"Amnesty International criticises the government for penalising activists for exercising their right to free speech, while Reporters without Borders ranks Singapore 136th in terms of press freedom, below the likes of Iraq and Zimbabwe."
Singapore poll shows many still upset with long-ruling PAP
By Kevin Lim
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Former Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan's narrow win during Singapore's presidential election shows many voters are still unhappy with the long-ruling People's Action Party (PAP), but that they favour moderate rather than radical alternatives.
Supporters of the opposition Workers' Party of Singapore cheer as they wait for election results at a stadium in Singapore May 7, 2011. (REUTERS/Tim C/Files)
Tan's low share of Saturday's vote, unlikely to affect financial markets, was partly due to closest rival Tan Cheng Bock's ability to attract PAP supporters, who analysts say would not have endorsed candidates set on shaking up a regimented political system that has been key to Singapore's economic success.
Tony Tan, who was backed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and many business groups, received 35.2 percent of the 2.15 million votes cast in the first-past-the-post contest, just marginally above medical doctor Tan Cheng Bock's 34.8 percent.
Investment adviser Tan Jee Say, who had been more vocal in his criticism of the PAP, got 25.04 percent while the fourth candidate, former insurance executive Tan Kin Lian, won 4.91 percent.
The PAP, which was co-founded by Lee's father, Lee Kuan Yew, has ruled strait-laced Singapore since independence in 1965.
Tony Tan's share of vote was well below the 60 percent obtained by the PAP in May parliamentary elections, when the opposition made historic gains amid unhappiness over soaring property prices and the rapid immigration into the rich Southeast Asian city-state.
Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist Chua Hak Bin said the presidential election showed many Singaporeans were still unhappy with the PAP, which has boosted the supply of government housing and made it costlier for employers to hire foreigners since the May election.
"They are unhappy with the status quo and yet they are not willing to swing completely to a candidate they think will be too radical," he said.
Singapore's directly-elected president has historically performed mostly ceremonial duties. But the president wields veto powers that will let him delay the appointment of people to senior government positions as well as in government entities such as GIC and state investor Temasek.
Tan Cheng Bock, a former PAP parliamentarian with a track record of speaking up against unpopular policies, had said that if elected, he would use the president's powers to scrutinise government appointments more closely.
But he adopted a more conciliatory tone towards the government during the hustings than Tan Jee Say or Tan Kin Lian, and his election team included a mix of opposition figures as well as many rank-and-file PAP activists.
"PAP supporters are comfortable with both Dr Tony Tan and, to a lesser extent, Dr Tan Cheng Bock. The latter, for all his strong-willed independence, is not someone who is going to rock the boat," said Eugene Tan, a law lecturer at Singapore Management University.
Tan is the most common family name in Singapore, where ethnic Chinese make up about 75 percent of the population.
The PAP did not formally endorse Tony Tan although Lee had described him as a "unifying figure" who would bring honour and credit to Singapore.
In a message after the results, Lee said the margin of victory was narrow because both Tony Tan and Tan Cheng Bock "conveyed strong unifying messages, and declared their intention to work closely with the government".
Singapore, the Asian base for many banks and multinational companies, gets top rankings as an investment destination and for ease of doing business in international surveys.
But critics say that despite the facade of modernity, the city-state has few of the outlets for grievances normally found in a democratic society.
Amnesty International criticises the government for penalising activists for exercising their right to free speech, while Reporters without Borders ranks Singapore 136th in terms of press freedom, below the likes of Iraq and Zimbabwe.
Saturday's election, which went into a recount because of the closeness of the result, is the first contested race for president since 1993 largely due to the tough conditions set by the government for prospective candidates.
(Reporting by Kevin Lim; Editing by Nick Macfie)