The danger in clan endorsement of presidential candidates

Straits Times, 8 August 2011

The Singapore media reported, on 8 August 2011, that the Federation of the Tan Clan Associations has thrown its support behind one of the presidential hopefuls, former DPM Tony Tan. Dr Tan was apparently invited to a dialogue with the Federation’s members on Sunday where the endorsement was announced.

The Federation said it has “no plans” to invite the other three potential candidates who are also named Tan to any dialogues or to speak with its members. (The other three Tans are Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Mr Tan Kin Lian and Mr Tan Jee Say.)

The Straits Times reports:

“The idea for a federation for the 13 Tan clan associations was mooted by philanthropist Tan Chin Tuan – Dr Tony Tan’s uncle – and was set up in 2002.” (ST, 8 August 2011, Pg A4.)

The federation’s secretary-general, Mr Tan Lian Ker, said:

“I would strongly urge all chairmen of Tan clan associations to call on their members to support and vote for (him).”

The federation’s actions have set off alarm bells in my head – and it should also set off alarm bells along the corridors of government.

The most disturbing issue here is this: That a federation, which naturally has as members people who are named “Tan” who are also naturally Chinese, should see it fit to openly and proudly give its endorsement to a presidential candidate who is also of the same ethnic decent.

No non-Chinese presidential hopeful has stepped forward in this latest presidential election, even though there are six hopefuls.

The issue becomes more stark – and worrying – if there were.

Imagine a non-Chinese hopeful contesting Dr Tony Tan – and the Tan federation lends its support to Dr Tan.

This would mean the election becoming polarised along racial lines, not to mention highly divisive.

The non-Chinese candidate might well have to then seek open support from his own “associations”.

Singapore would go down the drain in a heartbeat. The People’s Action Party government has always abhorred politics along racial, ethnic or religious lines.

Why then is it allowing the Tan federation to lend its weight to Dr Tan in such a fashion?

In addition, the federation’s secretary-general’s encouragement – “I strongly urge all chairmen of Tan clan associations to call on their members to support and vote for (Dr Tony Tan)” – may have contravened the Presidential Elections Act.

While the Act says:

“… advertisements during the campaign period by civic, business and professional bodies to endorse certain Presidential Election candidates will be allowed”

It has a caveat:

“However, the civic, business and professional bodies cannot be engaged to carry out any activity which is done for the purpose of promoting or procuring a candidate’s election or defeat.”

Perhaps the only defence the federation may offer is that its sec-gen’s words were not made during the campaign period, since Nomination Day is still about a week away. However, this would be a lame excuse. The spirit of the law must also be adhered to, and not just its letters.

The Attorney General might want to look into this.

But what I am more concerned about is the potentially divisive and even explosive consequences to our nation, and the relationships between our different racial and ethnic groups, if we allowed organisations such as the Tan clan federation to endorse politicians, especially at potentially highly-charged and emotive periods like an election.

I hope the Prime Minister will step forward and say something about this and make the government’s stance clear.

Lastly, as someone who had been in government for so many years – as a minister who held several heavyweight portfolios, deputy prime minister and heavily involved in the cabinet – and now aspires to the highest office in the land, Dr Tony Tan seems oblivious to the potential divide his acceptance of such an endorsement may bring.

Indeed, it makes one wonder how he would be a “unifying” figure for all Singaporeans if he so readily accepts support from one racial group so openly.

Would he have done the same if there were non-Chinese presidential hopefuls in the contest?

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