Comment: Lost but not wasted; a thank you to PE2023's unsuccessful contenders

Decisions are made by those who show up.

Tan Min-Wei | September 02, 2023, 08:46 AM


In the end, it was a landslide for Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

And there will be plenty of time to marvel at pineapples, shattered expectations, and other laudable moments.

But amidst that, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge his competition, their boldness in the face of long odds, and willingness to put their time, their money, and ultimately their legacies, on the line in the spirit of Singaporean democracy.

Spoiler: I didn't vote for at least one of them

Right off the bat I'll say: I didn't agree with all of them all the time. You can be reasonably assured that I didn't vote for at least one of them, if not both.

But together, they managed to gain the support of three in ten Singaporeans.

Both Ng Kok Song and Tan Kin Lian were so different in demeanour that a vote for one was more nuanced than just a vote against Tharman.

Those votes represent a different opinion on how they saw the future of Singapore, and also how they interpreted the present, an insight into the political feelings of our fellow Singaporeans.

And that insight was gleaned at considerable expense by Ng and Tan, financially, but also personally.

It's not the money

It was not simply a matter of the $40,500 deposit that both put up, but also the the considerable $812,822.10 spending limit imposed by the Elections Department.

Tan has already lost that deposit once before in 2011, and while Ng is hardly an unknown figure, his relatively low public profile meant that he could not guarantee he would see his deposit again.

Ng also spoke early on about how his decision not to use campaign posters was partly due to cost considerations, relying instead on social media. 

Tan for his part did make use of banners and posters, spending the final days of his campaign in a concerted flyer distribution campaign.

It's not yet known how much money they spent on their campaigns and if either man bumped up against the spending limit, but at this point it seems unlikely that they were cheap.

Unlike the deposit money, that is money they will never see returned.

George Goh, the second man to throw his hat into the ring is also another cautionary tale. Goh invested in his campaign with all manner of memorabilia: umbrellas, flags, campaign buttons, and posters.

But the Election Department did not qualify him to run, leaving his efforts essentially wasted, and Goh would end up selling the stock and donated the proceeds to charity.

He didn't even get the chance to lose his deposit.

Incalculable costs

But if one is not convinced by the financial cost, one should also remember the significant personal cost.

It was a minimum of nine, hot, sticky, gruelling days of campaigning; with hours of mid-day walkabouts, speeches, photo opportunities, and doorstop interviews.

Nine days might seem short from the outside, but it was still demanding for two 75 year-old men.

Some might lack sympathy, especially since both men had signed up for this difficulty, but they also faced circumstances that we as Singaporeans cannot possibly expect of our candidates.

Hecklers and innuendo

Ng Kok Song had a man intrude on an impromptu photo session with supporters after a walkabout in Clementi.

The man rode up to within a few meters of him on a bicycle and began to heckle him for no obvious reason.

Singapore has been relatively blessed over the years, where election rivalry has usually stayed at mean spirited yelling and expletives, not escalating to actual violence, at least not during elections.

But watching video of the event was chilling, not because of what the man did, but because of what might have happened if he had a more sinister intent.

Tan Kin Lian also encountered unfortunate innuendo when he was faced with remarks about how he had embraced a young girl, which was revealed to be an innocent hug on nomination day from a grandfather to his granddaughter.

And while Tan faced much criticism about his social media posts in the past, particularly in regards to his portrayal of women, the implication of the remarks was potentially devastating and not a joking matter.

These are just two incidents from a handful that could be named about candidates' motivations, their backers, their wives and fiancées.

As Tan himself said, his wife and children had endured a 'difficult time' in the 12 years since his last election loss, with many seemingly mocking him over his loss.

And that mockery may be expected, given the circumstances and since re-entering the contest was his own decision, but it cannot be denied that there is a certain bloody mindedness to his decision to recontest.


And then we have the volunteers who are supporting the candidates.

The guys on the ground who spent hours and days, doing the grunt work of handing out flyers, putting up banners, preparing the ground for them.

The volunteers that without whom no political work is possible, without whom no one can be represented.

The ones who believe, and believe hard, and are either so committed or so stubborn that nothing can dissuade them.

They, like their candidates, bloody minded, foolhardy, never say die, fighting tooth and nail for what they believe in.

I disagree with so many of them. But I cannot fault them with a lack of commitment.

Taking up the gauntlet

I don't know how many more times we'll see clear, decisive victories of the type that Tharman has just enjoyed, but it feels like it will be ever rarer as time goes on.

But Tharman is one of modern Singapore's most dominant politicians, winning by massive margins time and time again.

It would have been easy for anyone to have seen him throw down the gauntlet and simply take a pass on competing against him.

The lack of a contest opens the president to questions over legitimacy, and even though those questions of legitimacy are not technically correct, they still gnaw away at the political conscience.

The lack of contests opens up not just the default winner, but the entire institution, to questions that cannot be answered about how much of a mandate the eventual winner actually has.

Even Tharman himself has acknowledged the value of a contested election, saying just after he announced his intention to run for president:

“I much rather win or lose with a contest. My whole approach is not to shy away from competition.”

"It's how I prove myself."

It is fundamentally because we know in our bones, a mandate of this kind cannot be given to a person, it must be won.

But a contest of this kind cannot be manufactured, it is too easy to see through it, and sometimes the participants give their reticence away, as Chua Kim Yeow did when competing against Ong Teng Cheong over 30 years ago.

It requires participants who not just willing to compete and subject themselves to the volatility of the campaign, but participants who can instil in the electorate a vision of themselves as president, a belief that they are taking the whole campaign, and thus the institution it represents, seriously.

As one of my favourite TV shows, The West Wing, said over 20 years ago, a sentiment that has stuck with me ever since:

"Decisions are made by those who show up."

Voting is one form of showing up; but requires the candidates, the volunteers, the polling staff, and everyone in between to also show up.

Not voting for either of them doesn't mean I don't appreciate the opportunity that both of them provided by showing up.

They put themselves, their money, their time, and their legacies on the line.

Legacy is planting seeds in a garden you never get to see

And it is, at the end of the day, their legacies. Both men will be indelibly marked by these two weeks in August.

Entire generations who might not know of Ng's and Tan's contributions at GIC and NTUC respectively, have been given new awareness of them as presidential candidates.

And I really can't say for certain how we'll remember their campaigns in six, 10, or 20 years time, except that we will know that they ran.

So I do, sincerely thank, Ng Kok Song and Tan Kin Lian, and also George Goh, for making sincere, good faith attempts at this election.

I do really hope that they do not take this experience as a wasted one, it was not wasted for me.

Their participation made me ask questions of myself, of what I expected of a president, of the boundaries that were placed on it, and whether I even agreed with those boundaries in the first place.

I know I'm not the only one. I work with people much younger than myself, and who, for the first time, had to confront the institution of the Elected President, and develop ideas and ideals of what that role is, and what it should be.

And whatever the presidency will be in, say, 30 years time, many Singaporeans will trace it back to two hot weeks in August 2023, and the decision of two (three, I really don't mean to exclude George Goh) men to contest an election they would not win.

I hope they will accept my gratitude in place of the vote I could not give (at least one of) them.

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Top image via Mothership