The media coverage of the Elected Presidency has brought to the fore several interesting observations.
1. The President of Singapore is actually an important person!
Blighted by a history in which the recently much emphasised "highest office" is actually decided via appointment by Parliament, we have been served the suggestion that while he (no she) has remained an important figure, the President has appeared to be a function of the political puppetry of the ruling party. That is not true on paper, but there are people who can believe what they want to believe. In the end, some of us do not see the President as important, powerful or relevant.
The President is the head of state, but when it comes to law-making and changes in the Constitution, he dispenses his duties in consultation with cabinet. Again, people don't see the importance of having an elected President.
Current President Sellapan Ramanathan, now 87, was the second elected President of Singapore (apologies for error when I wrote he was the "first". The late Mr Ong Teng Cheong was the first elected President, beating Mr Chua Kim Yeow in 1993). Mr S.R. Nathan was elected unopposed in 1999, and re-elected unopposed again in 2005 after the other Presidential candidates were deemed ineligible by the Presidential Elections Committee. After years of conditioning in a PAP-dominant political climate, we have grown accustomed to political contests (or at least what appears to be) on the national level, and probably see no difference in the Elected Presidency.
Now with four Presidential candidates, and in the aftermath of the General Elections 2011, I somehow see a change in tone of the Presidency - the kind of tone that the PAP uses to justify why they should be re-elected, why they should be in power again. We are now reminded that the President is a very important person.
The candidates have also spoken about representation and that they will be listening to the people, etc. etc. These approaches to the Presidential Elections have made the Elected Presidency relevant.
The moral of the story - competition is good, as it makes the contest a little more legitimate. (although I can't say the same for the liberalisation of the job market and lax immigration laws)
The idea of how serious and important the Elected Presidency is, is further reinforced by the slanted mainstream media coverage of candidate Dr Tony Tan. Not only has he media coverage, but also the endorsement from the clans (well, one clan) and unions. This brings me to the next point.
2. Unions and clans actually exist in Singapore!
Physically and in paper, they exist, but unions and clans do not really get the exposure and awareness today like they did in the mid 20th Century.
For clans in Singapore, they were steeped in Chinese nationalism and riddled with gang activity, so the early government did what they needed to do.
For unions, well, they lost their relevance a long time ago. We do have one of the better systems of tripartism in the world, but this means the unions are somewhat subjected to some degree of control by the state. It does not help one bit when you have a Minister without portfolio (or Minister in the Prime Ministers Office) as the labour chief. If we were to play word association, the first word that comes to my mind when I hear "union" is "supermarket".
So when the clan(s) and the unions come forward to support candidate Dr Tony Tan, it felt like a non-event and non-issue to me. Despite their large member numbers and the peoples they represent - an indication of their important roles - I feel no connection to these entities.
In a kiasu (scared to lose) bid to support Dr Tony Tan, seemingly heavyweight support from various segments of society is orchestrated for us, but it feels to me very much similar to the Singapore Kite Association endorsing any other candidate.
Yes, the Singapore Kite Association exists. http://singaporekites.com/
I cannot measure how much more relevant Dr Tony Tan will be as a Presidential hopeful, but I can sure tell from the recent media feature and profiling of the Federation of Tan Clan Associations in Singapore and the various unions that have endorsed him, these entities benefit a lot more from the exposure.
I mean they are no newsworthy demigods in the mould of Lee Kuan Yew, but the clans and the unions now seem a little more important. With the media descriptions of their form (membership, address) and functions (purpose, motto) in light of the highly newsworthy Presidential Elections (itself rendered very newsworthy thanks to an actual contest!), they somehow come into existence in the mainstream.
3. Do people really care about the Presidential Elections?
Hard to say. If change is what people want, they won't get it here.
Looking at the media, the free and the muzzled, there is a considerable degree of interest. Perhaps we are still reeling in the aftershocks of the General Elections 2011, which saw the PAP losing more of the popular vote. So an election on the national level, especially in an increasingly (economically) uncertain climate, will be good activity and distraction for the masses.
Everyday when we are served news of Dr Tony Tan and his many endorsements, some of us feel the "FFS!!" feeling. For Fuck's Sake!! It's that mainstream media trying to tell us what they want us to know and think!
Yes, he is a capable man and was a Deputy Prime Minister and his comb-back makes him a lot newsworthier than he already is, but this has come at the expense of the coverage of other candidates. He is qualified and we do not need to be constantly reminded that he is.
It is worth noting that in the process of the over-exposure and the subsequent over-rating of a nevertheless highly rated man, netizens and coffeeshop uncles (or those who occupy both categories) are fed up with the mainstream media, if they already are not. But when it comes to the democratic vote, the media campaign will still work for Dr Tony Tan, because those netizens and coffeeshop uncles are the numerical minority. There are many people who believe in the universe created by the mainstream media, and the universe created for us comprises "Dr Tony Tan" and "others".
In my opinion, the President should play a role not only in unifying Singaporeans, but also to maintain a confidence in the people during the economic uncertainty (we're talking about jobs here).
Then again, what's up with the "unifying Singaporeans" bit? During S.R. Nathan's presidential reign, we have had people who have been charged under the Sedition Act for making racial and religiously insensitive remarks, we had the AWARE saga, which is an indication of a mature fundamentalist Christian agenda (planted in our English-educated ethnic Chinese society in the late 70s to early 90s) to influence policy and governance, and we have lax immigration laws that lead to xenophobia and a dilution of national identity and sense of belonging. And someone "tried to do my best" and the Presidential candidates of 2011 have to take a jibe at him, huh?