Anger, rage, disappointment and a profound sense of sadness – these were emotions which coursed through the veins of many Singaporeans who were aggrieved at the non-election of the next President of Singapore. It did not come as a surprise that only one Certificate of Eligibility was issued – to the former Speaker of Parliament and current President Halimah Yacob. Aspiring hopefuls and her would-be contenders for the highest office in the land were disqualified as they were unable to meet the SGD500million qualifying threshold for private sector candidates. Hence, the Presidential Election 2017 (PE2017) was consigned to a walkover for the PAP government-endorsed candidate.

I was not angry as much as I was disappointed at the way the ruling government push through complicated changes which all but assured that the preferred choice for the next president was appointed and not elected. I felt a profound and pervasive sense of sadness – how did we end up like this?

Prima facie, it is hard to argue that no tenets of democracy and meritocracy – key pillars undergirding Singapore as a nation and society – were undermined. Many Singaporeans would have celebrated the victory of Halimah Yacob with great and genuine joy if she were given the opportunity to contest and campaign against other candidates (she would probably have won with a decent margin, given her track record and her affable demeanour). Instead, she was denied the dignity of winning the PE2017 and becoming President by dint of her merits and mettle.

I would have joined the chorus of congratulatory voices had Halimah faced down and triumphed against her opponents in PE2017. No doubt she has smashed glass ceilings – being Malay-Muslim and a female – in the traditionally male-dominated political landscape. Puan Halimah is a shining example for all Singaporeans – not just the fairer sex – for she is an exemplar of dedication and truly a success story mirroring the Singapore’s transition from Third World to First. But her ascendancy to the president’s office will always be marred by the stain that is her selection by default, that there was no election.

The protest at Hong Lim Park

I was at Hong Lim Park on Saturday to witness the silent sit-in protest organised by some civil society members. Buoyed by an earlier announcement by Dr Tan Cheng Bock, the runner-up by the most razor-thin of margins in PE2011 and well-loved public figure, the crowd at the Speaker’s Corner was sizeable (probably one thousand-plus people turned up, not merely hundreds as reported by the mainstream media). I saw many placards harking back to memories of the former president Ong Teng Cheong, who was truly a man of the people. There were also angry comments that Singaporeans were denied democracy and that Halimah Yacob was #notmypresident. And when Dr Tan arrived at the protest venue, he was feted with thunderous applause, with a crowd mobbing him for handshakes and selfies.

It is obvious that Dr Tan would have been a much stronger contender if pitted against Halimah Yacob (but it would have been a good contest of ideas and wills between two heavyweights). It is also clear that Singaporeans are upset that their right to vote for the head of state was forcibly taken away from them by the various processes put in place by the PAP government. It is also telling of certain insecurities that the powers-that-be would not allow PE2017 to go to the ballot boxes despite the high probability that Halimah Yacob would have still won (and the Presidential Elections Committee could have easily allowed both Farid Khan and Salleh Marican to split the anti-establishment vote).

Remember that we are all pro-Singapore

While catchy and made popular in the US by anti-Trump groups, the notion of #notmypresident is not a healthy one to adopt in Singapore. The government has played a risky card by focusing the spotlight on race. A can of worms has been opened and we as a responsible citizenry must repel racial politics and rebuke the PAP government for doing so.

“The President must be above partisan politics, even though the decisions he makes are, in the wide sense of the word, political ones. He must protect the interests of Singapore as a whole.
– Former President Ong Teng Cheong, 1 September 1993, in a speech after the Presidential swearing-in ceremony.”

I am of the opinion that President Halimah Yacob is the president for all Singaporeans and we must unite as one nation to move on from this debilitating episode. We must continue to forge ever-closer ties among Singaporeans, regardless of race, language and religion. We must tell off those who say that we are racist at heart – for I believe in Singaporeans and the strong social fabric we have weaved together painstakingly over the many years of nationhood.

I must urge all Singaporeans, while disagreeing with how the PAP government changed the rules of the game to leave potential candidates by the wayside and ensured the near-eventuality that the establishment candidate would prevail, to not direct opprobrium against the newly minted Madam President.

President Halimah Yacob indeed has her work cut out for her – to win over the respect of a plurality of Singaporeans in order to gain moral authority, to display clearly her non-partisan credentials by being an effective check on the elected government, and to undertake genuine initiatives using the privilege of her position to unify Singaporeans and strengthen the social fabric.

I harbour great hopes that she would be an impactful president – Halimah Yacob has a long and sterling track record of public service and I am sure that this heart to serve will shine through even more now that she is the head of state. She might yet surprise Singaporeans from all political stripes if she manages to assert herself as a distinct and independent power centre and counterbalances the executive branch of government.

After all, hope springs eternal.

Remember that in a democratic system, elected politicians – even the Prime Minister – serve at the pleasure of the citizenry. They are not a natural aristocracy and if they choose to live with their heads in the clouds in their ivory towers, we the people must remind them that the political mandate to govern on the behalf of Singaporeans, given in one election, can easily be revoked in the next and handed to the political party most dedicated to the improvement and advancement of the collective interests of Singapore and Singaporeans.