There’s something rather surreal about an election in which the four candidates are all called “Tan”, but that was the situation in last weekend’s presidential election in Singapore. The winner, Tony Tan, will be sworn in as president today for a six-year term.

The contrast with Japan is an interesting one. Japan was choosing its head of government, but did so in a closed-door vote of the ruling party’s MPs (just as Australia sometimes does). Singapore was only choosing its ceremonial head of state, but did so by full-scale popular election.

In our debates over the republic, it’s often been suggested that direct election of the head of state, although popular with the Australian public, conflicts with the principles of the Westminster system. But a few countries, notably Ireland, seem to combine that system quite well with an elected president, and that’s the model that Singapore adopted in 1991.

Unlike Ireland, however, Singapore’s status as a democracy is tenuous, to say the least. In practice it has been run as a one-party state since independence, with the People’s Action Party of Lee Kwan Yew maintaining an iron grip on power.

Presidential elections have reflected that, although the candidates are required to be nominally non-partisan. For the first one, in 1993, the leadership managed to rustle up a challenger for the sake of appearances, but (at least according to Wikipedia:  he did no campaigning and admitted that his opponent was the better candidate. Subsequent elections in 1999 and 2005 saw the government’s candidate elected unopposed.

This year, however, the PAP has been looking a bit shakier. In May’s parliamentary election its share of the vote fell to 60.1%, the lowest ever, and the opposition won a record six seats. The presidential election was therefore being keenly watched to see if the opposition could build on that success.

To a large extent it did. Tony Tan was clearly the government’s preferred candidate, but he won only very narrowly, with 35.2% against 34.9% for Tan Cheng Bock (voting is first-past-the-post). Tan Jee Say came third with 25%, with the fourth Tan, Tan Kin Lian, well back on 4.9%. (Official results are available here:

Tan Cheng Bock was not an opposition candidate — has background too is in the ruling party — but he seemed to run an active campaign and was certainly more than a nominal opponent, while Tan Jee Say represented the opposition Singapore Democratic Party. The fact that between them they had almost 60% of the vote is a worrying sign for the PAP.

Note again, voting systems matter. With either preferential voting or a two-round system the dynamic would have been quite different: Tan Jee Say’s votes would almost certainly have elected Tan Cheng Bock. On the other hand, it would have put an actual opposition victory out of reach, whereas the first-past-the-post system gives them a chance if the PAP again splits its vote.

Singapore is only small, but it is economically powerful and has a disproportionate hold on Western imagination. If democracy takes hold there over the coming years it would be a major breakthrough.

Alternatively, if the ruling party decides it has to resort to more drastic measures to keep hold of power, then that too could send shock waves through the region.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey