Bloomberg News

Tony Tan Wins Singapore Presidential Race With Close Victory

August 27, 2011

(Updates with comments from Tan in fourth paragraph.)

Aug. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Singapore’s former Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan won the island’s presidential election in a recount with a margin of victory of about 0.3 percent.

Tan defeated his closest opponent, Tan Cheng Bock, a former Singapore lawmaker, in the recount after his margin of victory in a four-way race was smaller than 2 percent. He garnered 35.19 percent of the votes cast compared with 34.85 percent for the second-place candidate. The president holds office for a six- year term.

The president-elect, who served in the cabinet of all three Singapore prime ministers and was a member of the ruling party until June, won 744,397 votes of 2,115,188 valid ballots cast, Returning Officer Yam Ah Mee said in a nationally televised announcement at 4:25 a.m. local time. Tan takes office Sept. 1.

“I pledge to work for each and every one of you,” Tan said in his victory speech broadcast on the Straits Times website. “The real work begins straightaway. In the next six years, I will work very hard to strive to be the best possible president that I can be, to work for all of you and to represent our country and all Singaporeans.”

Tan was the contender most closely associated with the People’s Action Party and received the backing of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong even as he ran as an independent. His narrow winning margin suggests Lee still has more to do to appease citizens after the PAP retained power in the May general election with the lowest support since independence in 1965, said economist Song Seng-Wun.

‘Winds of Change’

“The winds of change will still be pushing through and the pressure on the PAP to relook at how it governs the country remains” even after Tony Tan’s win, said Song of CIMB Research Pte in Singapore. “The question is whether the change will be accelerated or gradual.”

Tan, 71, will be the city-state’s third president since the constitution was amended 20 years ago to allow elections for what had been a largely ceremonial role. Citizens in the former British colony voted for a replacement for President S.R. Nathan from the biggest field of contenders since polls for the office were allowed in 1991. Because Nathan was uncontested for his two terms, no votes were held.

While Singapore’s laws don’t allow the publication of pre- election surveys or exit polls, Tan was endorsed by several labor unions and was regarded as the front runner.

Wealth Fund

The president-elect was deputy chairman of Government of Singapore Investment Corp. before he resigned last month to run for president. The sovereign wealth fund manages more than $100 billion of the city-state’s reserves. He stepped down from politics in 2006 after serving as a minister and member of parliament for 27 years.

Singapore’s president can veto government budgets and key public appointments. Those decisions may be overturned by a majority on the eight-member Council of Presidential Advisers and a two-thirds vote in Parliament -- where the PAP still holds 81 of 87 seats. The president is also responsible for safeguarding the national reserves.

Of the other candidates, Tan Kin Lian was chief executive officer of insurer NTUC Income and a PAP member, and Tan Cheng Bock was a ruling party lawmaker. Tan Jee Say was a former civil servant and, most recently, an opposition politician.

A win by Tan Jee Say would have been a “real shock to the ruling elite” and victory for Tan Cheng Bock, while more palatable to the PAP, would still be “a slap in the face,” said Manu Bhaskaran, Singapore-based head of economic research at Centennial Group Holdings, which advises on emerging markets.

More Responsive

Prime Minister Lee vowed to be more responsive to public criticism after support for his party fell to a record low of 60 percent in the May general election and the number of opposition members in parliament tripled.

A more vocal electorate had stoked debate on the role of the president, with some candidates pledging to consult the public and act as a check on the government, which says such moves would be unconstitutional.

A president would be “acting unconstitutionally” by engaging publicly on political issues or contradicting the government, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said in an Aug. 5 speech. “Direct elections do not give the elected president the right to speak independently.”

The president must follow the Cabinet’s advice and cannot act or speak publicly on issues of the day except as advised by the Cabinet, he said, adding that this followed principles adopted from English, Indian and Malaysian constitutional law.

Tax Cuts

Singapore, ranked by the World Bank as the easiest place to do business, cut taxes in recent years to spur investment, prompting companies to hire hundreds of thousands of foreigners to fill positions. The island was among the top 20 destinations for international investment last year, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

Citizens have expressed discontent over rising costs and competition with foreigners for jobs and housing, prompting the government to tighten curbs on workers from overseas and allow more Singaporeans to buy apartments at subsidized prices.

“There’s still a lot of unhappiness about various issues,” Bhaskaran said. “The sting of that unhappiness hasn’t quite been removed.”

--With assistance from Christian Schmollinger in Singapore. Editor: Paul Tighe

To contact the reporter on this story: Shamim Adam in Singapore at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephanie Phang at

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