Thursday, August 25, 2011

Choosing a People's President

An evidence-based and strategic approach

Yong S.K.


It seems that in 2011 Singapore will be having its most interesting presidential election in history, right after the most exciting general election within the same year. There are now four candidates eyeing the prestigious post, and Singaporeans are spoilt for choice. However, it is easy to choose if people appeal to the concept of incentives, and evaluate the evidence (or indirect evidence) that reveal what the likely behavior of the candidates would be if they were elected. For the general public who are unrelated to the government, who are somewhat concerned about changes in Singapore over the recent years, and who wish for some checks and balances on the current government’s activities, the main criteria should be: (1) independence from the current government administration, and (2) the courage or integrity to voice differing opinions to reflect the social preferences of the public. The following examines how the respective candidates fare in a few areas related to the two overarching aspects:

Intention to intervene in the economy

Dr. Tony Tan has said that his past experiences will help him steer Singapore through the financial uncertainty lying ahead [1]. He claims that the most serious and urgent issue that concerns Singapore today, is the deteriorating global economy, and that his career background in Parliament, in GIC, and also in the private sector, will help him to advise the government on such issues on the economy [2].

Such an intention by Dr. Tony Tan – though undoubtedly worthy – is unnecessary. Our current finance minister, Mr. Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and his group of economic advisors, are capable to deal with the uncertainty in the world economy. Equipped with education in economics from London School of Economics and Cambridge University and a long tenure at the Monetary Authority of Singapore, he is a more trustworthy economist compared to Dr. Tony Tan, whose training lies in mathematics and operations research. Notwithstanding the latter’s experience with the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Trade and industry in 1980s, his recent years of work experience lies in the private financial sector, whose objectives differ from the policy objective of the public sector. Moreover, it is simply dangerous for him to believe that his judgement is better than the experts, given the questionable performance of the Government Investment Corporation during the financial crisis starting 2007 (see Jim Rogers’ criticisms on Singapore GIC in [3]) in which he served as Executive Director and Deputy Chairman from 2005 to 2011 [4]. Hence, the fear is that if Dr Tan were to lend his expertise once again to the affairs of economic policy-making, it would be at best, redundant, or at worst, counterproductive.

The other three candidates do not make any such claim. However, if we were required to judge the competency of the future president in guarding the reserves, then Mr. Tan Jee Say should be the most qualified. He was educated in Philosophy, Economics and Politics at Oxford University and was the secretary to the late Dr. Albert Winsemius [5], who assisted the government in shaping the modern Singapore during the early days.


Looking at the four candidates, we note that Dr. Tony Tan has gathered the most support of business organizations, unions and interest groups, such as Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry [6], Federation of Tan Clan Associations [7], and the union clusters from the NTUC [8]. He also has the support of current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who openly said that he is eminently qualified and a very good candidate [1]. Since it is evident that Dr. Tony Tan is both a business- and government-endorsed candidate, it would be very doubtful whether he will be seriously concerned about providing an alternative voice to the highly business-friendly PAP government. As for the various union clusters, it is difficult to consider them as genuine representative of the workers in Singapore, given their dismal performance to raise the average wage of Singapore workers [9], [10].

Mr. Tan Jee Say has the support of Ms. Nicole Seah from the National Solidarity Party on personal basis [11], while the other two candidates have not acquired any salient support from any interest groups. Ms. Nicole Seah was a popular voice of justice for the general public during general election 2011, and her support lends some credibility to Mr. Tan Jee Say as one who will voice differing views with the government.

Views on Presidential Salary

The presidential candidates’ opinions of the current salary structure of the president reveal some of their inherent beliefs. Both Dr. Tony Tan and Dr. Tan Cheng Bock said they would rely on the ministerial salary committee’s decision [12]. Mr. Tan Kin Lian said that if the salary of the president is $4 million, the fair salary should be less than half [12]. Mr. Tan Jee Say’s answer was most impressive from the public’s point of view: benchmark it against a public officer, if not a minimum salary. Specifically, he suggested that we should take the lowest salary of the civil servant, and take a multiple of it. For example, if the lowest salary of a civil servant is $1000, then it should be multiplied by about 20 to 40 times [12]. Going by his logic, this would imply a salary between $240,000 and $480,000, an impressive cut between 10 to 20 times of the $4 million salary of current president.

Hence, going by the revealed preference of the candidates, Mr. Tan Jee Say is the one whose value lies closely with the world standard of governance. Mr. Tan Kin Lian is not too bad, and his suggestion would imply a salary between slightly less than $2 million. Dr. Tony Tan and Dr. Tan Cheng Bock would simply just leave it to the ministerial review committee, which is unlikely to make any drastic cut to the current high salary of the ministers. The committee is made up of mainly business leaders whose incentive is to abide by the current government’s practice of pegging ministerial salary to CEOs[1].

