The phrase “unifying figure” has become the buzzword of a trait we would like in the next President of Singapore.
One presidential candidate coined it. Everyone else jumped on the bandwagon. Even the usually creative Prime Minister of Singapore has thought it apt enough to adopt it in his stealthy endorsement of the latest presidential candidate.
What is this “unifying figure” really?
At the last general elections, there was an overwhelming show of dissent against the ruling party. Anecdotal accounts suggest loyal voters of the ruling party crossed sides. There was much anger expressed against the traditional rulers of Singapore. Essentially, the role of this “unifying figure” is clearly defined: help dissipate some of this angst against the dominant leadership of the day.
This “unifying figure” is not really “unifying” in the traditional sense a reasonable Singaporean understands it; someone who will reach across the races, genders, religions or other societal divides to share universal values for Singaporeans to espouse as a united community.
In a sense, the next President is supposed to be a “reconciliation leader”. Of course, no one has quite described the role this way because of the reference it bears to one ASEAN neighbour, Thailand, where the country is recovering from a bloody coup and deep-seated partisan rifts.
To the credit of Singaporeans, we have not experienced such extreme politicking, even though its founding father has at least once hinted that the military stands ready to react should the government fall to a rogue leadership.
Is such a “unifying figure” really what Singapore needs now?
A loyal horse of ruling party causes will answer firmly in the affirmative. As much as I am a believer in some of the causes of the ruling party, I would beg to differ.
The results of the last general elections show people have become more critical or discerning about the policies championed by the ruling party. This really cannot be all that bad. It means the country’s political leadership needs to a better job in persuading people to take a united stand.
As such, it is not the powerless President’s job to play the role of the unifying figure. The Minister for Law, echoing his mentor and predecessor, has made it very clear there is not much governance the President can do. Such a role is really that of the pervasive Prime Minister, who, through his policies and powers, sets the tone for the country to follow. If the Prime Minister is very serious about this unifying theme, there is a lot he can do.
For example, why (the hell) do we need two grassroots groups in the constituencies of Aljunied or Hougang? Why doesn’t the Prime Minister set things straight by appointing as grassroots advisers, the Members of Parliament in these constituencies, in whom the majority of voters have placed their trust and confidence?
The contrarian would argue that the Prime Minister isn’t quite up to such a task so better to shift the responsibility to the future President. If the future President fails in this venture (which is likely given his dire lack of powers), let him take the rap and retire him six years down the road.
If the President doesn’t unify, what does the President do?
To me, the office of the President has always been a source of inspiration. It is an office that a man on the street looks up to and goes “wah” or "wow" (whichever suits the man). That is why the President is referred to as “your excellency”.
Past presidents like Benjamin Sheares and Wee Kim Wee truly deserved their titles. They walked the talk and lived their values. In the course of their work, they established remarkable standards for others to follow. They were people you could talk about when growing up and say, “F**k, I want to be like him!'”
Many years ago, when I pursued a non-governmental initiative, I received a letter of encouragement from the late Wee Kim Kee to continue with the work I was doing.
Hand on heart, I cannot say that any of the three presidential candidates are inspiring. For different reasons (which I have shared in this blog in the past weeks), I find these candidates more polarising than inspiring.
They are not to be blamed, however. This is the way the President’s role has been unfortunately structured. Its inherent electoral nature has opened it to individuals with partisan track records - the type of persons willing to go down to the ground and persuade others to support them in the pursuit of high political office.
If I had a choice, who would I find inspiring and wish to have as the next President of Singapore?
I would want ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh. He symbolises the Singaporean at its core. He is also appealing to the masses with his humbling power of simplicity and unassuming nature. Unfortunately, to the likes of the great Tommy Koh, this proposition will be a hard-sell.
The current democratic process in Singapore means Singaporeans may well end up with a Prime Minister and President who will, respectively, hardly unify and inspire.
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