COMMENT: Is this the end of the road for Tan Cheng Bock?

Nicholas Yong
Senior Correspondent
What next for former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock ? PHOTO: Amritpal Singh

Is this the end of Tan Cheng Bock’s political career?

The man who came within a whisker of the presidency in 2011 has exhausted all possible roads to the Istana. On Wednesday (23 August), the Apex Court dismissed his appeal against the High Court’s ruling on his legal challenge to the timing of the reserved presidential election.

Tan had shrewdly kicked off his campaign early, being the first to declare – back in March – that he intended to run in this year’s election. The announcement came even before the Constitutional Commission had completed its deliberations on amendments to the Elected Presidency. Ultimately, given that this year’s election is reserved for Malay candidates, Tan was automatically ruled out.

So what now? At 77 years of age, Tan will be 83 by the time the next presidential election comes around. The former medical doctor is in good health, regularly taking long walks around Singapore. Given the limited scope of the president’s responsibilities, it is not inconceivable that Tan might choose to run again, despite his advanced age.

But what would he do in the meantime? In the aftermath of the 2011 election, Tan Cheng Bock had bragging rights as the runner-up. He had garnered more than 738,000 votes, losing to the eventual winner Tony Tan by just 7,382 votes. Tan spent the subsequent years quietly building up his support base and voicing his non-partisan opinions on various political issues on social media.

Many Singaporeans, galvanised by his pledge to be an independent figure, took note of all this. They also took note of the protracted political process that led to this year’s reserved election, with many seeing it as a deliberate attempt to exclude him.

This time round, Tan will not even be able to contest the election. And despite promising “I will always speak up for Singaporeans and do my very best for our country”, the fact remains that the father of two has no official position or power. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that legislative or judicial roadblocks to his candidacy will not crop up again by the time of the next election in 2023.

It should also be noted that the current financial criteria for presidential candidates already rule out Tan. This means that his only hope of being endorsed as a candidate would be the deliberative track, which allows the Presidential Elections Committee to qualify private sector candidates who do not meet the criteria.

A potential kingmaker?

But Tan’s real influence comes from a moral authority that has only increased since 2011. He has extensive experience in government, having served six terms as a People’s Action Party Member of Parliament for the now-defunct Ayer Rajah ward, winning by hefty margins each time. And despite many seeing his legal challenge as a “fool’s errand”, as Tan put it, he forged ahead with the case.

Having interviewed him at length, this reporter can testify that Tan is very politically savvy. A source who has known Tan for more than a decade also spoke of him as a “kind-hearted” man who is “very good with people”. He added, “He has earned the respect of ordinary Singaporeans, especially since  the court case.”

The source recalled a public dialogue with the alumni of a tertiary institution in 2016, when the audience of about 100 gave Tan a standing ovation as he walked in. He was asked by a member of the audience what he would do if he was unable to run for president. Tan responded that it would actually empower him to be more vocal on issues.

And Tan may yet exert an influence on this election. What value would an endorsement by Tan Cheng Bock have for one of the prospective candidates? With talk of spoilt votes and protest votes, Tan’s backing might well be invaluable.

The inverse may well be true. Despite his standing, perhaps Tan may drift into political irrelevance, with his supporters wistfully dreaming of what might have been.

Whether Tan will still be involved in politics or not, he has already made immeasurable contributions to Singapore. By stepping into the political arena again after his long service as an MP, he has played an instrumental role in sparking robust discussions among Singaporeans on the Elected Presidency and its role in Singapore.