I like that hahaha. Why surreal? ;)

Mr Wang -- Zuraidah and the ST is just going through the mopping up sniper operation. Give her a break la.

Anonymous said...

Democracy exists in several forms, not one type fits all. A country chooses one that best suits its interests.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

I like the form which Lee Kuan Yew chose, as far as the Elected Presidency is concerned. Too bad it just didn't happen.

Merv said...

"Democracy exists in several forms, not one type fits all. A country chooses one that best suits its interests."

Yeah, unfortunately, we have the type that sucks ass.

singaporean said...

IMHO, Singapore is a democratic country that accidentally turned fascist, thanks to a bunch of morons led by Lee Siew Choe, who walked away from their parliament seats instead of building up a credible opposition. Gradually, the democratic rights of citizenship is chipped away, and we are now a democracy on paper only.

I believe the old man still have some democratic ideals in his blood, as he himself came to power through the ballot box at an age not much older than Mr Wang, and hence the EP. Unfortunately, the ideals are not shared by his successors and see the ballot box more as an inconvenient evil every few years to please some Western idealists. Indeed, had the British came up with a PM selection criteria as stringent as the EP, the old man would never qualify.

From my observation, I dare speculate that, due to the pressures of Hong Kong and Taiwan, China will turn more democratic than Singapore within the next 20 years. In fact, I see democratisation of China as a necessary step in re-unification with Taiwan. Same thing for Myanmar, where the people have shown that they are willing to spill their own blood to win democracy. Cambodia already have a vibrant opposition politics, and hopefully will turn truly democratic when Hun Sen retires. When all these happens, Singapore's political system is going to look very banana republic even by asian standards.

Dont laugh, the crappy international treatment Myanmar gets today, could be what Singapore will face within the next twenty years.

Anonymous said...

It is easy for all of us to squeak anonymously from our arseholes in cyberspace.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Ahahaaa. So spoke Mr Anonymous.