Singapore: New President Elected In A Landslide

Singapore voters elected former deputy prime minister and finance minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam 66, as president in a landslide victory.

Singapore voters elected former deputy prime minister and finance minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam 66, as president in a landslide victory in the first contested presidential elections in more than a decade. Though largely a ceremonial role, Shanmugaratnam’s economic credentials are likely to be called upon as runaway inflation has triggered a cost-of-living crisis. Despite popular support, Shanmugaratnam’s win with just over 70% of votes comes as the city state is experiencing something of an identity crisis.

A corruption scandal that engulfed a cabinet minister, a high-profile transgression involving two lawmakers, and the uncovering of a sprawling billion-dollar money laundering network have stirred unease. In July, Transport Minister S. Iswaran and managing director of Hotel Properties Ong Beng Seng were detained by the country’s Corrupt Practices Investigation Board in a rare public revelation of institutionalized graft.

But it is Singapore’s premium reputation as Asia’s safe haven that will be of most concern to Shanmugaratnam analysts say. The money laundering debacle which has already drawn the scrutiny of banks, is likely to attract international scrutiny and rekindle debate over government and private sector links to Chinese money.

The development may also reignite Washington’s worries over the depth of Singapore’s relationship with China. Enhanced financial connectivity between Singapore and China’s Western Region has resulted in around US$29 billion in cross-border financing since the initiative was launched in 2015, according to the Monetary Authority of Singapore. 

Meanwhile recent data showed that Singapore’s economy narrowly escaped a technical recession. GDP expanded by a seasonally adjusted 0.1% quarter-on-quarter in the second quarter. Capital Economics forecasts Southeast Asia’s bellwether economy will grow just 0.5% this year. With the exception of the pandemic, it is the slowest rate of growth since the global financial crisis.

Still, Shanmugaratnam’s recent success lessens the heat on the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) which is grappling with ebbing support for its policies and the prospect of a change in leadership. Shanmugaratnam himself a former veteran PAP hack, remains popular among Singaporeans. His decision to run on a campaign promise of “respect for all,” including “respect for different views and political leanings,” may have quelled simmering racial tensions in the city state.

Shanmugaratnam, an economist, also served as Singapore’s finance minister between 2007 and 2015 and is Singapore’s ninth president.