Singaporeans vote for ceremonial president after rare political scandals

Citizens register to vote at a polling station for the presidential election in Singapore
Image caption,Citizens register to vote at a polling station for the presidential election in Singapore

By Frances Mao & Tessa Wong

BBC News, Singapore

Singaporeans have headed to the polls to vote in their first contested presidential election in over a decade.

The president has a mainly ceremonial role in the city-state with few powers and little say in public affairs.

But the result on Friday could be a marker of public sentiment on the long-term ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) following a string of MP scandals.

Leading candidate Tharman Shanmugaratnam was a veteran minister of Singapore’s PAP.

A former deputy prime minister and finance minister, the 66-year-old economist resigned from the People’s Action Party in June to contest the presidential election.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong heads the PAP, which suffered one of its worst electoral showings in 2020 although it still retained more than a two-thirds majority in parliament.

This year the party’s reputation has been damaged by a string of rare political scandals including a senior minister’s arrest in a corruption probe, as well as two lawmakers’ resignations over an extramarital affair.

Voters at polling stations told the BBC on Friday this could influence their vote.

“I think at this election some voters are expressing how they feel about the PAP and some are voting for who they want. It’s 50-50 i would say,” businesswoman Ms Tong told the BBC.

“But at least this time round people are more aware now of what the president can or cannot do.”

The president acts as the custodian of the city’s substantial financial reserves so Singapore requires its candidates to have either civil service or corporate experience.

Mr Shanmugaratnam is the frontrunner in the vote, the first to be contested in more than a decade – after outgoing President Halimah Yacob declined to contest a second six-year term.

The other candidates include Tan Kin Lian, a 75-year-old former insurance executive who has been criticised for social media posts he made in the past about women and Indians, and Ng Kok Song, a former wealth fund investment officer.

The candidates’ ethnicities in the multicultural but majority-Chinese city-state has been one of the issues too – with some highlighting Mr Shanmugaratnam may become the first non-Chinese president to be elected by voters.

However a voter told the BBC on Friday race was not a factor.

“I always saw it about being the best candidate and not about race,” said digital consultant Mr Anthony.

“I think we are far better off than other countries when it comes to race. I won’t say we are past race entirely, but we have what it takes to move past it in time.”

There has also been consternation among voters about the stringent restrictions on who can run for president.

They must have either served as a senior civil servant or the chief executive of a public company worth at least $500m Singaporean dollars (£292m; $370m).

Voting is compulsory for Singapore’s 2.7 million eligible citizens.

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