Netizens have been engaged in an online debate over the legacy of President Tony Tan, who has been the subject of much vilification and mockery throughout his term as Singapore’s president.

We present 2 points of view for our readers, one that praises President Tan for what he has done so far, and another that criticizes him for what he has failed to do.

Which do you agree with?

Part 1:

“The funny thing is, Tony Tan was rather well-regarded as a minister – long before he was the subject of KFC memes and unsolicited mockery.

When Singaporeans ask ‘what has this president done for us?’, it’s important to first ask: what can the president do in the first place?

In our parliamentary system, the President has almost zero legislative power. He can’t make laws or change the rules – he’s only there to make sure the people making them (the Parliament) are not messing up. The President’s role is frequently misunderstood because of the American form of governance, where their president has a lot of executive powers.

In other words, he’s like the IT guy – you don’t realise he’s there if nothing goes wrong, but when it does and if he’s not there, everyone will be screaming for him.

So, back to the question: “What has President Tony Tan done during his tenure?”. Let’s paraphrase it to: “What did President Tony Tan need to do during his tenure?”

We know that Singapore has been largely at peace for the last five years. The biggest crisis, in the opinion of many, appears to be the frequency of MRT breakdowns, so let’s look at what we can know from his routine duties in the absence of an actual crisis.

President’s Challenge
It’s a little funny to say this, but the President’s Challenge was turning into more of a TV show than an actual charity drive.

During Tony Tan’s first year of Presidency in 2011, he expanded the PC to shift its focus from a donations-based drive to an actions-based charity. They started asking for volunteers and organising help for everyone, from the elderly to children with learning disabilities to drug rehab houses to needy families.

His idea of a charity is for everyone to give out a little effort (not just $$$) for the needy to receive much.

This is not to say Tony Tan has neglected his ambassadorial role as Singapore’s Head of State.

Other than his routine regional visits, a notable focus has been set on the key emerging economies in Central and Eastern Europe, also known as the Visegrad Four. He visited Slovakia and Hungary in 2013, and followed it up with visits to Czech Republic and Poland this year (pretty recent news actually).

He also visited Mexico in an attempt to help push the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which would benefit Singapore mightily despite what many claim).

So, what has President Tony Tan done during his tenure? Other than walking around, hoping that kids won’t run up to him shouting ‘KFC uncle!’? Pretty much what he was supposed to do. Being dignified, humble and continuing to help the very people who may just be mocking him behind his back.”

Part 2:

“There’s been much praise for Tony Tan in the top post on the front page. I don’t wish to debate those points which are mostly true, but I feel Singaporeans are being once again misled by a false dichotomy: Either Tony Tan is KFC uncle, or he is a great President who has served the people well. The truth is always more complicated than the various accolades and memes mentioned in the other thread.

When we ask the question of whether Tony Tan has served the people well as President, we must not stop at asking whether he has performed his official duties or not. That clearly goes without saying. You do not praise someone for performing his perfunctory obligations. The precedent set by SR Nathan and presidents before him, such as charity work and diplomatic duties, is well established.

It is a strawman to allege that critics are saying Tony Tan collects millions of dollars every year for doing nothing at all. Critics simply think TT does not deserve over 20 million dollars for carrying out his Presidential duties as a PAP “yes man”. And I’m pretty sure nobody would dare to whisper “KFC” within his earshot unless it’s to announce his 2pc meal is ready.

The Presidency has been seen by the people as a means of a check on the ruling government’s power. In fact, LKY himself created the EP in response to the minor electoral setbacks encountered by the PAP in the 80’s; should a “freak election” occur, the President (presumably a PAP man) will block an opposition party from frittering away the monetary reserves built up by PAP. Yet this would prove to be a double edged sword, for a independent minded President (like Ong) could create a headache for PAP.

In the first PE, Chua Kim Yeow, a complete political nobody, managed to gather more than 40% of the vote share despite doing zero serious campaigning, even going so far as to declare opponent Ong Teng Cheong the better candidate on national TV. In the latest PE, more than 60% of the vote share went to non-establishment candidates.

The PAP’s popularity in general elections does not translate to the PE because people don’t want an establishment figure who does not provide a check and balance. Ong Teng Cheong is fondly remembered for this reason despite being a PAP man.

So now this is the point of contention: Has Tony Tan provided a check and balance, fulfilled his ombudsman role adequately, providing an alternative voice against potential misuse of power? Has he done more than SR Nathan, or even Ong Teng Cheong in this regard?

If you think the death penalty in Singapore is unnecessarily harsh, especially when inflicted on desperate, unwitting drug mules, do note that the last time a death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment was in 1998 by Ong Teng Cheong.

If you think that the Prime Minister’s personal lawyer should not have been made Attorney General given his age and the clear conflict of interest, note that the President has the power to refuse appointment to key office holders in government.

If you think that social spending should be increased, for example subsidising healthy foods instead of pushing the blame on low income Singaporeans for not eating healthy, note that the President does have the power to approve/deny withdrawal from the reserves to combat health crises like this.

If you think ISA can be abused against political enemies, note that the President can block ISA arrests.

If you think there needs to be more transparency about the management of finances by government, note that the President is “entitled to request information about the Government which is available to the Cabinet, and about the statutory boards and Government companies”(from wiki page on presidential powers).

If you think that the Constitution should not be able to be amended with impunity by one party with a supermajority in Parliament to suit their political ends, note that the President, under specific conditions, may block amendments to the Constitution.

There’s also a lot of one sided praise for Tony Tan in his various Ministerial roles, and I shan’t turn this post into a list of all his missteps, because even scholar elites make honest mistakes. It’s also pretty easy to find lots of valid criticism about Tony Tan with some brief googling. But Tony Tan portrayed as a man of the people is something I would not wholeheartedly agree with. His stance on union disputes for one revealed his priorities. The comment in the other thread also brings up the billions lost by GIC in their UBS investment, but does not mention TT was executive director of GIC when they purchased their stake in UBS.

From what little I have read of Tony Tan, he comes across as a dyed in the wool PAP man through and through – a conservative politician who did not dissent from the majority opinion of his colleagues. Opposing LKY’s GMS scheme is not some maverick, man of the people move by TT as many of his colleagues could also see plain as day, that blatant eugenics was a bad idea and openly opposed it. More importantly, the comment in the other post fails to mention the public backlash towards GMS in the 1984 elections that saw PAP receiving their lowest share of votes since 1965, which led to the policy being scrapped. Along with several of the PAP old guard, TT also opposed the construction of the IRs for the same reasons(erosion of family core) that LKY had resisted building casinos in Singapore for decades.

In short, TT displayed the kind of proven loyalty that the establishment expects from their man in the hotseat, which SR Nathan as a career civil servant who benefited from LKY’s patronage and Halimah as Speaker of Parliament also displayed.

I encourage people not to take my word for it, or anyone’s words on this subreddit for that matter. Do your own research to look past the half truths and convenient omission of critical details. Although I suspect many of us have better things to do, it’s not too difficult to look up the answers to this question: Why the Elected Presidency matters.”

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