Good design is one thing. The outcome of the design is another thing as seen in Singapore Presidential Election. The proposed framework of 2017 Chief Executive election in Hong Kong seems to suggest a design framework favouring a pro-Beijing candidate. However, if we look closely at the similar presidential election in Singapore, the outcome, surprisingly, turned out to be quite different from the original plan of the design.
The political reform for the 2017 Hong Kong Chief Executive election seems to model after Singapore Presidential election introduced in 1993. You can call it a one-man one-vote Universal Suffrage election but there is a pre-condition for candidates standing for the election.
Here, we have a Presidential Elections Committee to approve the candidates and issue the eligibility certificates. Without the PEC eligibility forms, no one can stand as PE candidate. Only with the approving letter from PEC, Election Department in Singapore will then accept the nomination of the candidate.
In Hong Kong, under the political reform, the 2 to 3 candidates will first have to get approval from the Nominating Committee. Candidates need to get 50% and above support from the members of NC to qualify for CE election. The Nominating Committee has 1,200 members. In 2011, PEC had only three members.
The Hong Kong NC has many more members than the Singapore PEC . While the PEC looks at the ‘protection of reserve’ qualification of candidates, the NC seems to look at the pro-Beijing loyalty of the candidates.
In both PE in Singapore and CE election in Hong Kong, an eligibility status is required and a committee is empowered to approve and issued eligibility certificates. This is why people call it a ‘closed’ and not Open election.
Singapore Presidential Election has existed since 1993 and in fact, in Singapore, Universal Suffrage is not an issue as we have already exercised it in general elections for members of parliament. However, voters are always guessing who will be the candidates, or whether there will be a walkover in PE.
Perhaps, the clever promotion of the PAP has misled Singaporeans into believing that one will need to be a ‘super financial expert overseeing large sum of money’ to qualify to stand for PE election.
We only ask who is ‘eligible’ to stand or whether there will be another walkover. We seldom ask about Universal Suffrage or Open election. We accept the fact (fate) that the PAP decides who can stand for election.
Some surprises in Singapore experience
1. A pro-PAP President turns against the PAP
This happens in the first PE in Singapore. The PAP prefered candidate Ong Teng Cheong, a former Deputy Prime Minister stood against a former Accountant-General, Chua Kim Yeow. Even Ong went through but the non-campaigned Chua managed to get 41% of the votes. It showed voters wanted a less ‘white’ and independent candidate to be the President to safeguard the reserve.
[Chua was a reluctant candidate and had to be persuaded by the Government to stand so that the election would be contested, and the electorate could choose between two good candidates.
The 10-day campaign was supposed to be a "gentlemen's election", free of flag-waving and noisy rallies. But Chua took it to the extreme, urging supporters not to campaign for him. He appeared on TV just twice (once avoiding any mention of himself or his views), and even announced on polling day that Ong was the better candidate. Even so, Chua did surprisingly well, garnering 41.3% of the vote.]#1
However, Ong questioned about the reserve and the time taken to calculate the reserve as well as the sale of POSB Bank to DBS Bank. His ‘doing the right things’ won many respects from Singaporeans even until today.
[However, soon after his election to the presidency in 1993, Ong was tangled in a dispute over the access of information regarding Singapore's financial reserves. The government said it would take 56-man-years to produce a dollar-and-cents value of the immovable assets. Ong discussed this with the accountant general and the auditor general and eventually conceded that the government only had to declare all of its properties, a list which took a few months to produce. Even then, the list was not complete; it took the government a total of three years to produce the information that Ong requested.
In an interview with Asiaweek six months after stepping down from presidency,Ong indicated that he had asked for this audit based on the principle that as an elected president, he was bound to protect the national reserves, and the only way of doing so would be to know what reserves (both liquid cash and assets) the government owned.] #2
2. The ugly surprise of 2 walkovers
Due to the bad experience with Ong Teng Cheong, the PAP decided to support a former security and intelligence chief, SR Nathan to stand for PE. Not surprisingly, there was no other suitable and qualified candidate, the PEC finally only issued one eligibility certificate to only one person, SR Nathan in 1999 and 2005. Perhaps, the PAP has lost confidence on their ministers or former ministers and thinking a person in charge of security and intelligence can be trusted.
The two walkovers in PE shows something very wrong in the design of Presidential Election. It shows the ‘haves’ who are qualified to stand will not come forward (there is no Michael Bloomberg in Singapore) for the betterment of Singapore. It also shows how the system is being manipulated so that only pro-PAP candidate will get the eligibility certificate.
It paints a very bad image of Singapore internationally. If there is no contest, why there is a need for elected president?
3. The very low support of pro-PAP candidate
In a surprise move, four persons received eligibility certificates from the PEC in 2011. However, it was a very closed competition. The PAP supported Tony Tan only managed to get 35.2% of the votes, a narrow win of 0.34% over the second best candidate, Tan Cheng Bok. The winning percentage of Tony Tan was even lower than the 39% of the votes that Chen Shui Bian received in 2000 during the Taiwan presidential election.
From 58% in 1993 to 35% in 2011, is this the design outcome that the PAP wants? The PAP cleverly designs a Presidential Election in her favour, including the condition of eligibility certificate. However, it can no longer guarantee a desirable and expected outcome that they want in future. It exposes the vulnerability of the system. Any candidate that is as white as the PAP seems to carry a bag of negative assets and plenty of liabilities.
The Singapore experience and lesson can provide another vision to the political reform in Hong Kong. As far as you have the right to vote, there are possible changes and unexpected outcome whether it is a close or open election. The only certainty is there is a walkover like the case in 1999 and 2005 PE.
Both Singapore and Hong Kong is expected to hold PE and CE election in 2017. Do you think there will be a walkover in both cities then?