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PE 2023: Tan Kin Lian claims voters 'prefer chance to have' S'pore-born President and spouse; comment slammed as 'dangerous'

SINGAPORE — Presidential candidate Tan Kin Lian on Friday (Aug 25) claimed that voters “prefer a chance to have” both the President and his or her spouse to be “true Singaporeans" born here, in a veiled reference to the wives of his opponents who were born abroad.

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  • Presidential candidate Tan Kin Lian on Friday (Aug 25) claimed that Singaporeans “prefer a chance to have” both their President and his or her spouse to be “true Singaporeans” born here
  • Mr Tan said that he wanted to introduce his wife, Ms Tay Siew Hong, to the public so Singaporeans could have “a choice of the 'first lady'”
  • Experts immediately labelled his comment “insidious”, “dangerous”and appealing to anti-foreigner sentiment

SINGAPORE — Presidential candidate Tan Kin Lian on Friday (Aug 25) claimed that voters “prefer a chance to have” both the President and his or her spouse to be “true Singaporeans" born here, in a veiled reference to the wives of his opponents who were born abroad.

The latest statement by Mr Tan — who had earlier come under criticism for his social media posts on “pretty girls” — was immediately labelled by political analysts as “insidious”, “dangerous” and appealing to anti-foreigner sentiment present in a small segment of the population.

“Of course we respect other people from other countries who come to Singapore to become citizens, but I think deep down our locals would prefer at least a chance to have the President and the 'first lady' to be true Singaporeans from birth,” he said.

Mr Tan, 75, made the comment while re-introducing his wife, Ms Tay Siew Hong, at a media event. 

Former Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has said that his spouse, Ms Jane Yumiko Ittogi, had lived in Singapore since she was three years old. She was born to a Japanese father and a Singaporean mother. He did not state where she was born.

Ms Sybil Lau, the fiancee of former GIC chief investment officer Ng Kok Song, is a Singapore citizen who was born in Canada.

Singapore's first elected President Ong Teng Cheong was married to Ling Siew May, who was born in Shanghai, China. Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak was born in Malaysia.

Speaking to the media before a walkabout at the Geylang Serai Market and Food Centre on Friday morning, Mr Tan said that he wanted to re-introduce his spouse, whom he said also goes by the married name Mrs Tan Kin Lian.

He said that he had done so in order for Singaporeans to have “a choice of the 'first lady'”.

Ms Tay wore a dark green dress, which Mr Tan said was because she knows that it is “a colour that our Malay friends, Muslim friends like”.

“There are three (potential) first ladies, so you can have a choice. My wife, like me, we are born in Singapore. We are blue-blooded Singaporeans,” said the former chief of NTUC Income.

The term “blue-blooded” is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as an adjective describing someone from a royal or socially important family.

When TODAY clarified with Mr Tan if he meant to use a different word, he said via WhatsApp: “'Blue-blooded Singaporean' typically refers to someone who comes from a long-standing and respected lineage within Singaporean society, often implying a strong connection to the country's history, culture, and traditions.

“This term might also be used metaphorically to describe individuals who exhibit a deep and unwavering patriotism for Singapore.”

The Constitution states that a candidate to become President must be a citizen of Singapore. It does not state that the candidate has to be born here.

Since Mr Tan's candidacy was confirmed on Nomination Day on Tuesday, it was the first time that his wife had joined him on a public walkabout and spoken to the media. Mr Tan had told TODAY in an interview last week that he did not want to involve his family in his presidential campaign due to “malicious” messages they had received in 2011.

When reporters asked Ms Tay if her husband's presidential campaign had an impact on her and her family, she said that she feels she receives “unfair comments” that make her feel stressed, but that she tells herself to “look on the positive side”.

Mr Tan had asked reporters not to ask his wife questions pertaining to politics.


Speaking with CNA, Associate Professor Eugene Tan of Singapore Management University (SMU) said Singapore used to have the official title of “first lady” for the spouse of a male President, but that has not been the case since at least 2000. 

He added that the use of “first lady” prior to 2000 was “merely a practice that had no legal basis”. “There is as such no official role for the President’s spouse. Any courtesies extended to her is by virtue of her being the spouse of the head of state and not because of her designation as ‘first lady’,” said Assoc Prof Tan. 

Dr Felix Tan, a political analyst at Nanyang Technological University, told TODAY that Mr Tan Kin Lian’s comments could be rooted in “anti-foreigner sentiments” that some Singaporeans might have.

“I think that he is playing up the nationalist card. This is rather insidious and unhelpful. It has no bearing on one’s allegiance to the country, especially if one has accepted Singapore as their home,” he said.

While Dr Tan says that there is “definitely a small segment” that shares such sentiments, he believes it should not be a significant factor in the Presidential Election. 

“Simply put, Mr Tan is targeting some of these grievances that Singaporeans might have. However, this approach is rather disingenuous and dangerous.” 

Dr Tan Ern Ser, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, said there was no basis for Mr Tan's claim that voters prefer the President's spouse to be born in Singapore.

“Properly conducted surveys suggest that Singaporeans do not consider this dimension as an indicator or marker of being Singaporean,” he told TODAY.

“However, they are less welcoming of foreigners who may compete with them for jobs or amenities.”

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Tan Kin Lian Presidential Election 2023

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