Singaporeans will select a new president on Friday, a vote that will measure public mood at a time when the ruling party, which has been in power for more than six decades, is reeling from a spate of uncommon political scandals.
The vote comes as a senior government minister is under investigation by the country’s anti-graft agency, and after the resignation of two senior lawmakers over an affair.
The president, who is supposed to be politically neutral, is largely a ceremonial role but it has certain powers that are considered a check on the government, such as the ability to approve anti-corruption investigations and veto certain decisions.
The city-state’s government is run by the prime minister, currently Lee Hsien Loong of the People’s Action party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore continuously since 1959.
Tharman Shanmugaratnam, a former deputy prime minister who is considered the preferred candidate of the PAP, has been described as the frontrunner. This will be the first contested presidential election in more than a decade.
However, Terence Lee, a politics and communications professor at Sheridan Institute of Higher Learning, said he thought many voters would also use the election to send a message ruling party about levels of discontent. There was, he said, “a lot more awareness of the political environment and the need for some balance to be given to the PAP”.
This year’s election has been preceded by a discussion of ballot spoiling as a form of protest, added Lee, something he said had not happened so openly in previous votes. It is ultimately unclear how many would actually spoil their ballots, he said. Voting is compulsory in Singapore.
The electoral process includes a strict vetting stage that critics say means the candidates are not representative of the public.
For candidates from the private sector, there are various requirements, including the need to have served as the chief executive of a company that has, on average, at least S$500m ($370m) shareholders’ equity. Those from the public sector must, for example, have held senior civil service positions.
“There have been many who have come to view that this presidential election essentially only favours those who are from within the system and are not welcoming to those who do not belong to this system,” said Felix Tan, associate lecturer and political analyst at Nanyang Technological University.
Tharman Shanmugaratnam, is running against Ng Kok Song, 75, the former chief investment officer at sovereign wealth fund GIC, and Tan Kin Lian, 75, a former chief executive of insurer NTUC Income.
Tan Kin Lian is viewed by many as being the most independent of the candidates, and has received support from several opposition leaders. But he has faced criticism over past social media comments, including frequent posts about women he describes as “pretty girls”. One post, from 2021, included a close-up image of a woman’s shorts. He has since apologised to women who “think that they are uncomfortable” after seeing his comments or images of women.
Rebecca Grace Tan, lecturer at the National University of Singapore, said there were various factors affecting how people will use their vote – including their differing understandings of the presidency itself. Some imagine the role can be more activist, while others consider it as largely ceremonial and a representative of the nation abroad.
Tharman is considered competent and has high rates of support, she said. “It’s a candidate people find it very hard to not to vote for in a country where we value experience, we value the perceptions of competency, perceptions of being polished and spoken, especially since the presidency is being presented and discussed as a representative of the nation.”
Polls will close at 8pm local time, with results expected later on Friday or on Saturday morning.