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PE2017: President-elect Halimah reserves comments

The Middle Ground logo The Middle Ground 13/9/2017 Suhaile Md

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by Suhaile Md

RETURNING Officer Ng Wai Choong’s words could barely be heard over the cheers and whistles on the open field at People’s Association (PA) Headquarters earlier today (Sept 13): “I declare Madam Halimah Yacob as the candidate elected to the Office of President of the Republic of Singapore”.

The crowd only quietened when Madam Halimah raised her hand before taking to the podium. She addressed the crowd, talking about the need to “work together”, in the effort “to build Singapore so that it becomes a more progressive society”. A worthy goal, given the contentious nature of PE2017 so far. But questions on meritocracy, multiracialism, and the legitimacy of a President elected through a reserved election have remained.

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All the more’s the pity that a press conference, initially scheduled for 3pm today in the NTUC building at One Marina Boulevard, to address all outstanding questions of a contentious election, was cancelled late last evening.

This in spite of the fact that Madam Halimah had promised to answer questions that were raised on Monday when Singapore was told that just one person had cleared the bar on running for President, making it effectively a walkover.

Chief among the questions would be the legitimacy of her new office, obtained in Singapore’s first reserved election with herself as a sole contender. Online criticisms abounded in the wake of Monday’s announcement, with many resorting to the use of the “notmypresident” hashtag to distance themselves from the electoral process.

In her acceptance speech, she acknowledged that some people had doubts about a reserved election.

In her acceptance speech, she acknowledged that some people had doubts about a reserved election.

“I also want to tell you that although this is a reserved election, I am not a reserved president. I’m a president for everyone, regardless of race, language, religion or creed. I represent everyone. My duty remains only to Singapore and Singaporeans. My duty remains only to you. Although there is no election, my commitment to serve you remains the same. There is no diminution even one bit of my desire to serve you.’’

She did not refer to views that a reserved election ran counter to the meritocratic ideal but chose to see the election as a “proud moment” for multiculturalism and multiracialism. “This shows that multiracialism is not just a slogan, something that is good for us to say, something for people to hear, but it means that it really works for our society, that everyone has a chance to reach the highest office of the land.”

She also chose to see her election as a victory for gender diversity “because it shows… that when we talk about gender diversity, we are not just chanting slogans again, but we really mean it”. The 63-year-old is Singapore’s first female President. She gave her acceptance speech with her husband of 37 years, Mr Mohamed Abdullah Alhabshee, by her side at the PA headquarters in Jalan Besar. Also flanking her were Mr Simon Tay, Mr G Muthu Kumar, Ms Chia Yong Yong, and Ms Mary Liew – her nominators, Mr Lawrence Leow – her principle election agent, and her proposers and assentors.

She called on citizens to focus on similarities, not differences, clearly wanting to put behind the divisiveness that PE2017 had wrought.

She called on citizens to focus on similarities, not differences, clearly wanting to put behind the divisiveness that PE2017 had wrought.

Hundreds of her supporters, decked out in white and varying shades of orange, turned up at 9 King George’s Avenue with banners and whistles in spite of the blistering mid-day heat. They covered about half the field.

Ms Catherine Chew took a half-day off work to show “moral support for Madam Halimah”, she said. The 60 year-old administrative officer came early, at 9.30am, even though she heard Madam Halimah would only take the stage at 12 noon. She knew Madam Halimah through her grassroots work but Ms Chew stressed she was there in her “personal capacity”.

Unlike the union supporters who wore white, Ms Chew had donned an orange top, like many of the 40 or so friends around her, because they had heard Madam Halimah likes the colour orange. They had discussed it on their chat group and decided to colour co-ordinate. Madam Halimah too wore an orange top with a pale orange tudung.

TMG asked Ms Chew about her views on a reserved election. She said: “Any President-elect, if can perform the job, I’m fine.”

As for the walkover, Ms Chew said that while competition is good, she is not too fussed if there isn’t one because she would rather have a “quality” candidate than many unqualified ones. Based off her own experience as a grassroots volunteer as well as what she had heard from her friends at Bukit Batok East – Madam Halimah’s previous constituency – the President-elect is not only “down to earth”, but she “can perform” as well.

