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Singapore politics turn feisty amid president vote

Associated Press - August 26, 2011

Alex Kennedy, Singapore Choi Bee Tong makes for an unusual political rebel, especially in straight-laced Singapore.

The 73-year-old retired school teacher plans to vote Saturday for opposition politician Tan Jee Say to be the next president, a largely ceremonial position but one that Tan hopes to transform into a platform for challenging government policies in this one-party-dominated state.

Choi brought her two toddler grandchildren earlier this week to a raucous rally with 30,000 Tan supporters who booed, hissed and yelled insults every time a speaker mentioned the ruling People's Action Party or the candidate backed by most of the political establishment, Tony Tan.

"I think many Singaporeans like me would like to have a president who serves a bigger role, instead of being a PAP puppet," Choi said. "Political awakening has finally happened in Singapore, and I want my grandchildren to see this."

A growing number of Singaporeans are dissatisfied with their government, and increasingly the once-cowed populace is no longer afraid to speak out. They have been getting a rare opportunity to do so this year because of two elections, one for parliament this past May and one for president this Saturday.

Political activity, such as public speech and assembly, is curtailed and closely controlled by the government, but 10 days of outdoor rallies are allowed ahead of parliamentary elections every five years and presidential votes every six.

The May election saw the PAP's vote total fall to its lowest level since independence from Malaysia in 1965. Analysts say the presidential race, featuring four candidates surnamed Tan, could end up showing further signs of PAP's erosion.

"The May election unleashed a greater political consciousness in Singapore, something that's been developing over the last couple years," said Eugene Tan, an assistant professor of law at Singapore Management University. "There's a stronger hint of defiance to the powers that be."

In part, it's a backlash against soaring housing prices, a surge in foreign workers and rising income inequality. But more fundamentally, as Singapore has become one of the richest countries in the world, its people are no longer willing to accept the unquestioned rule of the PAP, which has been in power since 1959.

The emergence of the Internet has also allowed Singaporeans to bypass the state-owned media to express discontent, creating a more rancorous, irreverent public discourse.

Inspired by this more competitive and lively political atmosphere, sculptor Christopher Pereira began making fiberglass likenesses of Singapore politicians last year.

He showed off his latest creation a 30-centimeter (12-inch) figurine of Lee Kuan Yew, the city-state's first prime minister and dominate political force for more than half a century by attaching it to his back at the Tan Jee Say rally. But he was soon surrounded by an angry mob hurling anti-government insults.

"They got right in my face, threatened me and told me to get out," Pereira said. "I was surprised how aggressive people were with me. That wouldn't have happened 10 or 20 years ago."

To be sure, Singapore politics still are quite staid compared to those in most other countries. The PAP also maintains a large majority in parliament, with 81 of 87 seats.

But its grip on power once so complete that it controlled every parliament seat and PAP candidates won most districts unopposed is slipping.

In May, the PAP's overall vote total in parliamentary elections slid to 60 percent, prompting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to promise more public housing, restrictions on foreign workers and a review of minister salaries.

Observers will be closely watching the performance of Tony Tan, a former deputy prime minister who until last month was executive director of sovereign wealth fund Government of Singapore Investment Corp. and chairman of media company Singapore Press Holdings.

Prime Minister Lee, who is Lee Kuan Yew's son, and the PAP have not officially endorsed Tan, but Lee praised Tan last month and hasn't mentioned any of the other three candidates.

"There's no doubt that Tony Tan is widely perceived to be the preferred candidate (of the government)," assistant professor Tan said. "He's generally regarded as a steady, safe pair of hands."

Much of the debate among the candidates has centered on the extent of the president's powers. The constitution allows the president to veto the use of the country's reserves and some public office appointments, but doesn't give the post any executive authority.

Candidates Tan Cheng Bock, a former PAP member of parliament and medical doctor, and Tan Kin Lian, a former insurance company executive, have said if elected they would take on a more active role in voicing the concerns of citizens.

S.R. Nathan, the current president who won two terms unopposed, consulted with the prime minister and cabinet in private but avoided public comment on government policy. Tony Tan and government spokesmen have sought in recent weeks to quell calls for an expanded role for the president.

"The president is not a center of power in Singapore, remember that," Tony Tan, 71, said in a speech in the downtown financial district earlier this week. "There's only one center of power in Singapore and that is the government."

[Associated Press writer Heather Tan in Singapore contributed to this story.]

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