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PE2017: Salleh Marican’s three bugbears about the PE

The Middle Ground logo The Middle Ground 6 days ago Bertha Henson
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by Bertha Henson

MR SALLEH Marican and his family leave for Istanbul, Turkey, today (Sep 13). They booked their tickets yesterday, in a bid to “get over this’’. He’s stressed out, he told TMG yesterday. For three months, he had been boning up on the Constitution and presidential duties and taking advice from people who told him, among other things, not to wear tee-shirts or walk around in flip flops in public after he announced that he would try to contest for the presidency.

In a well-ironed red-striped shirt yesterday, Mr Salleh, 67, was both cheery and weary that his bid for the presidency had come to nought. He had cleared the hurdle with the committee set up to verify his ethnicity, but not the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) on whether he would be able to act as a custodian of Singapore’s reserves.

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He laughed when he talked about how he had to write down answers to verify that he was truly a member of the Malay community. He was asked to detail how he, as a Muslim, practised his religion and also to give evidence that he is as Malay as he says he is.

I identify myself as a person belonging to the Malay community. I was raised with Malay cultural values and tradition… I often watch Malay Suria channel. At home my family and I enjoy home cooked Malay food prepared by my wife,” he had written in his response to the Malay Community sub-committee. “To me, it’s quite funny ah,” he said, with a short laugh.

He wondered if he should write his answers in Malay, but decided to do so in the working language, English. He wasn’t sure, he said, if all six members of the Malay community sub-committee could read Malay. Then he went to a Commissioner of Oaths to make a statutory declaration on the truth of his words.

Mr Salleh thought that he would be called before the sub-committee, headed by Mr Imram Mohamed, chairman of the Association of Muslim Professionals, given that questions had been raised in public about his fluency in the Malay language. He wasn’t.

Neither was he asked by the PEC – in written form or in person – to answer questions about his business or financial experience.

His fellow contender, Mr Farid Khan, however, had been asked to submit additional documents about his involvement with companies. Mr Farid, 61, is the CEO of Bourbon Offshore Asia. He has reportedly stated that his company’s shareholder equity was about S$400 million, about S$100 million shy of the requisite threshold. This is even though records showed that his company had a shareholder equity of just S$6 million. Presumably, he was making his case to the PEC by referring to his representation in corporate boards, although the rules made it clear that he should be relying on his involvement as the head honcho of one entity.

Despite repeated requests, Mr Farid would not give details of the PEC’s rejection, nor how he had argued his case for the deliberative track. On the other hand, Mr Salleh showed the media the PEC’s letter, which was emailed to him at about 5pm on Monday and hand-delivered to his home some two hours later.

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Screenshot of the PEC’s rejection letter to Mr Salleh. His team shared the letter with TMG. 

It noted that his company’s shareholder equity was “considerably below” the S$500 million mark, and that the principal activities of Second Chance were “those of an investment holding company, retailing of garments, holding of property as investment for rental income, investing in equities, and trading in bonds and equities”. This was why “the committee was unable to satisfy itself” that Mr Salleh’s ability and experience was comparable to that of the “experience and ability of a person who had served as a chief executive of a typical company of at least S$500 million shareholder equity”.

He had billed himself as the “independent’’ candidate, with no partisan ties, to win the popular vote. With the PEC, he was also banking on his entrepreneurial experience; he built his company with just S$8,000 in capital to become a listed company with about S$260 million in shareholder equity. This was still short of an automatic qualification but Mr Salleh was convinced that he would clear the PEC because a founder of a start-up should not be assessed in the same way as an executive parachuted into a big, successful company. He had also been heartened by a statement made by Law and Home Affairs minister K Shanmugam at The Straits Times roundtable on the elected presidency in September last year. Mr Shanmugam had said: “If you can persuade the PEC that you have this kind of qualities and you have run a smaller company but your company made all these sorts of advances and changes and it’s demonstrative of your ability, if you can persuade the PEC that you have comparable experience, then you can still succeed.”

As far as he could tell, the number of Malays who could have automatically qualified under the private sector rules was “zero”. There were a couple who came close, said Mr Salleh, but they either did not hold the job for at least the requisite three years or were helming companies with volatile profitability records.

“If let’s say I or Farid doesn’t go in… the non-Malay communities will have that (perception) that this community cannot even come up with one candidate,” he said.

It has been quite a steep learning curve for Mr Salleh, who had let it be known to the world on Jun 5 that he would give the presidency a shot.

