Governance of a City-State
Commentary: Why are voters interested in the pets of Singapore’s presidential candidates?

Max the cat. Cooper the dog. Socks, Judy and Awan.

Two weeks ago, these pet names would not have been recognisable to most Singaporeans. But after nine intense days of campaigning, many, especially those active on social media, would have heard of them, since they are the pets of this year’s Presidential Election candidates.

But why would Singapore voters be interested in candidates’ pets? More broadly, what do presidential candidates have to gain from sharing details of their personal lives?


Looking beyond our shores, pets are a common feature of many public figures and politicians.

Queen Elizabeth II was well-known for her love of corgis. Larry, the cat of 10 Downing Street, the official residence and office of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has amassed many fans and has even been given his own position, the tongue-in-cheek Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office.

Occupants of the White House have also had a long history of owning pets, with the latest being Commander and Major, United States President Joe Biden’s German Shepherds.

These pets, together with other personal details, add a touch of colour to these public figures. They help us see these individuals beyond their formal roles, and to see a person beneath the professional veneer.

We might even be able to relate to them more. The fact that our three presidential candidates are all pet owners was probably warmly received by animal lovers and fellow pet owners.

In studies of US presidential elections, scholars noted that presidential candidates often try to inject a more personal side to their campaigns. This is because positive perceptions about a president’s character can help make his or her decisions more easily accepted by the public.

Furthermore, a person’s personality traits can be part of the evaluation of whether that individual has leadership qualities, especially in a crisis, however subjective it is.

However, the US president has powers in policymaking, and candidates typically run as a representative of a political party. Therefore, it is not surprising to find that the proportion of the American National Election Studies respondents mentioning candidates’ personal traits as factors influencing their voting decisions are on a general downward trend, especially when compared to the candidates’ policies.

This is because performance in the job is more important than whether the candidate is a nice person or someone voters would like to befriend.

But these considerations would weigh differently in Singapore’s Presidential Elections. In fact, I would argue that personal appeal – or likeability of the candidate – is a bigger factor in Presidential Elections as compared to General Elections, in which political parties campaign on policies and partisanship.


In Singapore, the President fulfils a symbolic role of uniting the nation, and the constitutional role of safeguarding the reserves as well as the integrity of the civil service. The President is also the country’s head of state and is expected to meet dignitaries from around the world.

These responsibilities require not just knowledge and capability, but also a knack for appealing to people on a more personal level.

More importantly, Singapore’s President is supposed to rise above politics and be non-partisan. Candidates contest as individuals and do not represent any groups or organisations. Unlike General Elections where individuals can be seen as electable simply because of their party brand and platform, the personal appeal of each candidate would matter much more in the Presidential Elections.

While the eligibility criteria should sieve out individuals who cannot carry out the President’s constitutional role, it will not be able – neither should it try to – filter out people deemed to be likeable by voters.

Therefore, how candidates make themselves stand out will depend on their appeal to voters.

Beyond telling voters what they can do for society outside previous job experiences that make them suitable for the presidency, they also need to make voters like them.

The candidates’ campaigns, therefore, comprised not just about what they would do if elected, but also about how they were individuals in their own right.

We now know that Mr Ng Kok Song has a cat and a dog and that he is a fan of meditation; Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam has three cats and a very diverse playlist of songs; while Mr Tan Kin Lian has three children and five grandchildren and goes for daily walks with his dog Cooper.

Of course, their campaigns did not just hinge on these slices of personal life they shared with Singaporeans. Mr Tharman won by a decisive margin because the majority of voters deemed him to be best suited for the role of President.

But while personal details may not be the deciding factor for Singaporean voters, they can help make presidential candidates more human. After all, the President needs to unite the nation – a task which would be near impossible if the person occupying this position is not liked by Singaporeans.


Dr Teo Kay Key is Research Fellow at IPS Social Lab at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore.

This piece was first published in CNA on 7 September 2023.

Top photo from Pexels.

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