Governance of a City-State
Presidential Election Nomination Day: What to expect from the three-cornered fight

On August 22, former GIC chief investment officer Mr Ng Kok Song, former Senior Minister Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam and former NTUC Income chief executive Mr Tan Kin Lian arrived at People’s Association headquarters to file their nomination papers for the upcoming Presidential Elections (PE).

As PE 2023 has shaped up to become a three-cornered fight, what can we expect to see (and hear) during the hustings? What are the main narratives that each candidate will bring in their appeals for the public to vote for them?

Establishment or Non-Establishment?

Having served as Deputy Prime Minister, Finance Minister and played a key role in the International Monetary Fund, Mr Tharman’s strong experience in politics and policy has shaped his campaign narrative.

In announcing his bid for the presidency, Mr Tharman highlighted his 22 years in politics and how this has given him ample experience and a strong track record in unifying people.

This emphasis on people is reflected in Mr Tharman’s choice of assentors, many of whom are prominent members of the labour, business, religious and philanthropic communities, among others.  

Mr Tharman also cited his experience in government and politics in stating his ability to fulfil the core responsibilities of the president, particularly safeguarding the reserves.

Hence given his illustrious career in government, it is not surprising that Mr Tharman is seen as the ‘establishment’ figure.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is former chief executive of the NTUC Income Mr Tan Kin Lian, who has pitched himself as a “truly independent candidate who will be a “conduit for public feedback if elected.

This emphasis on independence from the government has no doubt led to perceptions of Mr Tan as the ‘anti-establishment’ candidate in this upcoming PE.

Such views are certainly amplified by the support from several opposition figures that Mr Tan enjoys. Mr Tan’s presidential bid is backed by Tan Jee Say and Lim Tean, both of whom have belonged to opposition parties.

In addressing concerns that were raised over his ‘pretty girls’ social media posts, Mr Tan suggested that these were smears “from one political party”. Party politics continues to feature strongly in Mr Tan’s campaign.

Partisan or Non-Partisan?

While Mr Tharman and Mr Tan have become firmly established along the ‘establishment’ versus ‘non-establishment’ spectrum by voters and analysts, the third candidate Mr Ng Kok Song has consistently emphasised his non-partisan background.

In his comments to the media, Mr Ng reiterated that he is a ‘politically neutral person’ who has never belong to any political party. Mr Ng has also separately asserted that Singapore’s President should not have “belonged to the People’s Action Party”.

Nonetheless, Mr Ng’s long career in public service has led many to see him as an establishment, albeit non-partisan, candidate. Mr Ng has served as Chief Investment Officer of GIC, Director at the Monetary Authority of Singapore and founding Chairman of the Singapore International Monetary Exchange.

This makes Mr Ng a middle-ground candidate who while possessing no party affiliations continues to be perceived as someone who comes from the broader establishment of the public service.

David or Goliath?

Beyond the background of the candidates, an interesting narrative that has emerged is one of power differentials.

Speaking to the media during a visit to Kovan 209 Market and Food Centre, Mr Ng Kok Song described his presidential race against Mr Tharman as “David versus Goliath”, urging voters to “help David”.

In response, Mr Tharman stated that the “real David is Singapore in the world of Goliaths” and that the President should be someone who can help Singapore to survive among the Goliaths of the world.

It is perhaps this exchange that provides us with a glimpse of the narratives that are shaping the upcoming PE.

The first narrative is that the PE will indeed be a contest between the very illustrious and popular Mr Tharman and his two lesser-known but no-less-qualified opponents Mr Ng Kok Song and Mr Tan Kin Lian.

Whether it is a contest between establishment figures and a non-establishment figures or partisan versus non-partisan candidates, voters in the upcoming PE will no doubt continue to draw from their understanding of each candidate’s background and individual narrative to inform their choices.

But there is a much broader narrative that not just Mr Tharman but all three candidates have alluded to: The President will indeed be a key unifying figure who will play an important role in safeguarding Singapore’s reserves and public sector appointments.

Whoever occupies this office, the President has an important role to play at the national strategic level. As a small city-state, this is the dilemma that citizens and voters will always face. Politics and policies do not exist only on the ground, but at the national level as well.


Dr Woo Jun Jie is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore.

Top photo from Pexels.

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