During a performance of the Singapore Dance Theatre at the Esplanade some years ago, where the contributions of both Dr Tony Tan and Tan Kin Lian in promoting dance as a form of expression was acknowledged, I walked out of one the toilet cubicles at interval time to find myself in the presence of this elderly gentleman. It was only when I began to rinse my hands did I realise who that old man was. Stunned by the accessibility of this deputy head of government, I sheepishly said, “Hello, Dr Tan.”
Unlike my work experience with Tan Kin Lian and the opportunity I had to sit at Tan Cheng Bock’s table at a dinner to honour an opposition politician last week, my only brush to date with Tony Tan - the latest person to announce his presidential bid - was markedly different.
Dr Tan smiled and nodded. He took out a comb to scrutinise and ensure that his full crop of white hair was gelled back tightly. Satisfied, he smiled again and nodded, while I regained my composure. He walked out with the dignified gait one would expect from a man whose core competency was leadership in government.
If the mark of President Sellapan Ramanathan has been his sonar-proof silence in office, the mark of Dr Tony Tan’s presidency will be that of his smiles and nods, and the unshakeable steadiness with which his hair stands intact.
Once described as a “dark horse” presidential candidate, the endearing Dr Tan has a been a popular president-in-waiting since 1999.
There is no doubt that he has the best credentials for the office of President. I don’t need to spell it out. Someone has already done so in this almost perfect recently revamped Wikipedia page. If that isn’t enough, we can expect Dr Tan’s press corps, who he continues to front for the next one week, to do so fully and faithfully in the coming days.
In announcing his candidacy, Dr Tan is saying all the proper things the current government would expect a person it favours to say. At the same time, he is trying to do this without compromising the neutrality Singaporeans like me desire the next President to have.
He shares, "I must say what I do believe. I must say what I think is good for Singapore. If it happens to coincide with some of the views expressed by ministers, well it's up to the people of Singapore to judge. I don't think it's the job of the President to express contradictory views for the sake of being different. I don't think this is likely to advance the good of Singapore and Singaporeans."
In essence, Dr Tan has provided the key indicators against which Singaporeans should judge him (or perhaps any other candidate):
a. To what extent should his views coincide with that of views expressed by ministers?
b. Can he really express views contradicting the government in order to “advance the good of Singapore and Singaporeans”?
A decade back, former Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong observed, “Tony Tan is quite conservative. He doesn't relish politicking like BG Lee, who, being a younger man, knows you've just got to go out to win people.”
As a barometer, such a view can be the tipping point for voters in deciding how effectively in a period of crisis Dr Tan as a President with blocking powers can hold his sway against a Prime Minister on a populist mission.
Dr Tan also needs to come out to comprehensively explain his reasons for leaving cabinet in 1991. While it is clear that one of his cabinet colleagues left at the same time due to differences with the cabinet, Dr Tan’s reasons for leaving have been made murkier by recent revelations of the ruling party’s leadership. His explanation may go some way in establishing his will and ability to distance himself from the ruling party or the prevailing view of ministers.
In the coming days, Dr Tan will need impress he can really be the unifying President with the independence of mind that Singaporeans desire from their next head of state.
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