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Commentary: PE 2023 could provide the spark for Singapore to strengthen social cohesion and mutual respect

In a speech at his inauguration ceremony, incoming President Tharman Shanmugaratnam pledged to do his utmost to support initiatives that “deepen the respect we accord to fellow Singaporeans… a respect for all that is at the heart of our solidarity as Singaporeans”.

Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam was sworn in as Singapore's ninth President on Sept 14, 2023.

Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam was sworn in as Singapore's ninth President on Sept 14, 2023.

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In a speech at his inauguration ceremony, incoming President Tharman Shanmugaratnam pledged to do his utmost to support initiatives that “deepen the respect we accord to fellow Singaporeans… a respect for all that is at the heart of our solidarity as Singaporeans”.

This was an echo of his campaign slogan “Respect for all”, which clearly resonated with voters who handed Mr Tharman a landslide victory in Presidential Election (PE) 2023.

As commentators have pointed out, PE 2023 was a watershed moment for Singapore as the first time a minority candidate has contested and won a presidential election here.


Just as significant, in my view, is the resounding success of a campaign centred on the theme of respect.

This encompasses respect for Singaporeans of all races, family backgrounds and different walks of life. It also means respect for those who hold different views, including and especially political opinions. 

Respect is a scarce commodity in many parts of the world where political partisanship is rife and social divisions run deep.

Election campaigns are often bruising affairs with candidates engaging in personal attacks and character assassination, if not outright disinformation.

After an election, leaders often try to rally the nation with the promise to govern on behalf of all citizens, but by then it may be too late to heal the divisions exacerbated by campaign vitriol.

It is important that Singapore avoid going down this path.

Mr Tharman lived up to his campaign slogan by rising above the fray and choosing not to engage with “tactical statements” by his election rivals.

Mr Ng Kok Song and Mr Tan Kin Lian, on their part, did well to keep the tenor of the presidential contest dignified and largely devoid of populist rancour.

Credit for Mr Tharman’s decisive win is due to both candidate and electorate.

Mr Tharman’s winning formula was his formidable track record of public service and his reputation as a sincere and respectful leader.

The electorate came out in strong support of Mr Tharman, notwithstanding his past political affiliation, as appropriate for a contest that is meant to be above party politics.

That over 70 per cent of citizens from across the political spectrum could agree on a candidate for the head of state bodes well for Singapore’s future. It demonstrates that fairmindedness still trumps narrow partisanship, and that political divides have not turned into societal divides.


In fact, it is not easy for any country to sustain social cohesion within a free and competitive political landscape.

Too often, the excesses of political contestation undermine unity while stoking populism and xenophobia. On the other hand, governments that suppress political rivals and alternative ideas are prone to groupthink and policy blind spots. 

Without the economic heft of larger countries, Singapore cannot afford a brand of politics that divides society or stifles the flow of ideas. A diverse polity and complex challenges necessitate both political competition and national cohesion.

In a heterogenous society, there will naturally be competing interests and views, and the challenge is to make a virtue of this by harnessing the best ideas to take the country forward.

Governance has become too complex for the Government to go it alone without the input and partnership of societal stakeholders, including those of a different political persuasion.

More than ever before, getting politics right will be critical to Singapore’s future success.

What Singapore lacks in population and land size it can make up for in constructive competition and national cohesion.

Political competition prevents complacency from setting in and allows the best ideas to bubble up, while unity of purpose enables the country to pull together to tackle challenges.

It can be the secret sauce that sets Singapore apart in the global community and gives us the best chance of survival and success.

Notwithstanding the difference between a Presidential and a General Election, Mr Tharman’s dignified campaign in PE 2023 will hopefully set the tone for future Presidential and General Elections.

The relatively clean contest among the three candidates this time will be an encouragement not just to prospective presidential candidates, but also those contemplating political office. 

Having good people step forward for public office will in turn strengthen trust in the system, encouraging political and civic participation that is so important for a democracy to work well.


A virtuous cycle often requires a catalyst to set it off. The landslide election victory of Mr Tharman could provide the spark.

A result like this is only possible with an exceptional candidate, so it is important to seize this moment to rally together as a nation.

This is the time for political actors and citizens to reaffirm their commitment to robust, respectful discourse on the nation’s future, shared values and governance.

Policy discourse should be based on substantive issues rather than tribal instincts, and grounded in fact rather than rumour or insinuation.

While pandering to populist instincts should be avoided at all cost, it is just as important to address the grievances of marginalised groups in society rather than sweep these issues under the carpet.

It is also time to put to bed any lingering doubts about the importance of the President’s office.

Much has been said about the President’s role as custodian of state reserves and the integrity of public office, but the President’s role as a unifying figure — emphasised by Mr Tharman in his inauguration speech — is no less significant. 

Some have argued that an appointed president may be better placed to unite Singaporeans than an elected president, but surely a president with a strong electoral mandate would be no less able to bring people together.

By championing causes and initiatives that promote inclusiveness and respect, the President can use this mandate, and the moral authority that comes with it, to shape societal norms. 

If PE 2023 can help Singapore take a step towards a more respectful and cohesive society, it would have a significance that extends even beyond the new President’s term of office.


Terence Ho is an Associate Professor in Practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the author of Governing Well: Reflections on Singapore and Beyond (World Scientific, 2023).

Related topics

Tharman Shanmugaratnam #PE2023 Presidential Election 2023

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