Singapore votes for new president

2011-08-27 08:58

Singapore - Singaporeans voted Saturday in the city-state's first contested presidential election in 18 years following a heated campaign marked by calls for stronger checks on the ruling party.

Polls opened at 08:00am amid rain showers and will close at 20:00. The winner is expected to be known hours after voting centres close.

Three months after a parliamentary election eroded the dominance of the People's Action Party (PAP), which has ruled since 1959, anti-government sentiment is still running high in the online forums that now shape political debate in Singapore.

Four candidates are running and there are around 2.3 million eligible voters.

The job of president in Singapore is non-partisan and the publication of pre-election survey results is banned, but former deputy prime minister Tony Tan, 71, who quit the PAP in June, is seen as the man to beat.

The three other candidates are former legislator and ex-PAP member Tan Cheng Bock, former insurance cooperative boss Tan Kin Lian and former corporate executive Tan Jee Say, who also worked in the civil service.

Although it is a largely ceremonial post, interest in the presidency intensified after the PAP lost six parliamentary seats in May and saw its share of votes drop to an all-time low of 60%, from nearly 67% in the previous election.

Analysts said voters now see the presidency as an institution that can serve as a check on the PAP, which has been in power since Singapore gained independence from Britain.

The PAP was widely criticised before the May polls for its socio-economic policies as well as the rising cost of living despite shepherding Singapore's rapid rise to become one of Asia's most advanced economies in just over three decades.

Voting is compulsory in Singapore, where the president was handpicked by parliament until direct elections were introduced in 1993, when only two candidates ran.

Outgoing president SR Nathan, a former civil servant perceived to be close to the PAP, was elected unopposed in 1999 and 2005.

The nine-day campaign for Saturday's vote was dominated by calls for an independent president who can serve as a balancing force against the PAP.

Singaporeans want an "independent fellow who is not beholden to anybody but who can speak on behalf of the people rather than a political party," said veteran political watcher Seah Chiang Nee.

"A lot of people until now dare not speak against the PAP, so if you can come across someone who has the integrity and courage to speak out, people will vote for that candidate," said Seah, who runs the independent website

The president has the power to act as a check and balance on the government, primarily as custodian of Singapore’s foreign reserves, which stood at close to $250bn in July.

He has to sign appointments of senior government, civil service, military and judicial officials and can grant clemency to criminals awaiting execution.

Analysts say that even if Tony Tan wins, his share of all votes cast will be closely watched as a measure of support for the PAP.

The three candidates opposing Tony Tan took strongly critical positions against the PAP’s record, but the former deputy premier urged voters to rise above partisan politics.

He described the campaign as "one of the most challenging things I have ever done" and also "the most exciting".