Salleh Marican feels S’poreans will be angry if they don’t get a chance to vote for their president

When there are so few eligible candidates to begin with.

By Sulaiman Daud | August 23, 2017

Salleh Marican doesn’t look like a President.

It is difficult to imagine someone with such a down-to-earth presence making grand announcements and demanding attention.

Although well-known for being in the fashion industry, his outfit is strikingly simple. A maroon button-down shirt and black slacks, with no tie or expensive watches. The 67-year-old reminds you of a kindly schoolteacher, setting you at ease with a warm handshake. You could almost forget that here sits a self-made tycoon who built a company that is today valued at about a quarter of a billion dollars.

His office reflects that image; it’s smaller than what most school principals are used to. Interviews with English, Malay and Chinese newspapers are framed and hung on the walls, but his desk is simple — piled high with files and papers. A working desk for a working man. There’s nothing to suggest that it’s the office of someone who could become Head of State.

But then again, there’s also nothing to suggest that he served as one of Singapore’s first (and few) Muslim Naval officers, or the fact that he was headhunted by both the People’s Action Party and the Workers’ Party to stand as a Member of Parliament.

Salleh is a guy you would feel comfortable sitting down to a kopi with. Perhaps the unassuming underdog image might work for him — we know, after all, from a previous Presidential election, that being a clear frontrunner doesn’t necessitate one’s victory. #justsaying

It is also from this previous election (which took place in November last year) that we know one crucial fact: one doesn’t have to look like a President to win an election.

Photo by Angela Lim

Political, yet politically independent

Everything hinges on whether or not an election will be held. Salleh submitted his relevant documents to the Elections Department on Wednesday, Aug. 23, a month before the speculated election date of Sept. 23.

It’s not immediately apparent why Salleh seeks the Presidency. For a man approaching his golden years, with a loving family, wealth, success and who actively volunteers with various charities, surely he’s already got it all.

“When I was serious (about running), my wife got worried,” he recalled. “She kept saying our life will be totally different.”

So why do it? For Salleh, one factor lies in being an independent voice.

“The people of Singapore are very concerned that all our past presidents are either from the ruling party, or very close to them. We are fortunate, so far, that our leaders past and present are upright and honest people. But there’s no guarantee in the future that they will be.”

In fact, Salleh was approached by the late J B Jeyaretnam of the Workers’ Party to run as an MP in 1984, as well as former Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Zainul Abidin Rasheed to run on the PAP slate in the 1990 election.

This fact in itself is as good a sign as any of his likability with both establishment and opposition sides, but he turned them both down to focus on his business.

“Zainul Abidin Rasheed is my childhood friend. We live more or less in the same kampung. He said (Goh) Chok Tong wants you to stand for this election. But at that time I was not interested at all.”

However, time has passed, priorities have changed, and Salleh senses an opening. Voters choose a political party to form a government to run the nation, but the President is by law someone non-partisan. Some may feel wary about voting for a candidate perceived to be the establishment’s choice, and Salleh agrees.

“This is what the people are thinking. It’s safer that the President is not someone from the ruling party. To them, that is what they mean by independent.”

Salleh Marican and Halimah Yacob at the launch of a breastmilk bank. Photo via Salleh Marican’s Facebook page

Disobeyed his mother

The eldest boy in a family of six children, Salleh attended Victoria School in the ’60s. But his father died when he was still young, and he found himself losing interest in his studies.

“At that time I already decided I wanted to be a businessman,” he said.

His mother vehemently objected. Salleh recounted in expressive Malay how his mother remonstrated with him about his plans.

“Engkau ingat senang nak meniaga? Bapak engkau, lima puluh tahun dia meniaga. Naik, turun, naik, turun, takde meniaga sakit perut! Apa dia tinggalkan?”

(Translation: You think it’s easy to go into business? Your father was in business for 50 years. Up and down, up and down, he suffered stomach pains without it. What did he leave behind?)

Salleh’s decision was complicated by National Service, having received a solid offer to sign on with the Army as a regular. Not a bad rice bowl, in those times. But he would not be dissuaded. After completing NS, he ventured into the world of business. Almost immediately, he was met with setbacks, just as his mother predicted.

“In the beginning, I failed! And then she told me, I told you so!”

But Salleh refused to back down. When he succeeded at last, his mother was there to witness it. Salleh recalls a conversation they had about 15 years ago, during his weekly Sunday visit.

“She joked with me, ‘I heard that you’re now a very rich man!'”

A mother’s instinct is of course for her children to take the safer path. But Salleh went for high risk instead, and was rewarded.

Photo via Salleh Marican’s Facebook page

One of Singapore’s first Muslim Navy officers

Salleh’s service in one of Singapore’s pioneer NS batches gave him another opportunity to lead.