People supported his move, until former Parliament Speaker Madam Halimah Yacob threw in her tudung. That was when he found some of his supporters looking the other way, worried that any association with him would bring problems to themselves or their organisations. However non-partisan the Presidential Election was going to be, some people, especially members of the Establishment, evidently did not see it that way, turning down his request for references, testimonials or to have their names down as assentors on Nomination Day.

In the meantime, he got his campaign poster design ready and even printed tee-shirts for his core team members. The team went so far as to ask the Elections Department if it could design its own icon – a key.  It wasn’t because he was confident of getting the Certificate of Eligibility, he said, but more because there was so little time to prepare for his campaign should he clear the PEC screening.

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Mr Salleh’s sample poster. Photo by Abhinay Lakshman.

THREE BUGBEARS

It was one of three bugbears he had about the Presidential Election. Parliament and the G had made much about extending the time between the issuance of the writ of election and Nomination Day so that aspiring candidates had more time to raise their profile. This went from five to 30 days to 10 to 30 days following amendments to the Presidential Elections Act.

But this didn’t make life any easier because the Elections Department stuck to the near-minimum period stipulated in the Presidential Elections Act that aspirants had to be told of the result of their application no later than on the eve of Nomination Day. It had made public that it would do so one day before.

Compare this to the 2011 Presidential Election, when challengers were told of the outcome six days before Nomination Day. This gave them enough time to settle the election logistics of printing posters, getting plywood backing and water-proofing, and then hanging them along the roads. Mr Salleh estimated that his campaign could only be in full swing some four days after Nomination Day, unlike the automatic qualifier who could prepare for Campaign Day 1. Said Mr Marican: “So in my case, if I had been qualified… I will lose at least another four days.”

His second bugbear had to do with the composition of the six-member PEC led by Mr Eddie Teo, chairman of the Public Service Commission, which does not have a single entrepreneur on board. He asked if the committee was experienced enough to tell the difference in difficulty running a corporation and building a business.

Mr Salleh showed TMG 16 pages of his application for the Certificate of Eligibility. It was essentially to make the point that he had done well as an entrepreneur over 18 years, never once dipping into the red. He also showed the earnings of bigger companies such as Yeo Hiap Seng and Metro Holdings, arguing that he had grown his own company at a faster rate. “I have managed to grow and diversify the business to a group with S$260M Shareholder’s Equity – largely attributed to my business acumen, financial management and prudency, good decision-making skills, good judgement and being able to build and nurture a team of capable people both within and from outside the organisation,’’ he told the PEC.

He said: “So should not out of that six (PEC members) at least two be self-made people? Be successful entrepreneurs?… So if a businessman or an entrepreneur has to be evaluated, who better can evaluate him? Entrepreneurs.”

His third bugbear had to do with the coyness of the PEC in choosing not to make public why it had rejected applicants. Although the G said that this was so as to not discourage others with the potential to be President, he wondered if this could be manipulated to the applicant’s advantage. An applicant could say that he met the requirements when the truth, as told to the PEC, was that this was not the case. The public would be left wondering why the applicant was disqualified, especially since neither the PEC nor the applicant needed to give reasons.

Mr Salleh said: “This is why I said the system can be manipulated. The wrong impression can be given… If somebody feel that he is capable of being the president, he must be a person of integrity… All applicant whether successful or not successful you have to publish it.”

This form of transparency, he said, holds true in the opposite way. The PEC should also make clear why it had qualified someone, who did not meet the threshold requirements.

He was cheery throughout the interview, quipping that he was not un-used to setbacks. But Madam Halimah, a former People’s Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament, would have to work hard to gain people’s respect, he said.  He gave short shrift to arguments that the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong, another PAP leader, had proven that he could be an independent President. He suggested that Mr Ong and then Premier Goh Chok Tong were peers, which meant that Mr Ong would not have developed the habit of taking instructions from Mr Goh. It would be different for Madam Halimah, who was lower down the PAP pecking order.

“So she will have a tougher time in being more respected by the majority of the people… That means she have to work harder to win the respect of the people, I mean opinion wise,” he said on Madam Halimah’s first few months, if she becomes President. 

Madam Halimah, after having been the only one to qualify, will be submitting her nomination forms, Certificate of Eligibility, Political Donation Certificate, and Community Certificate later today at the People’s Association headquarters, which is the designated nomination centre for this Presidential Election as per the writ issued by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Aug 28. She is expected to make her first appearance as President-elect this afternoon, in what will be a walkover in all likelihood.

Featured image by Abhinay Lakshman.

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