Ms Chew’s friend Mr Kenny Chua had arrived even earlier than her – at 8.45am – “to get a parking slot”. The 56 year-old works in event management and had turned up to support Madam Halimah, and to “shake hands with her”, he said with a laugh. He likes her because “she works hard” at the grassroots. Mr Chua added that he too, was at the PA headquarters in his personal capacity.

Asked, Mr Chua said he “preferred open election” so that people would not question Madam Halimah’s calibre. He believes she would “be a really good President” and is “very happy” for her.

Outside the PA headquarters business went on as usual. For Mr Goh Teck Guan, a worker at one of the banner making shops across the road, the Presidential elections was not a concern for him. Neither did he care that it was reserved. He said he was “bo chup (don’t care)”. 

Mr Goh said he cared more for the General Elections because that would determine who his MP was. “Got problem, can find him (MP)… President cannot find.”

On the other hand, odd-job labourer Mr Yusof, who goes by the nickname Joe, was “very proud” to have Madam Halimah as his President. The 52 year-old said he felt she was “experienced” enough for the job as “she become speaker when LKY still alive”. “I love she elected for President.”

As to why it mattered to him that she was made Speaker when the late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was alive, he said that meant that “she knows” politics, and had sufficient “political experience” to become Speaker of Parliament.

Mr Yusof felt that the other aspirants, corporate executive Mr Farid Khan and businessman Mr Salleh Marican, didn’t have have the same “deep experience” in politics as Madam Halimah. So he supports the Presidential Elections Committee’s (PEC) decision to not qualify them, never mind that they did not get the Certificate of Eligibility because they failed to hit the $500 million shareholder’s equity required for private sector aspirants.

He agreed with the decision to reserve the elections for the Malay community. He mentioned the names of former Presidents Mr Devan Nair, Mr S R Nathan, and Mr Ong Teng Cheong and said that he thought it was only “fair” there is going to be a Malay president now. Because “last time got Indian, Chinese, Malay only Yusof Ishak, so why not? I want to see Malay.”

In contrast, Ms Tan Yeehui said she was “despondent” about the elections. The 26 year-old who works at a social enterprise near PA headquarters said that she had noting against Madam Halimah. Ms Tan was “just against the process”. She added: “There’s a feeling you get when the Government pretends your brain is not in the room.”

“There’s a feeling you get when the Government pretends your brain is not in the room.”

TMG asked if she was supportive of the reserved election. Ms Tan replied that she is supports “affirmative action in certain cases”. But the reserved election felt more like “a political maneuver to consolidate power”, by cashing in on Madam Halimah’s appeal.

She likened Madam Halimah to international popstar Beyonce Knowles: “You don’t have to like her music, but you can’t find fault with her.” So in her opinion, it was a very “calculated” and “smart” move on the part of the G to have Madam Halimah stand for election. “It’s hard to hate on her.” Ms Tan added: “It’s such a shame, you’re wasting her goodwill with people.”

Ms Tan is not alone. An analysis of online sentiments, by media monitoring firm Meltwater and reported by Marketing Interactive Magazine, found that 83 per cent of sentiments surrounding the elections was negative. Only 17 per cent was positive on Sept 11 and 12.

As for madam Halimah specifically, the negative mentions of “Halimah” decreased from 87 per cent on Sep 11 to 63 per cent the next day. A 14 percentage point drop overnight could mean that the public is now distinguishing Madam Halimah, the person, from the reserved election, the system. That, or her supporters are making their presence felt online.

Either way, it’s a positive development that would give space for Madam Halimah’s strong record of public service and likability to shine through and ameliorate the doubts people might have about her credibility. The late President S R Nathan also ran uncontested in two Presidential elections but by the of his tenure, he was well-liked by Singaporeans. Madam Halimah might just do the same, she certainly has the chops for it.

Which is why it’s a pity the press conference was cancelled. It was a missed opportunity for the President-elect. Madam Halimah could have tackled hard questions head on and shored up much needed public confidence at the start of her Presidency given the walkover.

Instead, it was cancelled with no alternative date given. Which begs the question: What could have been so pressing that a Presidential candidate had to make a last minute cancellation on what would have been her first press-conference as President-elect?

Featured image by Suhaile Md.

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