He served from 1968 to 1971. After a year of basic training, he was commissioned as an officer with the rank of Second Lieutenant. A year after that, he was promoted to Lieutenant. Salleh remembers training under the Israelis who were brought in during the early years of NS. They were tough men, running their recruits ragged.

“I can remember clearly after running uphill and downhill, all of us were resting. Then this officer said, those of you who feel tired, put up your hand! Those who put up their hand had to run one more round.”

Some things never change.

He was trained as an Army officer during the infancy of the NS. But in the rush to expand, new vacancies were created. A manpower officer was needed at the maritime maintenance base in Pulau Belakang Mati, resulting in a switch from the Army to the Navy.

After living there for a year, the island was to be transformed into a fancy resort with the unfamiliar name of Sentosa. So Salleh moved with the Navy to Pulau Brani, and lived there for another year.

All this while, he was the only Muslim officer in the Navy. His fellow officers would jibe that because of him, Halal food had to be served at every function he attended. But according to Salleh, the experience wasn’t difficult.

“There were other rank and file soldiers, mechanics and others who were also Muslim,” he said.

Just like Halimah, race-wise

Racial identity has cropped up time and again in the race that has not yet begun. His father’s name is Kadir Marican, who hailed from Pondicherry in India. His mother, Salmah Mari’e, came from Malaysian Borneo. But Salleh considers himself a Malay, despite what his IC says.

“I am Malay, and I will always be Malay. The Malay community accept me as one of them. And to them, I am an important contributor to the community.”

But he knows full well that even if he has the complete backing of the Malay-Muslim community, that’s still only about 15 per cent of the population.

If there is a contest to elect a Malay President, it will be decided by non-Malay voters. Salleh knows he has to reach out to them as well, through social media and the blogosphere, and said that his campaign will make it a key focus.

Race is not the only potential restriction. In 2016, the Constitution was amended to include additional eligibility criteria, including holding an executive role in a company with at least S$500 million in shareholder equity.

This rules out Salleh and Second Chance, and, well, all he can do is hope that the Presidential Elections Committee will exercise its discretionary powers to certify him eligible to stand for election.

Photo by Angela Lim

A tiny talent pool

Although the Constitutional Commission mentioned in their review that the new threshold would not limit the number of potential candidates, as more companies these days could reach that level, Salleh begs to differ.

“Most Singaporeans I talk to feel it’s too high. You are limiting the pool (of talent). I remember what the late LKY said about the pool. Even Singapore’s first Cabinet included some non-Singaporeans. Now, the pool is being restricted. There will be less people able to participate.”

As Salleh puts it, the Malay community is already quite small. While there are a few potential candidates (he gives the Bank of Singapore CEO Bahren Shaari as one example), they might prefer to keep a low profile instead of running for President, thereby winnowing the field down even further.

He cites the Presidential Election of 2011, pointing out the fact that out of hundreds, possibly thousands, of eligible candidates, only four men ended up campaigning.

Still, Salleh is determined to make his case, not only before the Presidential Elections Committee but also to Singaporeans who are sceptical of the entire process and are thinking of spoiling their vote or skipping it altogether. He has this message for them:

“By spoiling their vote, they are actually helping the candidate that they do not want to see as President.”

Yes, he will donate his salary to charity

If he pulls it off, Salleh has given some thought to his possible priorities as President. Helping out the smaller charities in Singapore is the first thing on his agenda.

“There are more than 2,200 charities in Singapore today. Most of them are small. What they need is the funds.”

He recounts that since succeeding in business, he was approached by several small charities who had the volunteers, but lacked the funds to perform meaningful work. While he already donates regularly to charity, he intends to go one step further and set a personal example by donating his Presidential salary throughout the length of his term to charity, if elected.

“I will do my best to help. I will set an example by first donating my salary, and then I will form a committee to study the situation in what best way we can help promote these small charities.”

Photo via Salleh Marican’s Facebook page

The people’s choice

If all this comes to naught, and Halimah Yacob gets elected in a walkover, he will be disappointed. He does not pretend he won’t be.

But Salleh says as in business, you get used to disappointment. Life goes on. However, he thinks that the voters will be more disappointed, perhaps even angry. He adds that he has spoken to lots of people over the last couple of months, and some take it for granted that there’s going to be a contest. But there’s no guarantee.

“A contest will be good for Singapore,” he concludes. “It will bring out the current issues for discussion and debate, and it will satisfy the Singaporeans for they will have the chance to choose who will be their next President.”

Top image by Angela Lim

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About Sulaiman Daud

Sulaiman believes that we can be heroes, if just for one day. His favourite Doctor is Peter Capaldi's Twelve. In his spare time he writes about film, pop-culture and international politics, which you are very welcome to read here.

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