Many years ago when the 1st PE was held in 1993, there was hardly any interest in what president duties and powers were and what role he played. Most voters only knew that he was there to "safeguard" the reserves. Many knew one of the 2 candidates, Ong Teng Cheong, and few will remember the other candidate who garnered 40+% of the votes simply because people did not want someone linked to the PAP win the PE. It turned out that President Ong was more independent than expected and today many people respect him for the work he did.
Today, we see that interest in the PE has grown tremendously. The idea of "safeguarding the reserves" is no long an abstract notion after the huge losses of our sovereign wealth fund during the financial crisis and increased concerns among voters about how Temasek Holdings and GIC are managed. Singaporeans now wants an independent president who will carry on where President Ong left off to perform the checks and balance on the govt. While it has been explained in the pro-govt media that the constitution limits the powers of the president, the elected president will have the moral authority and support of the people to carry out an agenda that he has campaigned on.
There has been a political awakening of Singaporeans during the 2011 General Elections. Voters start to question not just PAP policies but whether the govt's interests are aligned with their own. Even the Straits Times wrote about a "lost of trust" in the PAP govt. For this reason, voters look for candidates that are truly independent and will proactively seek to address the concerns of Singaporeans surrounding the management of our reserves. I see little point of voting for a PAP endorsed candidate who will do what the govt recommends and limits his own role - people don't want another President Nathan at this point in time.
As I speak to ordinary Singaporeans, the issues that concern have gone beyond crowded buses, unaffordable housing and the foreign influx. The socio-political system we live in does not seem to be able to generate a good quality of life and desirable outcomes that people seek. The challenges are overbearing for many and inequality is built into the system. For Singaporean men, the system requires them to serve NS and reservist duties while education and employment opportunities are sometimes given to non-citizens. That is why the issue of how one of the candidate's son manage to defer his NS for 12 years became a sore point among Singaporeans - many talented individuals delay their tertiary education to serve NS and even scholars have to return regardless of 'great' opportunities in graduate studies in renowned universities. Singaporeans really want a president who stands for equality, justice and fairness in our society....they want a president who pursues these with conviction.
I see the interest in the PE as a healthy development in Singapore politics. The PAP often laments the lack of leadership talent in Singapore and difficulty in finding people willing to run for public office. Today, we have 4 Tans all highly qualified who have stepped forward for to run for the PE. The problem with Singapore politics has not been a lack of 'talent' but rather a lack of competition on a level playing field. With the Internet, socio media and rising awareness among Singaporeans, the challenge now for the PAP is not a lack of political talent but talent that emerges from a more centrist ideology on the political spectrum to compete with the PAP. While the PAP ideology is not naturally appealing to the populace, it rides on goodwill and achievements of the past and authoritarian control over the state media and grassroots organisations. With its grip on power sliding, it needs to reposition itself to stay relevant and softening the edges of its policies is not sufficient to deliver a better quality of life to Singaporeans in the future. Until the PAP is able to do that, the electorate will continue to look for alternatives and we will see this desire express in the votes for the president.