Past Actions

The past actions of the candidates can act as a projection of what their actions are likely to be in the future. Dr. Tony Tan seems to have stirred the most controversies, ranging from accusations of applying preferential treatment for his son [13] to the education review he did for the local universities that resulted in overt emphasis on research over teaching quality [14]. Mr. Tan Kin Lian has some controversies about his tenure as CEO at NTUC Income, in which he has once threatened to take legal action [15]. Mr. Tan Jee Say has been accused of failing to deliver on his promise to Morgan Grenfell to bring in business from Malaysian conglomerates during his tenure from 1990 to 2004, and failure to do due diligence on an Indonesian investment deal when he was working for Peregrine Capital between 1994 and 1997 [16].

Going by the controversies surrounding Dr. Tony Tan, it seems questionable that he will represent the interest of the general public. Looking at his past actions, he is likely to be a rubber-stamp for the government’s policy. Mr. Tan Kin Lian’s threat of legal action seems to reflect his intrinsic pettiness. For Mr. Tan Jee Say’s case, it seems rather unusual that any privately-run company (Morgan Grenfell and Peregrine Capital) would have allowed its staff to continue their tenure for so many years, if such accusations about his incompetency were true (about 15 years in Morgan Grenfell, an investment bank), and 4 years in Peregrine Capital (an investment company in asset management).

Mr. Tan Jee Say has contested in the General Election as a Singapore Democratic Party candidate. He was fielded in the Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, in which PAP won. In July 2011, Mr Tan Jee Say quit the party to run for President [5]. Having come from the standard elite criteria defined by the PAP government, he could have enjoyed the fruits of the system rather than contest against his former powerful PAP employer. His actions displayed signs of true concern for the public above self-interest.

Dr. Tan Cheng Bock has displayed some sense of independence in the past by speaking up on issues such as calling for some moderation of the foreign talent policy [17]. Hence, this lends some credibility to his claim to be an independent voice in the current government establishment. If he was elected, we can expect that he would be no rubber stamp for government policies.

Based on this aspect, both Dr. Tan Cheng Bock and Mr. Tan Jee Say appear to be good choices if the public wishes for a President who can truly offer an alternative voice.

Background Connection to Government

All the four candidates are related in some ways to the current government, and it is difficult to judge their independence based on this criteria. Mr. Tan Kin Lian is somewhat independent from direct government ties, but he has strong ties with NTUC Income [18], which in turn belongs to the main union conglomerate with close ties to the Singapore government. If we assess the candidates on this aspect, none of them seems to be a likely independent candidate from the PAP government.

Signaling Effect

For the general public who wish to send a strong signal to express their unhappiness with the recent government policies, then any choice of the three “Tan’s” will somewhat do the job with the exception of Dr. Tony Tan. In fact, for those who support the PAP government regime, they should also exclude Dr Tony Tan from their final shortlist. It is evident from the recent results of the general election in 2011 [19] and the jeering at Dr. Tony Tan during nomination day [20] that there is deep resentment on the ground, and there should be some release of these negative sentiments before it erupts into full-scale discord between the people and the government. By electing any of the three candidates except Dr. Tony Tan, it will somewhat alleviate the ground resentment, while minimizing the impact on the PAP administrative power due to the limited role of the presidential position (as noted by the Law Minister) [21]. Hence, it is also in the interest of PAP government supporters to choose other candidates rather than Dr. Tony Tan.

Election Symbols

Some may regard using the election symbols as one of the criteria to assess the presidential candidates’ as tantamount to child’s play. However, choosing the right sign does provide some weak evidence of the candidates’ characters. Mr Tan Kin Lian said in his Facebook post that his raised hand symbol represents his slogan to be the Voice of the People, which somewhat signifies his commitment to be an alternative voice in the government [22]. Dr. Tan Cheng Bock uses the palm tree to symbolize multiculturalism and signify his intention to unify the people, which can serve to resolve the current division among Singapore’s society [22]. Mr. Tan Jee Say uses the heart to represent conscience and empathy[2] [22], which is the most fundamental element in building a balanced and harmonious society.

What about Dr. Tony Tan’s election symbol (the pair of spectacles with a purported resemblance to his own and which is supposed to signify his self-claimed capability “to be able to see clearly, steadily, into the future?” [22]. The fear is that it may be more representative of his short-sightedness since spectacles are also used for myopia.


