Mr Tan, Mr Tan, Mr Tan or Mr Tan - Singapore goes to the polls again

Update 2: as JRE exclusively predicted last night, the winner is Mr Tan! GIC chair Tony Tan scraped home late in the night, winning by just 7,000 votes out of 2.1 million.

Tony Tan polled a total of 745,000 votes, which (thanks to @FakeSTCom for the gag) is still 745,000 more votes than S.R. Nathan ever polled.

Update: at midnight Singapore time, we have a race on our hands! The @stcom Twitter feed is as good a source as any of “unofficial” (suuuure) leaked numbers; and their take is that it’s a dead-heat between PAP favourite Tony Tan and PAP-linked outsider Tan Cheng Bock, on about 35% of the vote each. Factoring in recounts and overseas voters, it’s not likely either side will concede tonight (especially with a $20+ million pay package on the line).

Tan Jee Say rode pro-opposition sentiment to land about 25% of the vote, which will be a bit disappointing considering that opposition parties had a vote-share up around 40% in the parliamentary elections; and Tan Kin Lian (sadly) ran stone-cold motherless last as predicted, polling somewhere around the 5% mark.

As a side note, I think Tan Kin Lian’s voters (who tend toward the disaffected power-to-the-people types) would have split hard for Tan Cheng Bock and Tan Jee Say if TKL weren’t in the race. It’d take some hard polling data to do it, but I think you could make an argument that TKL inadvertently siphoned off enough potential TCB voters to hand the presidency to Tony Tan. (This, I hasten to note, would be more the fault of first-past-the-post voting than anything else.)

It’s a grey, dreary day in Singapore today (though it could be worse). But there’s a sense of excitement in the air - and not just because it’s a public holiday, either. Today is Singapore’s second Election Day, and for the first time since 1993, Singaporean voters will get to choose their head of state.

The Singaporean president has only been directly elected since 1993, when an ex-union-leader named Ong Teng Cheong landed the job - and promptly annoyed the hell out of the government by demanding a full audit of the nation’s financial reserves, on the grounds that one of the President’s few explicit powers is control over those reserves. He also had to make a personal phone call to the Prime Minister to remind him that the government wasn’t allowed to sell the state-owned Post Office Savings Bank without Presidential permission - after finding out about the planned sale of POSB from a story in Pravda. (This suggests that relations between the legislative and executive branches weren’t exactly cordial.)

The government eventually resolved the POSB sale debate by amending Singapore’s constitution so that they didn’t have to ask for the President’s permission to sell it. Problem solved!

The next president was appointed, rather than elected: Sellapan Ramanathan, former Singaporean ambassador to the USA, ran unopposed in the 1999 and 2005 presidential elections after the elections committee refused to allow anyone else to contest the elections. (The 2005 election became embroiled in controversy when the ruling People’s Action Party seemed to be engaging in a smear campaign against Andrew Kuan, a potential challenger to Ramanathan’s re-election; the elections committee later declined to certify Kuan as a candidate anyway.)

S.R. Nathan (as he’s also known) stepped down at the end of his second term - and this time, there’s a field of four well-qualified candidates, although you could be forgiven for thinking it’s another uncontested election. A wildly diverse country like Singapore has managed to come up with the least diverse candidates ever:

  • Tony Tan, a Chinese businessman who ran GIC (and, let’s be fair, ran it very well);

  • Tan Kin Lian, a Chinese businessman who ran insurance group NTUC Income (and, let’s be fair, ran it very well);

  • Tan Jee Say, a Chinese businessman who ran fund manager AIB Govett (and, let’s be fair, ran it very well); and,

  • Tan Cheng Bock, a Chinese businessman who ran a string of government departments (and, let’s be fair, ran them very well).

You might think you saw this before on an episode of Futurama, and you’d be right.

The smart money’s on Mr Tan, because he’s been endorsed by every group on the street except the Singapore Baseball and Softball Association (that hotly-contested endorsement went to Mr Tan) - and, critically, Mr Tan won the endorsement of the Federation Of Blokes Named Mr Tan. Seriously, though, Mr Tan ran a major sovereign wealth fund without completely screwing it up; he’d probably make quite a good president.

I do have a bit of a soft spot for Mr Tan, even though he’s won no endorsements from anybody and will probably run stone cold motherless last; since retiring from NTUC Income, he’s earned a reputation as a consumer-rights advocate via his heavily-trafficked blog, and was the only senior official of any stripe to lobby for investors’ rights after the string of scandalous retail structured product implosions in 2008 (previously on JRE).

While the office of the President is notionally nonpartisan, Mr Tan is running with the tacit support of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, something previously unheard of in Singapore. After the opposition’s strong performance at the parliamentary elections earlier this year, he might even be in with a chance; here, Garry Rodan explains for AsiaSentinel why this might be a good thing:

_Put simply, [Mr Tan] contends that: “The PAP view is dominant in Singapore. There is a need for an alternative view to be expressed.” This strategy irritates the ruling party, prompting Law Minister K. Shanmugam to caution candidates that the president “can speak on issues only as authorised by the cabinet; and he must follow the advice of the cabinet in the discharge of his duties.” _

_[…]In all likelihood, the PAP’s preferred candidate will prevail. Yet already this presidential campaign has produced a victory of sorts for the PAP’s opponents. Tan Jee Say’s candidacy has provided a platform for pressing the case for more effective parliamentary and other democratic means of holding PAP governments accountable. _

[…]Tan Jee Say’s candidacy also throws into sharp relief the rationale for PAP establishment figures as the best placed to scrutinise the political executive’s processes. As voters are presented with someone genuinely independent of the PAP, suddenly the other three Tans are working overtime to bolster their non-PAP credentials._

Polls close at 8pm today, and while opinion polling is illegal in Singapore, my sources on the ground tell me that Mr Tan is guaranteed to win it.