Singapore presidential race goes down to the wire

Filed on August 28, 2011

SINGAPORE - Singapore’s presidential poll went down to the wire on Sunday after election officials ordered a recount because of a razor-thin difference between the two leading candidates.

A political maverick, medical doctor Tan Cheng Bock, mounted a stunning challenge against a former top leader of the ruling party, Tony Tan, who was widely regarded as the man to beat in Saturday’s four-way race.

National broadcaster MediaCorp said Tony Tan was just ahead in the first tally and the recount would take two to three hours.

“I think we have to wait for the official results,” he said in a live broadcast. “I ask everybody to be patient for a little while longer.”

The Elections Department ordered the recount of all votes cast after the first tally showed the two frontrunners were less than two percent apart, an official statement from the poll watchdog said.

Both men are 71 and former members of the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has been in power since 1959, but Tan Cheng Bock openly courted the opposition vote and Tony Tan positioned himself as a pillar of continuity.

Under the law, presidential candidates run as individuals because the head of state is supposed to be non-partisan.

“This is an evolution of the political landscape,” said Bridget Welsh, a political science professor at the Singapore Management University.

Singaporeans “are tired of elitism” and Tony Tan is seen as a representative of the political elite, she told AFP.

Singapore is a former British colony with a Westminster-style parliamentary system. It instituted the presidency in 1965, when it became a republic.

The near-deadlock came three months after general elections in which the PAP suffered its worst ever poll showing with an all-time low of 60 percent of votes cast.

The presidential campaign was dominated by calls for an independent head of state to serve as a check on the PAP, which steered Singapore to prosperity but now finds itself under withering attack from Singaporeans in online forums that now set the tone of political debate.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong revamped his cabinet after the May 7 general elections and announced reforms to address voter gripes topped by the rising cost of living, lack of affordable housing, congested public transport and competition from foreign workers.

The president is the custodian of Singapore’s foreign reserves, which stood at close to $250 billion in July, and can veto their use by the government.

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

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,” veteran political watcher Seah Chiang Nee said before the vote.

“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

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