Singapore went to the polls on Friday, 1 September 2023, to select a new president. Although a heavily bounded ceremonial role with little to no influence or decision making powers, a certain number of leadership expectations are attached to it, and it is taken for granted that candidates for the presidency need to carry a certain amount of social and economic gravitas.
This year's presidential election drew a highly varied slate of candidates, ranging from former deputy prime minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam as the expected establishment candidate, to second-time candidate Tan Kin Lian taking another run at the role after failing a bid in 2011, and a couple of surprise entrants: former civil servant and financier Ng Kok Song, and entrepreneur George Goh Ching Wah, who campaigned but was eventually rejected by the Elections Department.
The more diverse the slate, the more opportunities to take leadership lessons from the candidates: so here are four pointers leaders can draw from the one elected winner, the two who weren't voted in, and even from the one who never made it to the ballot box.
Take rejection with good grace and appreciate your supporters
Dark horse candidate George Goh, the founder of Harvey Norman Ossia, spent five years preparing to run for the presidency only to be declared ineligible on a technicality. Nevertheless, he responded with gratitude for his supporters in every public communication. Even as he expressed disappointment with being sidelined, he took care to recognise and appreciate those who had offered their time and effort in his campaign.
He and his team also went one step further: since the groundswell of popular support for his campaign could no longer translate into votes at the ballot box, they turned it to social causes instead. The week after being rejected, Goh and his team held a charitable sale of their campaign items to benefit Secondmeal, a non-profit organisation that makes meals available to the needy.
Embrace the underdog status...and try to pivot it to an advantage
Former GIC Chief Investment Officer Ng Kok Song, who jumped into the race unexpectedly and apparently on a whim at first, started his campaign with very little preparation and few resources. Rather than scramble to catch up with the competition, he openly acknowledged that weakness and even attempted to turn it into a quirky selling point, announcing that he and his team would not put up physical banners and posters but instead would campaign primarily on social media and through the traditional walkabouts to meet voters.
It was also a point towards sustainability, the importance of which he will have been well aware of during his tenure at GIC – which has publicly declared that investing sustainably is a top management priority.
Be mindful of what you say; it will come back to bite you
Leaders sometimes have to eat their words, and two-time candidate Tan Kin Lian, who contested the presidency once before in 2011 only to garner less than 5% of the vote, was put on the spot several times during his campaign. Detractors questioned past statements he had made on social media, criticising him for holding racist and misogynist views unbecoming to a potential president of the nation.
Tan subsequently had to backpedal on some of his posts and make public explanations and apologies – but to give due credit, he did withdraw some of his statements, including removing several social media posts, and subsequently refrained from repeating similar views.
Most importantly, leadership is about serving those who follow
As the vote count drew to a close with Tharman clearly in the lead, the other candidates took care to not only congratulate the winner, but also to express good wishes for the electorate, who will now have the new chosen president for the next six years. Ng commented that he was glad the people of Singapore had had a chance to vote, while Tan expressed hopes that Tharman will be able to "help bring a better life for the people.”
Whatever personal feelings they might have had about the contest or the outcome, the message was clear: as with any other form of leadership, however prestigious or humble, the elected presidency ultimately must be viewed in the light of how it benefits those it serves.
Photo credits: Facebook pages of Mr George Goh, Mr Ng Kok Song, and Mr Tan Kin Lian; Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam's photo from his GIC Board of Directors biography.