A President re-elected

Print edition : September 23, 2005

S. Ramanathan, an ethnic Indian, is elected unopposed for a second term as Singapore's President.

P. S. SURYANARAYANA in Singapore

ED WRAY/AP

THE strategically located city-state of Singapore often plays a role on the East Asian stage and in the wider international arena that surprises seasoned observers, given its small size and the fact that it has no hinterland or natural resources.

This is easily explained by Singapore's physical location at the mouth of the busiest word-trade route - the Straits of Malacca - and, equally important, by its conscious efforts to respond to the new phenomenon of "global politics" (Strobe Talbott's definitive phrase) as distinct from conventional geopolitics.

A relatively little known aspect of Singapore is its conscious effort, especially at the official level, to sustain the historically multiracial city as a cosmopolitan state and society. It is in this significant sub-text of Singapore's polity that the recent re-election of Sellappan Ramanathan (better known as S. R. Nathan), an ethnic Indian, acquires importance on the international stage.

Merit is often the buzzword in official circles, and the 81-year-old Nathan's unopposed re-election should be seen in this context rather than in the context of the lament of the younger generation and some opinion-makers in the city-state that the absence of a contest, for the second successive time in his case, may have somehow devalued the event itself.

Nathan maintained, at a post-election press conference on August 17, that he was "not afraid" of a contest and that there was "no threat" from the establishment to "discourage" any prospective candidates from entering the field. Above all, he emphasised, unopposed victories were also part of the "democratic processes."

Unlike in 1999, when Nathan was elected unchallenged for the first time for a six-year term, there was some expectation among the three-million citizens this time that a contest might actually be seen. The reason seemed to have something to do with the preferences of the younger generation in the 40-year-old republic. The elective presidency is relatively new, with Ong Teng Cheong being not only Nathan's predecessor but also the first person to be voted to the highest constitutional office through an election. The earlier Presidents were not elected officials.

In all, four candidate-aspirants, including Nathan, sought the mandatory Certificate of Eligibility from the Presidential Elections Committee in the pre-nomination phase this time. Given the particularly high standards set for eligibility, the President alone received the go-ahead signal for filing the nomination papers. That effectively gave Nathan the presidency for a second successive term, with effect from September 1.

This has turned the spotlight on the mandatory need for high credentials for the post of a constitutional head of state, as different from the head of government. In Singapore, though, the President is vested with the "custodial powers to protect the country's financial reserves against a profligate government" in the future, the Presidential Elections Committee noted on August 13, while announcing its decision on the eligibility of the four who sought pre-nomination certificates.

The powers to safeguard Singapore's financial reserves, inclusive of its huge foreign exchange accumulations, are quite unusual for a constitutional head of state. Singapore's successive governments are known to have exercised prudence in economic management and guarded the financial reserves.

However, the political argument is that the reserves require to be protected from any assault by a possibly "profligate government" at some stage in the future. It is in this context that the President noted, in response to a question, that "certain principles have been enunciated" and already "put into practice" during his first term and his predecessor's reign.

Although Nathan began his presidency as an "unknown quantity" (his self-description) except among the elite, his social service activities during the first term endeared him to the people. Equally important is the expertise of a civil servant and diplomat that he has brought to his office.

During his years as a civil servant, he earned a reputation for crisis management at the field-level on a couple of occasions. The better known of these, one that placed him in the public limelight, was his deft handling of a crisis during his term as Singapore's Ambassador to the United States.

The city-state has had, and continues to have, a political equation with the U.S. that is considered by both sides to be important to the "strategic stability" of the region around the Straits of Malacca. The crisis that Nathan was required to manage, as an envoy, centred on the U.S.' perception of the strict manner in which Singapore handled a case of crime committed by an American national.

For Nathan the President what matters more than his civil service expertise, including the experience of dealing with "external intelligence", is his desire to ensure that the elective presidency "takes root" as a people-friendly institution. His humble beginnings and humanist view of the workers' interests as also his flair for languages and culture are no less important in defining his presidency.

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