“What has been built in 25 years, you can throw away in 25 days of madness,” said then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on 15 April 1984. Speaking at a walkabout forum at his Tanjong Pagar constituency, Lee was exhorting the importance of good governance and fiscal responsibility. While rhetoric like this wasn’t completely unexpected from the elder Lee, this time around it reflected the changing political environment that Singapore found itself.
In the 1981 Anson by-election, Lee Kuan Yew witnessed a 27% swing against the People’s Action Party (PAP), resulting in the party’s first defeat since independence. The PAP was also going through a leadership transition in the 1980s, with Goh Chok Tong and the second generation of party leaders being handed duties.In this uncertain environment, Lee was concerned about the prospects of a “freak election”. What would happen if Singaporeans turned against the PAP and voted in an opposition party?
To Lee, the answer was clear: fiscal chaos.
Opposition government might spend lavishly, pursuing populist policies and draining Singapore’s reserves. To his credit, he also acknowledged that the PAP wasn’t immune to these urges. “We cannot be sure that even an honest government like the PAP without that will and the resolve to resist pressures, may not be tempted to give in to pressure and subsidise. Then you use the reserves surreptitiously,” he went onto say during that speech.
How does Singapore stop something like this from happening? As early as 1984, Lee was talking about having the presidency be a “blocking mechanism” to restrain any fiscally overindulgent government.
The president would be the guardian of a key in a “two-key safeguard mechanism”. She would be the custodian of the country’s reserves and have the ability to appoint key public service officers. She would also oversee the use of the Internal Security Act, and laws related to racial harmony. The idea was debated and went through multiple drafts in the 1980s. During the 1988 general election, many opposition politicians even argued that Lee was created the post for himself to occupy, post-retirement.
On 30 November 1991, the Constitution of Singapore was amended to give the president these new powers. This was a radical departure from the traditional role of Singapore’s president. Since 1965, the largely ceremonial president was appointed by the government and acted on its advice.
Due to this increase in job scope, it was decided that the president would now be elected to secure a mandate. In the interim, Wee Kim Wee, who was then the president, would be able to exercise the new powers given to his office till his term ended in 1993.
1993 Presidential Election
A presidential election was announced in 1993 after Wee finished his term. Not anyone could stand for the presidency though. Under the Presidential Elections Act, only those who held top government positions or had been in charge companies with a paid-up capital of S$100 million could run.
Because of this, two Workers’ Party candidates – J. B. Jeyaretnam and Tan Soo Phuan – were declared ineligible. Ong Teng Cheong, then-deputy prime minister, was declared eligible after submitting his presidential eligibility forms.
Considering the strict eligibility criteria, there were fears that the country’s first presidential election would go uncontested.
The government thought that this would not be good for the legitimacy of the office. Hence, to “test the system”, senior cabinet members (including then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong) talked to an ex-civil servant named Chua Kim Yeow.
While he had been the country’s accountant-general for 18 years, Chua was an unknown figure in Singaporean politics – which might have been precisely the point. Chua initially refused, stating outright that his opponent was “a far superior” choice. Eventually, however, he agreed stating that it was an “act of public duty,”
In a statement announcing his candidacy, Chua promised that he would not hold rallies or news conferences. Instead, he would only take part in the two free, 10-minute broadcasts offered to candidates on national television.
During the first broadcast, Chua went through his entire speech without any mention of himself or his views. He also told his supporters not to campaign for him and refused to have posters and pamphlets. These supporters, who were increasingly frustrated with Chau’s minimal campaigning, started making unofficial pitches through flyers and fax.
While Chua also did not agree to most interviews due to “privacy” concerns, he made his reluctance known in the ones that he agreed to. When a reporter pointed out that he would no longer be a private citizen if he won, Chua was reported to have said “that’s the trouble”. In another interview, his daughter Hui Jin, also remarked: “Do I want him to win? That is a difficult question.”
By the time the second broadcast came around, Chua seems to have warmed up to the idea of being president. “In Singapore, as you know, the PAP dominates the government and dominates the legislature. Do you want the PAP to dominate the presidency as well?” he asked.
During a Straits Times interview, he also argued that he was “not reluctant anymore” and that he was confident enough to think that he could win.
Weirdly though, Chua reverted back to his reluctancy on polling day, stating that Ong was the better candidate. Even with this minimal campaigning, Chua garnered 41.3% of the vote. For many, voting for Chua was more a protest vote against the government than anything.
Singaporeans were acutely aware of Chua’s reluctance, joking whilst results were coming in that Chua had won and was demanding a recount. Ong, who became Singapore’s first elected president, later remarked that this campaign-less election was the most difficult one he has had to handle.
“Let’s all go home. It’s very late. It’s 3:30 a.m. in the morning. Thank you very much,” Chua said after elections results were announced.