Singapore Votes for President as Inflation, Scandals Beset City

Singaporeans began voting for a new president for the first time in over a decade, posing a test for the ruling party challenged by higher living costs and political scandals.

(Bloomberg) — Singaporeans began voting for a new president for the first time in over a decade, posing a test for the ruling party challenged by higher living costs and political scandals.

The contest is between Tharman Shanmugaratnam, a senior minister who has spent more than two decades with the People’s Action Party, and two political outsiders who criticized his link with the PAP that’s ruled since independence in 1965.

Candidates with long-standing ties with the PAP have dominated the largely-ceremonial post since it became an elected position three decades ago. The results for the non-partisan role will help investors gauge how Singaporeans perceive the ruling party as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong plans to step aside after nearly two decades in office.

Lee’s exit is expected to coincide with national polls that must be called by 2025.

It “would be an important bellwether to assess the public’s views on the leadership transition and their confidence in continuing the status quo with this new batch of leaders,” said Nydia Ngiow, managing director at strategic business consultancy firm BowerGroupAsia.

The election comes at a time when voters are grappling with living costs especially expensive housing while the trade-reliant nation faces slowing growth and weaker global demand. A series of political scandals is also putting the government’s clean reputation to test. 

In the absence of pre-polling data, the challenges suggest the election could end up a tight race, just like in 2011. Tony Tan, a former deputy prime minister backed by Lee, won the last contested presidential polls twelve years ago that was decided by a margin of less than 1% in a recount.

While the prime minister runs the government, the president holds some powers such as the right to veto spending bills or requests to draw on past reserves that was used to shore up the budget during the pandemic. 

The president, whose term runs for six years, signs off on key civil service appointments and can instruct the anti-graft agency to continue an investigation even if the premier objects.

Tharman, 66, has sought to cast himself as independent-minded with a breadth of government experience. He’s won the biggest margin of votes in the 2020 general election despite the party’s worst-ever showing.

Lee has touted Tharman’s credentials, saying he could “scrupulously” carry out the duties of the president. Yet Tharman’s connections to his former party have seen him take a defensive position at a forum this week. 

“All the senior people on the public track, they owe their positions to bosses who are political figures,” Tharman said. “Are they obligated to their bosses because of that? Not necessarily. It depends on the individual.”

Tan Kin Lian, who ran in the 2011 race, stressed in the same panel discussion the need for an independent president when it comes to approving the use of national reserves. The other candidate, Ng Kok Song, a former chief investment officer of Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC Pte., was more direct in his criticism.

“It is precisely because the ruling party is perceived to be controlling all the national institutions and the key appointment holders that there is so much political cynicism among Singaporeans,” Ng said. “Singaporeans feel PAP wants to have the final say in everything.”

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