The Prime Minister’s Office has released certain guidelines on how the Presidential Election campaign is to be conducted.
The official position is that the guidelines serve to ensure “the process of getting elected to the office of President should be dignified and above the political fray”.
A reading of the guidelines however may lead a person to a different conclusion.
By releasing these guidelines, the Prime Minister appears to be indicating that he and no else will dictate how the next President is elected and, in doing so, he will do all he can as head of government to ensure that the next head of state maintains some distance from the very people that decide his fate at the polls.
For example, the presidential candidates will only be permitted to one rally at a location selected by the government.
As the tradition established by the late President Wee Kim Wee has shown, the best outreach activity any President can undertake is to reach out directly to the people. Yet, the guidelines seem to cripple a candidate from rallying the same masses; something any of them will be expected to do ceremonially if elected.
Various studies have also shown that people tend to consume election coverage in the Singapore media with a pinch of salt. In this context, a rally is an important source of first-hand information on a candidate.
If rally crowds at the recent parliamentary elections are an indication, a rally by a presidential candidate not endorsed by the government could create serious crowd control issues. It would have been better for the Prime Minister to permit at least five rallies, one in each community development council district in Singapore.
It is thus reasonable to question if there is some other rationale at play here.
The candidate that has attracted much support from the present government leaders, as one former Prime Minister observed, is not the kind that will go out and win over the people on a matter.
This is unlike the other two presidential candidates, who are known to reach out directly to the masses at public assemblies, and could have an advantage on this front.
Instead, the Prime Minister has indicated “TV will be a major medium of the campaign because of its wide reach at the national level”. The presidential candidates will also benefit from “wider access to information about the candidates through the print media”.
This is where the candidate seemingly favoured by the government has an advantage.
Until very recently, he fronted one of Singapore's key mainstream media companies. Members of the media loyal to him could therefore feature him more prominently than the other candidates.
Of course, it could cut another way. Editors of the mainstream media unhappy with the past leadership of this candidate could cover him negatively.
Nevertheless, if one were to look at the mainstream media coverage of the divide between the government and late President Ong Teng Cheong, it is likely that the mainstream media will convey the information in a manner that the government wants it to carry.
Will this disadvantage the presidential candidates not favoured by the current government leadership? That remains to be seen.
All in all, one should ask if the guidelines are really tilted to “foster a campaign that maintains the dignity of the office and focuses on the key attributes of suitability and integrity of the candidates for the office of President” or to ensure that the candidate that has attracted the support of various members of the government of the day is eventually elected.
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