Based on the evidence above, the scoreboard for the presidential candidates is as below. Based on the criteria listed, it seems that Mr. Tan Jee Say provides the best bet. In contrast, Dr. Tony Tan appeared to be the least credible among the four candidates in being a “people’s president”. Given the various evidences, there is no incentive for him to be the voice of the people, and to advocate for the welfare of the general public, except his contacts in the business sector. His mere claim about concern for the less well-off, and to be an independent voice in the government, amounts to non-credible cheap talk that is likely to result in a babbling equilibrium[3] outcome, where it is business-as-usual within the government system.


Criteria Dr. TT Dr. TCB Mr. TKL Mr. TJS
Intention to intervene in the economy - Neutral Neutral Neutral
Endorsement - Neutral Neutral Neutral to weak +
Views on Presidential Salary - - + +
Past Actions - + - Neutral to +
Background Connection to Government - - - -
Signaling Effect - + + +
Election Symbols - - - +
Verdict Nah… Ok Ok Best Bet

Positive sign “+” indicating an expected positive score for the general public

Negative sign “-“ indicates otherwise


Yong S.K.



[1] Ng Jing Yng (August 18, 2011) “I’m tested, trusted, true: Tony Tan.” Today Online.

[2] Asiaone (August 17, 2011) “Presidential hopefuls debate leadership and economy.”

[3] Markman, Jon (December 20, 2007) “Stock market ‘winter’ is moving in” MSN Money

[4] Asiaone (August 05, 2011) “Presidential candidate: Dr. Tony Tan”

[5] Asiaone (August 05, 2011) “Presidential candidate: Mr. Tan Jee Say”

[6] Dylan Loh (Ausgust 14, 2011) “SCCCI endorses Tony Tan.” Today Online.

[7] Sarah Chang (August 08, 2011) “Tan clan federation endorses Tony Tan.” Asiaone

[8] Asiaone (August 11, 2011) “7 trade unions back Tony Tan as preferred presidential candidate”

[9] Chen Huifen (Sept 22, 2009) “How much is a buger worth.” Asiaone

[10] Asiaone (Sept 28, 2009) “How much is a burger worth.”

[11] Asiaone (August 03, 2011) “Nicole Seah roots for Tan Jee Say.”

[12] Asiaone (August 16, 2011) “What is a fair salary for the president?”

[13] (August 16, 2011) “Tony Tan refutes allegations of preferential treatment for son.”

[14] Temasek Review Emeritus website (June 28, 2011) “Tony Tan and the education review”

[15] Asiaone (June 29, 2011) “Tan Kin Lian hits back at netizen’s accusations”

[16] Asiaone (June 29, 2011) “Tan Kin Lian hits back at netizen’s accusations”


[18] Asiaone (August 05, 2011) “Presidential candidate: Mr. Tan Kin Lian”

[19] Shamim Adam and Weiyi Lim (May 08, 2011) “Singapore Election Watershed May Ease PAP’s Political Hold.” Bloomberg Online.

[20] Asiaone (August 18, 2011) “Crowds boo during Dr Tony Tan’s Nomination Day speech.”

[21] (June 10, 2011) “Shanmugam explains role of President”

[22] Asiaone (August 18, 2011) “Elections symbol rev

[1] The committee is headed by Mr Gerard Ee, Chairman, Changi General Hospital and Chairman, National Kidney Foundation. Also on board are Mr John De Payva, President, National Trades Union Congress, Ms Fang Ai Lian, Chairman, Charity Council and Chairman, Methodist Girls School Board of Management., Mr Stephen Lee Ching Yen, President, Singapore National Employers Federation, Mr Po’ad bin Shaik Abu Bakar Mattar, Member, Council of Presidential Advisers, Member, Public Service Commission, Mr George Quek, Founder and Chairman, Breadtalk Group Ltd, Vice President, Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan and Chairman, Xinmin Secondary School Advisory Committee, Mr Lucien Wong, Managing Partner, Allen & Gledhill LLP, Chairman, Maritime and Port Authority, Mr Wong Ngit Liong, Chairman, National University of Singapore Board of Trustees and Chairman & CEO, Venture Corporation Limited. Among them, Mr. Gerard Ee, Mr. Stephen Lee, Mr. George Quek, Mr Lucien Wong, and Mr Wong Ngit Liong are business leaders. (Source: Asiaone, Jun 08, 2011. “Salary-review committee seeks input from public.”)

[2] The great Chinese Neo-Confucian Philosopher, Wang Yangming, advocates cultivating the human mind (referring to the ‘heart’ in Chinese) to eradicate the selfish desires that murk the mind’s inherent nature of knowing what is right and wrong.

[3] In applying Game Theory to Economics analysis, a babbling equilibrium refers to a communication system, when added to any interactive situation (a so-called communication game), does not change the original outcome of the situation. On this aspect, having Dr. Tony Tan as elected president is unlikely to change the status quo in the public administration of Singapore.

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