SINGAPORE — Before presidential elections in Singapore were introduced following a constitution amendment in 1991, the city-state’s Parliament was in charge of electing and appointing the country’s head of state.
Four presidents were appointed in that manner: Yusof Ishak (1965 to 1970), Benjamin Sheares (1971 to 1981), Devan Nair (1981 to 1985) and Wee Kim Wee (1985 to 1993).
Following the constitutional amendment to allow the president to be elected via popular vote for a six-year term, Singapore has held five presidential elections prior to this year. Of those five elections, only two were contested, while the other three saw a presidential candidate being elected unopposed.
Here’s how the five previous presidential elections transpired:
Candidates who applied for certificates of eligibility: Ong Teng Cheong, Chua Kim Yeow, JB Jeyaretnam, Tan Soo Phuan.
Eligible candidates (percentage of valid votes): Ong Teng Cheong (58.69 per cent), Chua Kim Yeow (41.31 per cent).
Candidate elected: Ong Teng Cheong.
By virtue of the transitional provisions in the Constitution of Singapore, Wee Kim Wee performed all the duties of an elected president from 1991 to 1993. When the time came for the first presidential election, Wee decided not to seek re-election, paving the way for a new president.
Ong Teng Cheong was the deputy prime minister then, and was known for being the key advocate behind the construction of the MRT train network. He resigned from the Parliament as well as the People’s Action Party (PAP) to run for the election.
Workers’ Party secretary-general JB Jeyaretnam and party member Tan Soo Phuan had also applied for the certificates of eligibility, but both were rejected.
Some PAP and cabinet members preferred Chua Kim Yeow, Singapore’s first auditor-general, but Chua was a reluctant candidate and had to be persuade to run so that the first presidential election would not be a walkover. Chua finally agreed, but frequently said during the campaigning period that Ong was the better candidate.
Even so, he garnered a respectable 41.31 per cent of the votes, as Ong won 58.69 per cent at the elections and was sworn in as Singapore fifth President on 1 September 1993.
Candidates who applied for certificates of eligibility: S R Nathan, Ooi Boon Ewe, Tan Soo Phuan.
Eligible/elected candidate: S R Nathan (unopposed)
Ong decided not to run for a second term as president in 1999 partially because of the death of his wife. During his tenure, he had also run into a dispute with the government over access to information about Singapore’s financial reserves.
S R Nathan, who had served as Singapore’s High Commissioner to Malaysia and Ambassador to the United States, came forward to announce his intention to run, and was supported by then-senior minister Lee Kuan Yew as well as former president Wee.
Presidential elections were scheduled to be held on 18 August, but other than Nathan, two opposition politicians – Ooi Boon Ewe and Tan Soo Phuan – had their applications for certificates of eligibility rejected.
Therefore Nathan was elected in an uncontested election, and was sworn in as Singapore’s sixth President on 1 September.
Candidates who applied for certificates of eligibility: S R Nathan, Andrew Kuan, Ooi Boon Ewe, Ramachandran Govindasamy Naidu.
Eligible/elected candidate: S R Nathan (unopposed)
After his first six-year team, Nathan decided to seek re-election for a second presidential term.
Elections were scheduled to be held on 17 August, and four candidates submitted the application forms of certificates of eligibility, including Nathan.
One of them was Andrew Kuan, former chief financial officer of Jurong Town Corporation (JTC). However, JTC came out to say that his work had been unsatisfactory and he had been asked to resign twice in 2003 and 2004.
Eventually, Kuan’s application was rejected – along with those by Ooi and Ramachandran Govindasamy Naidu – with the presidential elections committee (PEC) saying that Kuan’s seniority and responsibility were not comparable to those required by the Constitution.
Nathan was thus re-elected unopposed for his second presidential term. His subsequent 12-year tenure made him the longest-serving President of Singapore.
Candidates who applied for certificates of eligibility: Tony Tan, Tan Cheng Bock, Tan Jee Say, Tan Kin Lian, Andrew Kuan, Ooi Boon Ewe.
Eligible candidates (percentage of valid votes): Tony Tan (35.2 per cent), Tan Cheng Bock (34.85 per cent), Tan Jee Say (25.04 per cent), Tan Kin Lian (4.91 per cent).
Candidate elected: Tony Tan.
With Nathan declining to seek re-election at age 87, the scene was set for a new president to be elected in 2011. And when the PEC approved four applications for certificates of eligibility, Singaporeans were faced with an unprecedented four-way contest to select the country’s seventh President.
Coincidentally, all four candidates are surnamed Tan. Tony Tan had been the Deputy Prime Minister and PAP chairman; Tan Cheng Bock was a former PAP Member of Parliament; Tan Jee Say was an ex-civil servant and Singapore Democratic Party member; and Tan Kin Lian was the ex-chief executive officer of NTUC Income.
The campaign period saw well-attended rallies as well as a televised forum, as the four candidates were engaged in a close contest, especially since this presidential election was held just three months after the 2011 general election, where the ruling PAP garnered its lowest percentage of votes since Singapore’s independence (60.1 per cent).
Sure enough, the polling results threw up such a narrow margin between the top two candidates that a recount was required. Eventually, it was Tony Tan who emerged victorious with 35.20 per cent of the votes, just 0.35 per cent more than Tan Cheng Bock (34.85 per cent).
Candidates who applied for certificates of eligibility: Halimah Yacob, Mohamed Salleh Marican, Farid Khan, Shirwin Eu, Ooi Boon Ewe.
Eligible/elected candidate: Halimah Yacob (unopposed)
Amendments to the Constitution of Singapore in 2016 resulted in the 2017 president elections being reserved for candidates from the Malay community. This meant that incumbent president Tony Tan could not seek re-election; neither could Tan Cheng Bock, who narrowly lost the 2011 election.
With the likes of former Speaker of Parliament Abdullah Tarmugi and incumbent minister for communication and information Yaacob Ibrahim declining to be candidates, it was Halimah Yacob who emerged as the key candidate from the public sector, having served as an MP since 2001 and the Speaker of Parliament from 2013 to 2017.
Two potential candidates emerged from the private sector. Mohamed Salleh Marican was the founding chairman and CEO of 2nd Chance Properties, the first company owned by a Malay-Muslim to be listed in Singapore. Meanwhile, Farid Khan was the chairman of Bourbon Offshore Asia Pacific, an offshore oil and gas marine provider in the region, and founder of Bumi Subsea, an undersea operation firm.
However, both of them fell short of the criterion of holding a CEO position in a company with a shareholders’ equity value of $500 million. As a result, Halimah was declared winner in an uncontested election to become Singapore’s eighth President, but her walkover victory generated controversy over the electoral process.
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