Andrew Kwan dilemma
Why it happened
Unendorsed candidates; next challenger could be greater threat to the PAP. By Seah Chiang Nee.
Aug 15, 2005


The controversy of Mr. Andrew Kwan's candidacy has come to a sudden, decisive end, but it is a victory for no one. In fact, the opposite may be true.

I think the nation and every Singaporean have lost something. On the morning after, people are either angry or baffled.

For one or two emotional weeks, both sides seemed to have forgotten about the dignity of the presidency, and that the issue is not just about Mr. S.R. Nathan or Mr. Andrew Kwan.

It's about the future of a revered, crucial institution.

Ill-effects

* The presidency. As a unifier of all Singaporeans, a guardian of minorities, the office was greatly shaken after it was subjected to rude, antagonistic politics that it was never intended for. The campaigning was, to put it lightly, undignified.

* People's Action Party. Coming so soon after NKF, this new controversy will be another vote loser although nowhere near the former's scale.

A petition against Mr. Nathan's re-election became counter-productive when the organisers got only about 75 signatures (NKF: 43,000). It might even have convinced the government that the damage would be limited. Petitions, we now know, can work both ways.

It is, however, the strong-arm tactics that have caused the government some loss of image, particularly when Kwan's ineligibility was, in the media's view, "expected" and "welcomed".

The decision by Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) and Hyflux to join the public fray against Kwan rebounded badly and is viewed - rightly or wrongly - as government inspired.

A friend who actually supported Mr. Nathan remarked to me, "For a brief moment, it made our politics look like Cammbodia's".

On hindsight, it was quite unnecessary and unbecoming for the 21st Century, reminiscent of the bad old days that Mr. Lee Hsien Loong is persuading Singaporeans are no longer here. It's just what the PAP does not need before an election.

* Mr. Kwan. It's even worse for him. The public display of his work records (even if some are exaggerated) will leave him at least a little battered and bruised.

Immediate actions

For the government, the first order is damage control of the presidency. That cannot be achieved if it were to treat Mr. Kwan as an enemy to be destroyed or punished.

It would worsen matters if some one were to decide to treat Mr. Kwan as a security threat like the rest of the political exiles who take refuge abroad.

Unless proof is shown otherwise, Kwan is not an enemy or threat and it will be a grave mistake to treat him as one. In fact, if the re-elected president were to extend an olive branch, it would be a good healing move.

Singapore is undergoing great social changes and old political ways often do not work.

Besides, no president can function if he is acceptable to only a portion of Singaporeans and rejected by others, especially the youths. It will make the office meaningless and will not help the PAP cause.

Would another endorsed person be more effective than Mr. Nathan? Maybe yes, maybe no, I have no idea, but the government must ponder sometime in the future.

The bigger, long-term issue

The controversy was unavoidable, given the nature and purpose of the elected presidency that some people have forgotten. The trouble is that it will likely happen again.

History

In 1991, the constitution was changed to turn an appointed, ceremonial president into an elected one with custodial responsibilities over Singapore's reserves - among other executive functions.

He was to hold 'a second key' to the vault, a check-and-balance role against possible corrupt leaders after Mr. Lee Kuan Yew's exit.

The objective was well intentioned but like many things, the devil lies in the details.

The election was to give him the mandatory clothing needed for his responsibilities, but it wasn't designed to be a choice between pro- and anti-government candidates.

One of the worries was a possible constitutional crisis if the prime minister and the president were to come from different political parties or disagree over the use of the reserves.

The fear of a constitutional gridlock was very real.

What would happen if a future president is unable to work with the political leadership, or worse, be at loggerheads with it? But the drafting was urgent; Mr. Lee was about to leave as Prime Minister.

One answer was obviously to ensure that the elected president must be politically compatible with the executive, election or no election.

It was really an impossible task over the long term outside an authoritarian setting when people can freely exercise their choice. How could the PAP ensure that "a compatible" president would be elected?

The chosen path was to control the qualifications of the candidate and vetting his qualifications.

Kwan has knocked but found the door slammed shut. He had a strong advantage and a reasonable chance of causing an upset. He is Chinese, 30 years younger and outside the elite establishment.

Endorsed candidates.

One thing is clear from this controversy. The PAP will pull out all its weapons to ensure that presidential candidates are people that it endorses to prevent a political crisis and a constitutional crisis.

If there has to be a real contest (as between Mr. Ong Teng Cheong and Mr. Chua Kim Yeow), both candidates will have to be acceptable to it.

The president must be, from the PAP's point of view, someone who can work with the political leadership.

Flawed

The whole thing is ironic and possibly flawed. The elected president is paid a lot of money - S$2.4m a year - to be independent and strong enough to stand up to protect Singaporeans' wealth.

But in the same breadth, the cabinet would rather he doesn't do it too strenuously, at least not now. So work hard, but please don't work so hard, he's tacitly told.

It nearly happened in 1993 when the revered Elected President Ong Teng Cheong criticised the government for withholding information about the city's reserves from him.

It was an experience the PAP would rather not see again, as long as it is in power.

By Seah Chiang Nee