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Singapore elects Tharman Shanmugaratnam as new president in first contested vote in 12 years

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Singaporeans have chosen former senior minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam as their ninth president, following the city-state’s first contested presidential election in more than a decade. Tharman, who is widely seen as the preferred candidate of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), won by a landslide margin of 76.6% of the votes, defeating his two rivals Ng Kok Song and Tan Kin Lia.

The presidential election, which was held on Friday, September 2, 2023, came amid a rare political turmoil in Singapore, where the PAP has been in power for over six decades. The PAP faced a series of scandals involving corruption, sexual misconduct and money laundering, which eroded its public trust and popularity. The president, who is supposed to be politically neutral, has limited but significant powers to act as a check and balance on the government, such as the ability to approve anti-corruption investigations and veto certain decisions

Tharman, who served as finance minister and deputy prime minister under former Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, is widely respected for his economic expertise and leadership skills. He is also seen as a progressive and inclusive leader who can appeal to the diverse and multicultural society of Singapore. He pledged to uphold the integrity and stability of the country, and to promote social justice and harmony among its people.

“I am humbled by the trust and support of Singaporeans. I will do my best to serve you as your president, and to represent our nation with dignity and pride,” Tharman said in his victory speech. “I will also work closely with the government, the parliament and the civil society to ensure that Singapore remains a vibrant and resilient democracy, where everyone has a stake and a voice.”

Tharman’s opponents, Ng Kok Song and Tan Kin Lian, both former chief executives of state-owned companies, congratulated him on his win and thanked their supporters for their participation. They also expressed their hope that Tharman would be a unifying figure for the nation and a guardian of its core values.

The voter turnout for the presidential election was 81.5%, slightly lower than the 83.8% recorded in the last general election in 2020. Some analysts attributed this to the dissatisfaction and disillusionment of some voters with the political system and the candidates. There were also reports of some voters spoiling their ballots as a form of protest.

The presidential election was preceded by a controversial nomination process that critics said was too restrictive and favoured candidates from within the system. The eligibility criteria for candidates from the private sector were particularly stringent, requiring them to have led a company with at least S$500 million ($370 million) in shareholders’ equity for at least three years. A fourth candidate, George Goh, who claimed to have met this requirement with his five companies, was rejected by the Presidential Elections Committee, which said it was “not satisfied that the five companies constituted a single private sector organisation”.

Goh denounced the decision as “shocking” and “a sad day not just for me, but for Singapore”. He also accused the committee of being biased and unfair. Some observers said that Goh’s rejection reflected the lack of diversity and representation in Singapore’s political system, which is dominated by the PAP and its allies.

The presidential election is expected to have implications for the future direction of Singapore’s politics and society, especially as the country prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary of independence next year. Tharman will face the challenge of balancing his role as a ceremonial head of state and a custodian of the national reserves and public service, while also addressing the concerns and aspirations of Singaporeans amid a changing global landscape.

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