Traditionally, the elected presidency of Singapore has been the preserve of the National Trades Union Congress. The candidate likely to muster the confidence of NTUC is supported by the People's Action Party leadership.
Former President Ong Teng Cheong (expired) and the current President S R Nathan were both active unionists, who depended critically on the NTUC to be eventually elected as heads of state. The NTUC's endorsement was also necessary during their presidency since many charitable initiatives of the President is dependent to various levels on the support, financial or otherwise, of the NTUC.
The NTUC support also gives the President greater visibility. For example, the NTUC commissioned to much fanfare a presidential neck-tie for the late Ong Teng Cheong.
Tan Cheng Bock in announcing his candidacy for the office of President may have pitted himself not against the PAP but the whole machinery of the NTUC.
Inderjit Singh was therefore right in saying that PAP members would feel awkward supporting Tan Cheng Bock's bid. Their loyalty to NTUC will demand that they distance themselves from Tan Cheng Bock, assuming his bid is not eventually endorsed by NTUC.
Any PAP MP who fails to do so is likely to find himself sidelined by NTUC. There are serious repercussions for such an MP. He may, among other things, lose access to subsidised grocery vouchers that MPs distribute to their poor constituents. Union members that volunteer in the constituency of such an MP may also withdraw their involvement.
The rallying force of the NTUC is still a force to be reckoned with. A good example of this is the recent general election. The PAP was hard-pressed to attract crowds at its election rallies.
The NTUC held one rally for the labour movement during that period, where the PAP leadership turned out in full force in their unmissable party whites. The rally held in the air-conditioned comfort of the Singapore Indoor Stadium attracted a capacity crowd of over 8000 unionists - quite possibly the most supportive audience the PAP faced during the general election!
The government has tried to dilute to strength of the unions in Singapore by creating parallel grassroots organisations and reaching out to other pools of volunteers. But these efforts pale in comparison to the work of the NTUC.
Moreover, there is now a strong call that such grassroots organisations move towards being less partisan, given their reliance on government funds.
In this light, it is therefore likely that in the next 5 years, the NTUC will become a stronger force.
Unlike such grassroots bodies, the NTUC faces no pressure to be non-partisan. In fact, its strength historically lies in its partisan nature. The message to its membership is an uncompromising one - an NTUC member must also be a PAP supporter. Any member who disagrees is likely to find himself at the exit of One Marina Boulevard.
Candidates desiring to be President will need to court the support of the NTUC or of political lobbies that have the equivalent power of NTUC to attract the support of the masses. Otherwise, it will take no less than a miracle for such individuals to be Singapore's next elected President.
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