Singapore, September 2: Singapore’s President-elect Tharman Shanmugaratnam, a man of Jaffna-Tamil origin, said on Saturday that he was surprised at the margin of his victory at Friday’s polls, calling it a vote for an optimistic future and a vote for unity.
The 66-year-old former senior minister scored a landslide win with 70.4 per cent of the ballot, beating fellow candidates Ng Kok Song and Tan Kin Lian, both 75, who received 15.72 per cent and 13.88 per cent of the vote respectively.
Shanmugaratnam said the result was a real positive for Singapore, and that he had not expected “such remarkable unity”.
“In fact, walking around today in several hawker centres, although people were congratulating me, I was actually congratulating them,” he told reporters at Toa Payoh Hub, his last stop in a series of post-victory walkabouts on Saturday morning.
“It would otherwise not have been possible for me to have had that margin,” said Shanmugaratnam..
“I do believe very strongly that it is an expression of hope, an expression of the desire for an optimistic future, and an expression of wanting to work together, including in new ways,” he added.
Lauding Singaporeans for being “sensible”, Mr Tharman said the presidential election was a milestone in the way that Singapore has been evolving.
He noted how race was not the only factor in the contest, and said he believed that the results showed that Singaporeans want a non-partisan president.
He also said the election result showed that voters did not see his years of political service as a disadvantage and did not hold it against him.
“My on-the-ground experience, my policymaking experience and, of course, my international experience have been a huge source of strength, and it wouldn’t have come about if I hadn’t spent 22 years in politics,” Mr Shanmugaratnam said.
Referencing the president’s role as the “second key” to the nation’s reserves, Mr Shamugaratnam said it was not a simple matter of deciding whether to turn it or not.
“You’ve got to understand the challenges Singapore faces, you’ve got to understand the revenue options, you’ve got to understand the spending priorities, both in normal times… (and) in crisis times.
“Understanding the ins and outs of the government budget and the budgets of the other public agencies concerned is invaluable knowledge and experience,” he added.
Asked if he had anything to say to the voters who did not pick him at the ballot box, Mr Tharman said he would serve them to the fullest regardless.
“I did not expect such a high degree of endorsement, which also means that there were a fair number of people who would normally not vote in favour of the ruling party who decided that this was not a political election,” he said.
Asked which part of his campaign strategy during the nine days of hustings he thought had worked in his favour, he said he did what he had always been doing.
“I did learn a fair bit about social media as someone who was a complete novice before this campaign… and I became quite active at it, but I don’t think it was any one thing,” he said.
With President Halimah Yacob’s six-year term ending on Sept 13, Mr Tharman will be sworn in as president at the Istana on Sept 14.
He told reporters on Saturday that he had not had time to think about his plans for the next two weeks, but he was looking forward to meeting Madam Halimah and seeking her advice.
“I’m not going to rush the process, but I’m very serious about wanting to fulfil the mandate that has been given to me by the people,” he added.
Mr Shanmugaratnam currently holds several international appointments, including chairman of the Group of 20’s Eminent Persons Group on Global Financial Governance and member of the World Economic Forum’s board of trustees.
He said he will be reviewing these positions now that he is set to be Singapore’s ninth president. He added that he will also need to go along with the advice of the Cabinet on whether keeping some of these appointments is in Singapore’s interests.
With the next general election due by 2025, Mr Shamugaratnam’s six-year presidential term is expected to coincide with a change of leadership within the ruling People’s Action Party.
During his recent National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that his succession plans were back on track, recounting how his original plan before the Covid-19 pandemic was to hand over and step down as prime minister by 2022, before his 70th birthday.
Asked how he sees the president’s role in this leadership transition, Mr Shamugaratnam said this was one of the reasons why he had put himself forward for the presidential role.
“I feel we’re going through a very important transition and, as I mentioned, it’s not going to be a matter of clearing one hurdle where there’s a change in political leadership,” he said.
“It’s actually a new era that we’ve entered. Singapore society is changing, Singapore politics is changing, and I think the relationship between the president and the prime minister, the new prime minister, should be a constructive one; and I believe we can make that work,” he added.
Mr Shanmgaratnam expects his relationship with Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, who has been earmarked for the top job, to be one of trust and mutual respect.
“As you know, I have a high regard for him and I believe that we will have a very constructive relationship.”
Noting how the president is not a solo operator when it comes to the international stage, he added that Singapore’s head of state has to work together with the Government in this respect.
He said: “The president represents Singapore, and it’s critical that the president and the Government have good relations and are working as one.”
The President in the Singapore constitution
Under the Singapore Constitution, the President is the Head of State. The Prime Minister is the Head of Government. The direction and control of the Government rests with the Prime Minister, together with the Cabinet.
As the Head of State, the President is the symbol of national unity. The President presides over important national events, such as the National Day Parade and the Opening of Parliament. He (or she) also exercises custodial powers as conferred by the Constitution.
The President stands above party politics and therefore cannot be a member of a political party.
How the President works with Parliament and the Cabinet:
The Cabinet has the general direction and control of the Government. It makes and implements policies. The Cabinet is led by the Prime Minister, who must command the confidence of Parliament.
The Cabinet as a whole is collectively responsible to Parliament. Parliament, in turn, is responsible for scrutinising and passing legislation. The Cabinet and Parliament are ultimately accountable to the electorate for the laws and policies that they make.
The Constitution requires the President to act on the Cabinet’s advice in exercising his functions, except in specific areas where the Constitution empowers the President to act in his discretion.