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Elections in Singapore seen as referendum on ruling PAP

Reuters - August 25, 2011

Kevin Lim, Singapore Singapore chooses a new president on Saturday in a contest viewed by many as an unofficial referendum on the four and a half decade grip on politics of the People's Action Party months after the opposition made historic gains.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan tacitly endorsed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and seen as the favorite faces three candidates also surnamed Tan.

Two were once members of the PAP. Tony Tan has backing from business groups and was executive director of Singapore's largest sovereign wealth fund GIC. But he has his detractors. Boos erupted during his address when his nomination was formally accepted this month.

Singapore's socio-political Web sites are also abuzz with criticisms of him and the PAP, which has governed the city state since independence in 1965.

The election is the first contested race since 1993 for a job that has generally focused on ceremonial duties. Like most top posts, the president is well paid with a salary estimated at more than 4 million Singapore dollars ($3.3 million) intended to do away with corruption, but a sore point with voters.

"Choosing the head of state is a profound enough decision as it is, but to many voters this is also a key opportunity to put the PAP government in its place," Cherian George of Singapore's Nanyang Technological University wrote on his blog. "What the government sees as an over-politicization of the presidential election is a symptom of Singaporeans' frustrated desire for accountability and voice."

Reporters without Borders ranks Singapore 136th in terms of press freedom, below the likes of Iraq and Zimbabwe.

Polls are barred during campaigning, but many observers say Tony Tan will win, albeit with less than 50 percent of the vote.

The PAP scored a record low 60 percent in May's parliamentary poll against 67 percent in 2006, due to discontent over income gaps and immigration policy seen as too lax.

Singaporeans make up 65 percent of the island's 5.1 million residents, down from around 80 percent in the 1990s. Ethnic Chinese make up about 75 percent of the population and Tan is the most common surname.

If one of the other three Tans wins, the new president may exercise his veto powers to delay the appointment of government positions and in bodies such as GIC and state investor Temasek.

Tan Jee Say, ex-regional managing director of investment firm AIB Govett (Asia), pledges greater scrutiny. "I believe there is an over-concentration of power with too few people holding too many portfolios within the government," said Tan Jee Say, who has opposition backing.

Medical doctor Tan Cheng Bock, though a former ruling party parliamentarian, frequently clashed with ministers over policy. Endorsed by some opposition figures, he is also supported by PAP activists who helped him win six parliamentary campaigns.

The last candidate, Tan Kin Lian, is a former CEO of insurance firm NTUC Income and an ex-PAP member. He helped retail investors claim compensation from banks that sold derivatives linked to Lehman Brothers, putting him in conflict with authorities.

The recent fall in PAP support alarms some businesses, which fear it may dilute policies like ease in hiring foreign workers.

The Singapore Business Federation said this week some of its members were now considering whether Singapore would remain politically stable and if the business environment could change.

"The choice of Singaporeans as to who should be the next elected president will say much, as to whether Singapore continues to value what has made it successful so far," it said.

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