Irony – the best loser of the ruling party in the recent General Election now seems to have the best chance to be the next head of state of Singapore.
The post-Aljunied story of George Yeo Yong-Boon or Georgie, the variant of George one can use to address him, is fast turning out to be a narrative of motives, impressions, reservations and aspirations.
About two months ago, a suggestion that he could stand for selection and election as the next President of Singapore would have been almost heretical. Georgie labelled it a distraction. Later, he added he did not have the necessary temperament for such high office.
At the altar of sacrifice, his remarks that he would continue "in whatever modest way possible", in spite of his new-found status as a politician without office, came across as rather awkward (to borrow an adjective one brother politician of Georgie used on another).
About a month out of political office, Georgie probably realises the folly behind his words. Any politician needs some form of platform to express his position and to ensure he remains visible – modesty is hardly the best word to describe this. Currently, the best channel available to him is that of the presidency and a move towards this is only natural.
Some, of course, would argue to the contrary. They say this move is premeditated. By his own admission, he knew very early that he was on his way out of ministerial office. His virulent appeal to young voters in Singapore at the gates of his parliamentary career was clearly a pitch driven by greater political ambitions; a calculated opportunity to enable him to continue his high-level foreign affairs work with the President’s millions.
No matter how one argues it, the high likelihood of him announcing his electoral bid for the presidency in two weeks will not surprise. This is an office Georgie has long been ready for.
The best impression I have of Georgie is something I gained having met David Marshall in 1994. Marshall wrote to Georgie a letter expressing his disgust with the reporting standards of The Straits Times. Georgie was gracious enough to accommodate those remarks. Georgie related this incident at a symposium to commemorate the 100th Birthday Anniversary of David Marshall. (That, interestingly, remains the only time I shared the same platform with Georgie.)
To me, this incident indicated the real measure of Georgie. He may not agree with you on a lot of things or you may be from the opposite end of the political spectrum but he will give you the opportunity to tell him what needs to be said, provided you do so respectfully. I know of one grassroots leader, who was snubbed by Georgie, for disagreeing with him in a disrespectful manner.
Many people know that the current President lives near the Eurasian Association. But few know that Georgie lives near the hearts of many Eurasians in Singapore. In 1992, Georgie, a Chinese Catholic, was tasked to be their ministerial voice. As a non-minority, he had a tough job from the beginning and many a politician would have avoided such a controversial task. Georgie the contrarian embraced it. If one visits the Eurasian Association today, one will realise the tremendous respect he commands in the community because of his milestones in ensuring that Eurasians are "treated in a sufficiently respectful way".
Georgie’s work with minority communities also extends beyond Singapore. In Bihar, which some call the land of the Yadavs, Georgie is undertaking a project to revive an ancient Buddhist university.
If the President is a protector of minority rights, Georgie’s track record on this front is a legacy unmatched by any past or present President of Singapore.
In responding the Georgie’s presidential bid, observers have expressed reservations on various fronts.
One of my friends, Terence Teo, has observed, “Why is it all about young persons?”
Teo makes a fair point. The President, as head of state, represents both the young and old. He champions not just change but also history. The fact that not a single one among Georgie’s 15, who collected the applicable form relating to his presidential bid, represented a passing generation has raised some concerns about Georgie’s commitment to the aged. This is something Georgie will need to address if he eventually becomes a presidential candidate.
Others have pointed out that Georgie still remains a member of the People’s Action Party. In light of this affiliation, can he really be an independent President?
This may not be too much of a concern. Georgie will probably announce his resignation from the party in the coming days. What is more concerning is the ruling party’s hegemonic presence in Parliament, which puts it in a position to over-ride the President on any issue. In this context, what may be more necessary than a President who is independent is a President who understands how the political machinery works. Who better than Georgie to do so?
Flowing from this is another reservation, that the Cabinet, which comprises the best winners of the recent General Election, may have little desire to cooperate or be aligned with this ex-colleague, who was their party's best loser and eventually had to rely on an alternative – possibly back-door – route to get into political office. Given his non-union background, he will also face difficuly in winning over the powers behind the presidency. These suggestions are perhaps far-fetched.
A more plausible suggestion is Georgie probably has already secured the support of the Cabinet and the National Trades Union Congress, if not in the process of doing so.
It is very likely that Georgie’s presidency will not be very different from past Presidents. I echo what at least one observer has shared about Georgie's legacy.
He will be a progressive voice of change and a pioneer in providing accessibility to his office. He will seek to act as independently as he reasonably and tactfully can. Many charitable initiatives for the young and old will be championed. Arts and culture will flourish. All in all, Georgie will establish new benchmarks for the office of President as a ceremonial, diplomatic and executive office.
An enticing yet hardly surprising prospect – oh boy, it's Georgie for President!
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