Singapore voters still bristling at policies

By Santha Oorjitham

KUALA LUMPUR - Voter discontent and a contest that was too close to call were the hallmarks of Singapore's presidential election last weekend -- much like the general election in May.

Former deputy prime minister Dr Tony Tan won 35.2 per cent of the 2.1 million votes on Saturday, closely followed by former People's Action Party (PAP) member of parliament Dr Tan Cheng Bock with 34.8 per cent.

In the May 7 polls, the opposition Workers' Party (WP) team had wrested the Aljunied Group Representation Constituency from the PAP team with a 9.4 per cent majority.

"Coming so close after the general election, the presidential election was a continuation of the voters' reaction -- to deliver a more concrete message that they are still not satisfied," said a former grassroots leader.

After the general election, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reshuffled his cabinet, set up a committee to review ministerial salaries and began to tackle concerns about the cost of housing and the impact of the large number of foreigners on public infrastructure.

"Addressing housing and transport will take time," said former administrative officer Donald Low.

A more structural issue, he noted, was the question of fairness, "which was made very salient by the WP dispute with the People's Association over the use of community facilities".

Back in June, WP chairman Sylvia Lim said the Housing Development Board had informed the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (combining the two constituencies that WP won in the general election) in an email that it had leased 26 public sites that the council had managed to the People's Association, a statutory board administering a network of grassroots organisations.

On Aug 15, Lim said, the People's Association informed the party that "booking by WP will not be allowed".

The sites -- mainly fields and hard courts often used for community events -- were "strategically located and convenient to residents", she said, adding that the move would prevent the party's MPs from organising activities and curtail their "ground presence".

Desmond Choo, the PAP candidate who lost to WP's Yaw Shing Leong in May, is now Hougang's grassroots adviser. He responded in a media statement that grassroots activities had been curtailed by town councils run by the WP.

During the presidential campaign period, Tan called for an investigation into the dispute.

"It is important that justice and fairness should be done, and not only that; the public should see that justice and fairness have been done," he told reporters during a walkabout.

"But grassroots organisations under the People's Association umbrella serve the PAP-appointed adviser, whether or not he or she is the elected MP," Low pointed out.

Although he had hoped for political and institutional reform after the May polls, he wrote, "As the Aljunied debacle shows, things are depressingly similar."

Election observers agree that Tan, the PAP's preferred candidate, drew his support from the party's traditional vote bank. But they're divided on how to interpret the rest of the votes.

"The combined votes of Dr Tony Tan and Dr Tan Cheng Bock are actually the PAP voters," said the former grassroots leader. "The people decided the two candidates who talked about keeping to the constitutional and institutional role of the president got 70 per cent of the votes."

Assoc Prof Dr Alan Chong of the Nanyang Technological University's School of International Studies, disagreed.

"Tan Cheng Bock made it clear his supporters were an amalgamation of opposition and ruling party supporters," he argued. "He was the ultimate centrist candidate, with the tendencies and independent streak of an opposition member."

For Chong, the presidential election continued a healthy trend.

"The spirit of democratic competition has come back, beginning with the general election.

"Now the supposedly tranquil presidential election has turned into something far feistier. Singaporean democracy is definitely alive and well. The PAP can no longer take Singaporean votes for granted, as they have done in the past."